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Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Fuchsia Dunlop a woman with a wonderfully exciting depth of knowledge about Chinese food, is now officially my favourite food writer (apologies, Jeffrey Steingarten and the two Elizabeths, David and Romer). Dunlop knows her subject inside out and brings her love and passion for the food of China, and of Sichuan in particular, to a wider audience with her third book, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper.

The book chronicles Dunlop’s evolving love affair with Sichuan food, peppered with recipes and woven through with her observations on food history, language and culture. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper won the Guild of Food Writers Kate Whiteman Award for Food and Travel and the IACP Jane Grigson Award in 2009.

Dunlop arrived in Chengdu on a British Council scholarship in 1994 (purportedly to study Chinese policy on ethnic minorities) but became entranced, captivated and totally distracted by the food of Sichuan somewhere along the way, eventually studying Sichuan cuisine at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and mastering the intricacies of flavour combinations, cutting skills, and the mystical ‘huo hou‘, the sense of heat when cooking in a wok. She went on to write what many consider the book of Sichuan cuisine, Sichuan Cookery, and a second book on the food of Hunan, the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, written during the terrifying SARS epidemic of 2003.

Her personal stories of culinary discovery are flavoured with the challenges of being foreign in a part of China that saw few foreigners at the time, and of coming to grips with an alien language and culture. 

“To learn the language of cookery in China was, in part, to learn the language of life. And as I went deeper into my culinary studies, I found that I was not only cooking, but also in some ways thinking, like a Chinese person.”

The book opens with a description of Dunlop’s first taste of proper Chinese food, and in stark contrast to her later lavish descriptions of Sichaun dishes, it leaves us reeling with visceral disgust –

“The preserved duck eggs were served as an hors d’oeuvre in a fashionable Hong Kong restaurant, sliced in half, with a ginger-and-vinegar dip. It was my first trip to Asia, and I had rarely seen anything so revolting on a dinner table. They leered up at me like the eyeballs of some nightmarish monster, dark and threatening. Their albumens were a filthy, translucent brown, their yolks an oozy black, ringed with a layer of greenish, mouldy grey.  About them hung a faintly sulphurous haze. I tried one, just to be polite, but ts noxious aroma made me feel nauseous and I found it hard to swallow. Afterwards, a slick of toxic black slime from the yolk clung to my chopsticks, threatening to pollute everything else I ate. Surreptitiouly I tried to wipe them on the tablecloth.”

Fortunately, her taste for Chinese food rapidly improves, as she describes one of Sichuan’s most famous street dishes, dan dan mian – dan dan noodles.

“They looked quite plain, a small bowlful of noodles topped with a spoonful of dark, crisp minced beef. But as soon as you stirred them with your chopsticks, you awakened the flavours in the slick of spicy seasonings at the base of the bowl, and coated each strand of pasta in a mix of soy sauce, chilli oil, sesame paste and Sichuan pepper. The effect was electrifying. Within seconds, your mouth was on fire, your lips quivering under the onslaught of the pepper, and your whole body radiant with heat.”

Dunlop takes us on a lip-smacking ride through Sichuan food, food history, Chinese culture and travel. My favourite chapter by far is one on which she returns to Sichuan to hunt down the best Sichuan pepper, that lip-numbing spice so intricately associated with Sichuan food. Part homage, part travelogue, she travels eight hours by long-distance bus to the remote township of Qingxi, the home of the world’s best Sichuan pepper. Dunlop doesn’t disappoint with her description of the first taste of the tiny peppercorns. 

“And then I put some pepper between my lips. In its green astringent newness, it puckers my tongue immediately, and then, a few seconds later, the tingling hits. That incomparable tongue-numbing sensation of Sichuan pepper, a fizzing that starts stealthily and rises to a mouth-streaming breathtaking crescendo that can last for twenty minutes before it slowly, gradually, dies away. It’s stronger even than I expected, and I laugh in surprise. For years I have dreamt of tasting Sichuan pepper on the tree, and here I am, in Qingxi itself, my lips singing.”

In the haphazard world of English language books in Shanghai, it took quite some time to track down a copy of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. In a way, though, it was important for me to find Dunlop’s book now, rather than two years ago, because it is so much more meaningful after having seen more of the country and experienced more of its food. 

