Sunday, February 8, 2009

Chopping sticks and tender loins in China

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper- a sweet-sour memoir of eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop.
This is one of the best books I have read about China, in my whole life. It is really a memoir about the author's escapades in China's kitchens and restaurants, but it is also so much more. The author, Fuchsia Dunlop, starts with her first visit to China, where she after a few months end up as the first foreigner in the chef's school in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Her fascination with the Chinese foods are truly contagious. Duck, tendon, dumplings, spicy peppers, soy sauce, all is described in exquisite prose and vivid words. It is very personal, but also very easy to relate to. Fuchsia is not afraid of showing her opinions about politics and environmental disasters, and as the author of a 'revolutionary cookbook' and someone that has eaten many endangered species through her time in China, she battles with her guilty conscience as well as local politicians and bureaucracy.

The book is a fantastic introduction to the Chinese culture. Aside from the food, and a few recipes too, she tackles everything from traveling undercover to areas closed to foreigners, the disdain for Western food as well as the love for it by the Chinese people (apple pie is strange, McDonald's is OK), the influence of history and famine on food culture, and the economic boom in the last 15 years and its environmental and food consequences.

Her love of China and Chinese food seeps from the pages, and it makes me want to visit some of the more remote parts. I also want to find a restaurant close to us that make real Chinese food, not the Americanized hodge-podge most serve.

Some excerpts:
"Learning another cuisine is like learning a language. In the beginning, you know nothing about its most basic rules of grammar. You experience it as a flood of words, or dishes, without system or structure."

"By all accounts, Mao remained a Hunanese peasant in his eating habits to the end of his life. He was addicted to spicy food, and famously told a Soviet envoy that you couldn't be a revolutionary if you didn't eat chilies." (yeah - vodka belt meets fiery chilies!)

"The Chinese do seem to eat everything, one must admit. But in a sense they are just a distorting mirror, magnifying the voracity of the entire human race."

Swedish Chinese food is even worse, at least it was in the 90s. It was the same everywhere: 4 kinds of sauces (brown, white, sweet & sour, spicy), 4 kinds of protein (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp), and a variety of vegetables (mushrooms, pineapple, green beens, broccoli, tomatoes, baby corn, bamboo shoot). The menus was just different combinations on this, like Beef with Tomatoes (very unchinese), Chicken with Green beans, Shrimp with broccoli - all with the nondescript brown sauce. I liked this kind of food, but it probably isn't very Chinese. And the constantly available lunch offering "Fyra Små Rätter" (=Four small dishes), which is never served in the US. Four small dishes for lunch, like this one at Restaurang Peking in Trollbäcken: Deepfried jumbo shrimp with sweet and sour sauce (Friterade stora räkor med sötsur sås), deepfried pork with sweet and sour sauce ( Friterad fläskfilé med sötsur sås), chicken with currysauce and vegetables (Kycklingfilé med currysås och grönsaker), and beef with bamboo shoots (Biff med bambuskott). 89 Swedish crowns, I think that is about $12 now. Wow, this restaurant also serves Shark Fin soup, Hajfensoppa, and the menu certainly has more items than a regular Chinese restaurant in Sweden in the 1990s.

When I moved to the US and saw my first menu in the take out restaurant I had no idea what to order. There certainly wasn't any Beef with Tomatoes. Egg Foo Young - what is that? Moo Shu Pork? Not even the Chicken with Green Beans tasted like the dishes in Stockholm. I liked the Americanized Chinese food better, not so sweet and more spicy. Garlic Eggplant, yum. Duck rolls! And now I think I am ready for the real thing, as long as there is no tripe (intestines), tendons, or endangered species in it. I could eat a snake, that doesn't bother me, but I wouldn't eat brain or kidneys. I'll just stick with muscle meat I think.

Now I am going to let a friend borrow my copy of this book; she is from China and I would love to know what she thinks about it. It is a marvelous book, read it.

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