The year after I graduated college, I spent a year working and traveling in France. It was an adventure for a girl who had grown up in suburban Michigan, and although I had traveled fairly extensively in Europe in college, living somewhere and learning how to fit in to another culture on a daily basis was nonetheless a challenge. However, France is one thing; China is quite another. I envy and greatly admire someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, who in her early twenties decided to attend a school for foreigners in China in order to learn Chinese and study the culture. Not only did she choose China for her adventure abroad- she chose Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a mid-sized provincial capital where the sight of foreigners still provoked stares and finger-pointing. Not initially having any intention of a career in food, Dunlop found herself seduced by the intense allure of Chinese cuisine, and has since made it her life’s work to learn about it and instruct others. She takes us on her journey in her fascinating memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
The memoir chronicles several of Dunlop’s visits to China, both as a student and to research her cookbooks (Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking; Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province), but it’s that first year that really makes an impression, as Dunlop experiences many foods and flavors for the first time. In one memorable passage, she recounts her first taste of stir-fried rabbit heads, a dish she had once avoided but eventually succumbed to in a late-night, post-drinking attack of the munchies. She rapturously describes the creaminess of the brains; the silkiness of the cheek. Equally evocative are the descriptions of humble noodle dishes enlivened with scallions, ginger, and the zing of chilies and the famous Sichuan peppercorns. Every day provides opportunities for discovery, and Dunlop is not shy about diving in headfirst. She makes friends with street vendors and other locals, fully taking advantage of her surroundings where many Westerners would languish and bemoan the lack of “normal” food.
In addition to the vicarious thrill of reading about the inevitable exotic fare, the book also reveals a great deal about the Chinese culture, their relationship to food, and their relationship to foreigners. In the cooking school Dunlop attends, her curiosity and hunger to learn drive her forward in spite of the outright scorn and derision of her classmates, both for being foreign and female. However, she manages to find a few kindred spirits, including a would-be pick-up artist who takes her under his wing and teaches her authentic Sichuan home cooking.
The Chinese attitude to food and cooking is equally as fascinating as the dishes Dunlop learns at cooking school. Cooking is looked down upon as a menial task, regardless of the complexity of many dishes. Recipes are closely and jealously guarded by chefs, and many have been lost to the ages because a chef refused to share his secrets with the next generation. The years of famine have created a culture of extreme excess and wastefulness, where it is commonplace at a banquet or other large dinner to throw away three times as much food as what is consumed. Middle and upper class appetites for a more meat-heavy diet are exhausting the environment, while peasants in the Chinese countryside still subsist on simple diets with very little meat. In one chapter, Dunlop suffers a crisis of conscience when treated to an extravagant dinner with Communist leaders in a poor provincial town, but fears angering them by refusing their generosity.
I don’t think I can overemphasize the impact this book had on me in terms of rethinking what we (i.e. Westerners) consider edible, and the attitudes towards a living thing becoming food. In China, the boundaries are fuzzy at best. Pretty much anything that moves is fair game; no distinctions are made for creatures considered “cute” or “lovable”. Where we would look at an animal and possibly see a creature with a soul, a Chinese person might simply see a potential meal. Dunlop describes it thus:
Culture shock hit me hardest when I was invited to lunch by a motherly middle-aged woman in her special rabbit restaurant, not long after I had arrived in Chengdu. ‘Come into the kitchen and watch,’ she urged me. When we entered, the main ingredient for our stew was sitting sweetly in the corner of the room, nibbling lettuce. The following is an extract from my diary, written in the kitchen that day as I watched:
Death of a Rabbit
Hit rabbit over the head to stun it.
Hang up by foot.
Slit its throat.
Immediately peel off skin.
Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver.
From live rabbit to dish on table in less than 10 minutes. (pp. 49-50)
The above incident perfectly illustrates Dunlop’s observation that “They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them. They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died.” (p. 49; italics mine).
Rabbit may not be that far out for many adventurous Western eaters, but Dunlop ventures much farther afield, sampling various types of offal, dogs, rats, insects, etc. At the end of the book, there is a moment of truth of sorts when, back in England, she finds that her perspective on what is edible or desirable to eat has irrevocably shifted. In the months since I have read this book, it’s a subject that continues to surface from my subconscious from time to time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be intrepid enough to try some of the delicacies which become familiar flavors to Dunlop, but I am inspired to push the limits of my comfort zone and expand my palate and my mind. If I took anything from this book, it’s that taste is one hundred percent a matter of cultural perception, and completely malleable under the right circumstances.