Although I read and enjoyed Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper because of its food focus (and certainly the descriptions of Sichuan foods make your mouth fairly water), for me Dunlop became something of a cultural guiding light as she explained so many aspects of Chinese food culture I found intriguing and at times repulsive, like the apparently barbaric treatment of animals used for food. I recall watching with growing horror as a Shanghai market vendor plucked a young chicken while it was still alive, its eyes bulging with fear and pain as it struggled desperately to get away and blood dripped onto the woman’s jeans. All the while, she chatted with her neighbouring vendor while her toddler played with an empty plastic drink bottle nearby. Dunlop explains this seeming callousness thus –

“I’d been to many Chinese markets before that outing with Feng Rui, and had at first been amazed – and appalled- by the cruelty I witnessed. It was the sheer nonchalance of it, the way people scaled fish as though they were simply peeling potatoes, skinned live rabbits while smoking a cigarette, joked with a friend as the blood drained from the throat of a bewildered duck. 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. But there, perhaps, is the crux of the matter, embedded almost invisibly in those last two sentences. In English…the words for the living things we eat are mostly derived from the the Latin anima, which means air, breath, life. ‘Creature’ from the latin word for ‘created’,seems to connect animals with us as human beings in some divinely fashioned univere. We too are creatures, animated. In Chinese, the word for animal is dong wu, meaning ‘moving thing’. Is it cruel to hurt something that you simply see as a ‘moving thing’, scarcely even alive?”

Dunlop also goes on to explain, among other things, the Chinese fascination with gristly and rubbery food textures, and the attraction of eating wild and endangered animals. For a foreigner like myself trying desperately to come to grips with China, the country, through Chinese food, this is a tremendously enjoyable read. I often felt Dunlop had been surreptitiously reading my thoughts, she seemed to describe my life so accurately, except that of course, she’d done it all many years before me.

“I took a few private Chinese lessons and spent the rest of my time hanging around markets and restaurants, or sitting in teahouses, poring over dictionaries and photocopies of local restaurant menus.”

Hmm. I know someone who may or may not do exactly that. 

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper
First published 2009
Paperback edition published 2011 by Ebury Press

Reviews of other books on Chinese food and travel you might enjoy:

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu
The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones
My China by Kylie Kwong

Serve the People

Is it June already? How did that happen? This year seems to be positively flying by at great speed. I am guilty of having failed to post my promised monthly book review for the Foodie’s Reading Challenge (where I may have, in a moment of bravado, promised to read 12 books this year about Chinese food and cooking, fiction and non-fiction). Let’s see…this is June, and so far I’ve posted Nicole Mones’ The Last Chinese Chef in February, and Kylie Kwong’s My China in March. What happened to April and May? I suppose tripping around the countryside and ignoring/neglecting my regular reading in favour of Lonely Planet China and Simon Winchester‘s incredible book, The River at the Centre of The World (a Journey up the Yangtze and back, in Chinese time) explains a fair bit of it.

This month I bring you another wonderful book about Chinese food, Serve The People – a memoir by American-born journalist of Taiwanese heritage Jen Lin-Liu. I have read Serve the People twice now. The first time, a month after I arrived in China, I remember devourng the entire book in an afternoon, trying desperately to get a grip on the confusing country I found myself in and trying to make sense, any sense, of Chinese food. The second time was last month, when I could read and slowly savour the foods, the recipes, and the life stories that all now fell into place and made much more sense to me. I guess I’ve learned a lot in two years. 

This true story recounts Lin-Liu’s desire to reclaim her Chinese roots through food. Having lived and worked in China for five years before taking the plunge and enrolling as a student in the Beijing Hualian Cooking School in the book’s opening chapter, Lin takes us on her adventures first as a cooking school student, then as an apprentice noodle and dumpling maker, and finally as an assistant in the kitchens of a high-end Shanghai restaurant. Throughout, Lin meets an extraordinary array of ordinary Chinese people who earn a living working with food – chefs, kitchen hands, cooking students, waitresses and farmers, and visits some unusual places – the rice terraces of Ping’an, near Guilin, an MSG factory in Henan, and Nanxiang, the home of xiao long bao.  

