The Sour Beats out the Sweet

Review of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop.

An hour after reading Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, you may well find yourself hungry for a more compelling memoir.

There are great, detailed recountings of past meals throughout the book, an approach that has a limited charm if you weren’t actually there, and the very heavy sprinkling of transliterations of food names in Chinese terms begins to rankle for the sheer number of them. The recipes, meanwhile, may hold some sort of interest as cultural artifacts (and, indeed, that’s how many of them are presented), but there’s only one of them (fried rice) that the average reader would probably be in a position to prepare at home.

The most interesting chapters have to do w/Dunlop’s experience as the only woman and only westerner in a Sichuan cooking school and with her descriptions of the highly layered language of cookery in Chinese (never mind fifty words for snow; Chinese cooks have fifty words for how to slice a carrot), but the rest of the book has a slightly hollow feel to it.

Much too late (and much too little) does Dunlop come to the subject of Chinese disregard for the destruction of native and endangered animal species, their culturally (apparently) sanctioned waste of food, the voraciousness with which they have turned to plundering other nations’ stores of seafood and other comestibles after using up their own, and the widespread, unchecked pollution that renders many of China’s food products literally poisonous.

I have no sympathy for the argument (implicit in this book, if not overtly stated) that “It’s what the west does, so we can’t really blame the Chinese.” Yes, we can, and yes, we should. Not solely the Chinese, obviously, but their knee-jerk rejection of all environmental criticism as “imperialist” and “anti-Chinese” is no response; it’s merely a symptom of the problem. When it comes to food – including the long, complex chain of events that brings a cooked dish to the supper table – the Chinese are deeply culpable, and a responsible food writer ought to have more to say about that fact.

Surely Dunlop was and is aware of Chinese sensitivity to criticism from the West, and perhaps that is what compelled her to limn this subject with only the lightest of hands: the fear of poisoning her own well of informants and cooking insiders. It’s a choice I can understand, but not one I can bring myself to respect.


Posted on 10 December 2010, in Book Reviews & Literaria. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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