It is the human stories that remain with the reader long after the food descriptions have faded. After three months of learning the ropes of Chinese restaurant cooking, Lin leaves the cooking school with something even more valuable – a friendship with the cooking school’s assistant, a sixty-year old woman fondly nicknamed Chairman Wang.

“Chairman” was a bit misleading: it was more of an honorary title for a low-paying, all-purpose job that encompassed serving as a registrar, assistant to the school’s president, assistant teacher, food purveyor, and de facto janitor – in short, all the tasks that no one else wanted to do. During demonstration classes, Chairman Wang moved around the kitchen in a slow shuffle, tidying up after Chef Gao and lighting the burner just when he needed it. She had a stern, matronly air about her, but once in a while she’d break into howling laughter. She always wore a blue lab coat, which, combined with eyeglasses and wiry gray hair that stood up in stiff, Albert Einstein-like puffs, made her look like a mad scientist.’ 

Lin-Liu’s friendship with Chairman Wang threads through much of the book, and as Chairman Wang gives extra lessons to help her pass the difficult cooking school exam, she gradually learns about the Chairman’s troubled past and her terrible struggles during the Cultural Revolution. But if Lin-Liu thought getting through cooking school was difficult, the hard graft really begins when she is taken on as apprentice to noodle maker Chef Zhang, a poor migrant worker struggling to make it in his own noodle stand after twenty years working in a state-run restaurant.

‘Chef Zhang was my introduction to an entirely different class of people, the struggling migrant workers with little time to complain about social ills or the graft of government officials…..He was born into a family with five sons and one daughter. Zhang’s parents were too poor to raise all six children, so they decided to give two of them away. Zhang, as son number four (an unlucky number in Chinese tradition) and his sister (unwanted because of her gender) were sent to live with a childless aunt and uncle…’

Hard beginnings, but Chef Zhang’s life, as a migrant worker supporting a family back home, continues to be a struggle. Noodle-making is difficult, repetitive, sweaty work, but despite this Lin-Liu has great respect for Chef Zhang and with intense resolve, comes back day after day for hours of back-breaking toil until she feels she can hold her head up high as a noodle maker. Her first attempts though, meet with limited success.

‘Splashes of boiling water singed the back of my hand. Steam penetrated the pores of my face. I glanced uneasily into the gigantic wok and took a deep breath. With a noodle knife as sharp as a razor blade, I was trying to grate the five-pund slab of dough I held on my left forearm into ribbons. Dao xiao mian – knife grated noodles – were a specialty of Chef Zhang’s home province of Shanxi. When Zhang made them, they came out ridged and elegant, like party streamers. They slid into the wok with just a hint of a splash, like a succession of Olympic divers. Mine looked more like stretched out wads of chewing gum, too fat and shaved at the wrong angle. They belly-flopped into the wok, like chubby kids at a community pool. Each splash of boiling water was an indictment from the noodle gods.’

Eventually Lin-Liu completes her noodle apprenticeship, spends a while learning how to master dumplings, then manages to work in the kitchens of Shanghai’s Whampoa Club alongside celebrity chef in the making, Jereme Leung. It’s a stark contrast to the noodle stall but offers a fascinating insider’s view of the business of fine dining, with emphasis on the ‘business’.

Serve the People ends with Lin-Liu’s eventual return to Beijing, and to a developing relationship with the man who becomes her husband. You feel that after all her struggles and learning, Lin-liu has achieved her goal and is truly connected with Chinese food, Chinese cooking, and Chinese people. Through wonderful character portrayals and a great talent for description, Serve The People often reads more like a novel than a work of non-fiction. The recipes sprinkled throughout the book serve as a reminder that Jen Lin-Liu actually cooked this, in real life, and snap the reader back to the realisation that these are not stories, but real events.

After completing Serve The People, and unable to get cooking out of her system, Lin-Liu established Beijing’s Black Sesame Kitchen cooking school along with Chairman Wang. I took a look yesterday at the Staff Bios page on the website, and an inadvertent tear sprang to my eye to see, not only a photograph of the wonderful Chairman Wang, exactly as I imagined her, but also Chef Zhang, the noodle master, now working as a teacher at Black Sesame Kitchen and recently returned from a stint cooking in Las Vegas. He looked plump and happy in the photos, a far cry from his struggles to raise a family and make ends meet in the 40cents-a-bowl noodle trade. It seemed a fitting end to a wonderful story.

‘Then I remembred something that Chairman Wang had told me once: “Suan, tian, ku, la. Sour, sweet, bitter, spicy. In my life, I’ve tasted them all.” Her life had been more bitter than sweet, more sour than spicy, but things were hai xing, not bad, and that gave me hope for the rest.’

My China

The Foodie’s Reading Challenge is on again. Last month I reviewed The Last Chinese Chef, by Lost in Translation novelist Nicole Mones. This month, in keeping with my Chinese food theme I bring you a review of My China – A Feast for the Senses’, by Kylie Kwong.

You don’t often use recipe books to plan your travels but then, you probably haven’t yet read Kwong’s sumptuous book My China, named Best Chinese Cuisine Book in the World at the 2008 Gourmand Cookbook Awards. My China is that rare beast – a cookbook that you sit down and read, cover-to-cover, because the parts between the recipes are so well written. My China chronicles her travels through China, from Hong Kong, to Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan and more, interspersed with some eighty recipes of dishes she learns to cook along the way.

Kwong is a Chinese-Australian chef and writer, well known and well-loved within Australia for her Sydney restaurant Billy Kwong, and her many great cookbooks and TV series. She is now also increasingly well-known internationally, with a nine-part TV series of My China screening around the world. Kylie (as I like to call her) has been a friend in my kitchen ever since I arrived in China. I credit her with helping me navigate the abyss between Chinese and western cooking styles and ingredients. Her recipes are simple to reproduce anywhere in the world, and apart from a couple of specialised ingredients like lotus root or fresh water chestnuts, every recipe can be made from the core Chinese ingredients found in every Asian grocery store.

I regularly cook her White Cooked Chicken with soy and ginger dressing, and her Crispy Skin Duck with Blood Plum Sauce, both incredibly delicious and satisfying to cook.

My China is divided into sections, each covering part of her journey through the vast and vastly different provinces of China.The recipes are all new to Kylie Kwong fans and reflect the regional differences in Chinese cooking while always upholding the Kwong principles of freshness, authenticity and sustainability. Favourites for me include Caramelised Pork with Ginger and Vinegar, Mrs. Xu’s Prawns with Longjing Tea, and Beer-Braised Whole Fish, a dish native to Yangshuo I learned to cook after finding a reference to the Yangshuo Cooking School in the pages of My China. If the book was smaller I’d travel with it everywhere as a pointer to great markets, fabulous restaurants and incredible sights, but it weighs a tonne so I have to make do with photocopying the needed pages before I go. 

The recipes and travels are made all the more vibrant by the brilliant and evocative photography of Simon Griffiths, whose images transport the reader directly to the markets, kitchens and people Kwong encounters.

This anecdote, from the section on Shanghai, highlights the larrikin character of Kwong, endearing her to cooks and travellers everywhere:
“As we stroll I spot an interesting looking street stall out of the corner of my eye. I stop to watch the owner cooking vigorously over his high-powered gas wok. He pours in the oil, then he adds ginger, pork, shao hsing wine, MSG, chicken stock powder and so on. I eye off all the fresh produce he has around him, and I start to get itchy feet for cooking – something that always happens when I find myself in the vicinity of a wok, a flame and fresh food!
I ask my guide to ask the stallholder if I can have a go at cooking. 
‘No!’ the man grumpily replies.
‘Chris, can you ask him once again – please, please, pretty please?’
‘No!’ he grumpily replies a second time.
‘Please tell him I’m a chef and I think his wok is great, and I’d love to have a go.’
‘No – too busy!!!!’ the stall holder retorts.

RIGHT! I say to myself, I am going to get on that bloody wok if it kills me! I take out a 100 yuan note, stuff it into the man’s top shirt pocket, and what do you know? Down go his cooking tools and he gladly hands the whole set-up to me.

My friends are giggling in total embarrassment at my sheer bossiness. The man is smiling too now, seeing the humour of it all. Soon there is a bit of a crowd gathering around the stall. (The Chinese love a bit of a commotion, and an inkling of anything unusual or noisy always draws a captive audience.)

I excitedly roll up my sleeves and clean the wok.I fire up the flames and soon there are oohs and ahhhs from the crowd, as they realise that I can actually steer this beast! I am in my element – if I don’t cook regularly I start getting edgy, but this is the perfect remedy. I allow the wok to heat to a burning-hot temperature over the dancing, naked flame. I add a swoosh of peanut oil and a little salt, stirring vigorously to create sizzles and swirls, then in goes some finely sliced pork fillet and dried red chillies. The flames are licking high, and the fumes from the smoking chilli flakes are causing everyone to sneeze and cough. The crowd is increasing by the minute and is now about three-deep at the front. Old men and women going about their daily afternoon stroll stop and look on, inquisitive and entertained. They all stare intensely at my wok technique. I just know they are desperate to taste my food and are probably thinking to themselves, Can this outsider really cook?

In goes the sugar to caramelise and deepen the flavour: this is balanced out with a dash of soy sauce and softened with a splash of shao hsing wine, then a hint of sesame oil adds another dimension. Finally, it’s off with the flame and onto a white plate as I serve the piping-hot pork and chilli stir-fry. I offer it around to all within reach – first of all to the stallholder. A hush descends on the crowd as we await his approval…or not.

YES! Thumbs up, the crowd cheers and claps…phew!”

Kwong takes us all on a journey as she goes, with brash and funny episodes like this one tempered by moments of quiet contemplation of the beauty of this vast land and its people. My China is an intensely personal account of Kwong’s discovery of the land of her ancestors, the country her great-grandfather left to forge a new life in Australia during the gold rush of the 1850s. During the writing of the book, Kwong discovers her father is dying, but he insists she carry on with her trip. The poignancy of a visit to her father’s ancestral village in Guangdong Province is tinged by the bittersweet knowledge that he himself never had the opportunity to visit China. He died the year before My China was published.

“ much as this is a book about the experience of travelling – the contemplation of cities that are vast in scale and villages that are as remote and strange as anything Westerners are ever likely to encounter – it is also a book that tries to describe another kind of journey, one that unknots the complex mesh of heritage, family, identity, culture, memory and connection, the sort of journey that enriches lives, regardless of where we came from, or where we now find ourselves.”

My China – A Feast for all the Senses by Kylie Kwong
Photography by Simon Griffiths
Published by Lantern 2007

The Last Chinese Chef

Way back in the first few days of January I committed myself to being a Glutton –  no news to you guys, I’m sure. But this is a special type of gluttony…..I signed up for the annual Foodie’s Reading Challenge as a BOOK glutton.
In the Challenge, you are invited to read and review as many food-related books as you can get through in a year. 
  • ‘A food book is a book which is centered around food and/or drinks. That could be a cookbook, a food biography or memoir, a non-fiction book focused around a specific food, wine, chef or restaurant. Also allowed is a fictional story in which food plays a major role.
    • Nibbler: 1 to 3 books
    • Bon Vivant: 4 to 6 books
    • Epicurean: 7 to 9 books
    • Gourmet: 10 to 12 books
    • Glutton: More than 12

    To really set myself a challenge, I’ve so far found six books about Chinese food to read this year, and I’m hoping to find another seven along the way. Recommendations very welcome!

    First book for the year is The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones. (Fourth Estate 2007). This book somehow found its way into my house, without me having bought it, without it being given as a gift. It just literally turned up one day, so of course, I had to read it.
    The opening lines of The Last Chinese Chef set the scene for a rich and thoughtful novel where food is undoubtedly the main character.
    ‘Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic, or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food.’ – Liang Wei, The Last Chinese Chef, pub. Peking, 1925. 
    We meet Maggie, a food writer, a year after she has been suddenly widowed. Clinging to her work as a way of pulling her through her bottomless grief, her passion for food has survived the turbulence of the past year intact. When she suddenly finds herself traveling to Beijing to resolve an issue with her late husband’s estate she decides to combine it with a work assignment, interviewing up-and-coming American-Chinese chef Sam Liang.
    Sam, in training for a national culinary competition and preparing to open his first restaurant, is inspired by a book written by his grandfather Liang Wei, the last chef of China’s Imperial Court. The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the subsequent revolution, mean that the secrets of the Imperial kitchen have been all but lost except for the words of his grandfather’s book, titled ‘The Last Chinese Chef’. Sam is laboriously translating the book into Engish, using the valuable knowledge gained to bring forgotten techniques and principles to his cooking. Add to this the rigorous culinary training given to Sam by his three strict but doting elderly uncles, Sam is hoping to revive the classical imperial cooking style of his grandfather and uncles to impress the judges with an unforgettable feast.
    As Sam’s Uncle Xie tells him:
    ‘This is what you must understand if you are to be a true Chinese chef. Eating is only the beginning of cuisine! Only the start! Listen. Flavor and texture and aroma and all the pleasure – this is no more than the portal. Really great cooking goes beyond this to engage the mind and the spirit – to reflect on art, on nature, on philosophy. To sustain the mind and elevate the spirit of the meishijia [the gourmet]. Never cook food just to be eaten, Nephew!’
    As Maggie learns more of Sam, she also learns more of a cuisine she previously knew little about. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book for me, and parallels my own exprience of discovering the wonderment of Chinese food in China, as opposed to the vastly differene Chinese cuisine we eat in the West. As each new dish is tasted, our eyes are opened to a way of cooking and eating of never-imagined complexity and nuance, like the Chinese concepts of xian – the sweet, natural flavour of a food, like fresh fish or clear chicken broth; xiang – the fragrant flavor like frying spices or roasting meat; nong – the concentrated, deep complex taste from slow-cooking; and you er bu ni – to taste of fat without being oily.
    And the food. The descriptions will make you want to immediately go and out and eat. Or cook. Or both.  Like this description of a dish of slow-cooked lotus-wrapped pork ribs that, in a quest for perfection, Sam’s stern Uncle Xie makes him repeat three times:  
    ‘Inside the leaves, the rib meat came away under their chopsticks, rich and lean and long-cooked with a soft crust of scented rice powder……….The first bite bloomed in her mouth: lovely mahogony-deep pork with bright accents of onion and ginger.’
    And of a fish soup: ‘…best of all was the second soup. It brought gasps around the table, even from Uncle Xie. The live fish had been transformed into pale, fluffy fish balls, light and airy and ultra-fresh. These floated in the perfectly intense fish broth with shrimp, clouds of soft tofu, and tangy shreds of mustard green. She felt when she was eating it that it nourished every part of her: it was a soup she sensed she would remember all her life.’

    ‘a mince of wild herbs and dried tofu, sweet-savory puffs of gluten, and pureed scented hyacinth beans. He came back for the fragrant vinegar duck, spattered with brown Shanxi vinegar.’
    Aaahh. It’s a book about food, but also about relationships – it’s not giving anything away to say that this is also a love story – focusing on the connections between people, mediated by food. From the extraordinary and intricately intellectual dishes of the Imperial Court, through to the present day, food is seen as a way of bringing people together, families, remembering lost loved ones, and celebrating the arrival of new ones. What we and Maggie discover is that Chinese food culture actually represents a way of cooking and eating that we’ve been trying to get back to for a long time in the West. The shared table. The value of technique. The respect for food’s origins.
    Nicole Mones, author of the ethereal Lost in Translation,  clearly knows and loves Chinese food. An American, she began doing business in China only months after Mao’s death in 1976. She has returned to China over and over again in the intervening years, and her website looks like that of a foodie, not a writer – there are restaurant recommendations, and best of all, recipes for some of the wonderful dishes featured in her book, including the lotus-wrapped pork ribs.

    Reading The Last Chinese Chef brought me such a great deal of pleasure – pieces of my Chinese puzzle fell into place, and I gained a deeper understanding of the food I’m eating every day, along with a beautiful tale of healing grief and love. I hope you will get a chance to enjoy it too.