If you buy books from amazon as I do, you will know that because of some arcane algorithmic magic, Amazon knows what kind of books you like. Amazon has me pegged as a reader of off-beat cookbooks. So one day, up came a book by a woman named Fuchsia Dunlop. It’s called Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. And since I’ve always wanted to know a woman named Fuchsia, I was prepared to hit “Purchase” immediately, and I did. That’s how I zeroed-in on Fuchsia Dunlop as another in my series of unlikely heroes and heroines in the gastronomic trenches. Her memoir was fun to read, an erudite but not stuffy look at China’s food history, culture, and development.
British by birth and now a fluent Mandarin speaker, through the years, Dunlop has become an expert, not only in her first love — Sichuan cuisine — but in the food of many areas of China, including those of Hunan, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangnan, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Here’s how that happened.
CHINESE FOOD WAS TAKE-OUT TO FUCHSIA
Dunlop grew up in Oxford where her mother taught English to foreign students. Many students became family friends and found their way into the Dunlop’s kitchen. So it wasn’t surprising for Dunlop to dine on a variety of so-called exotic foods while most English households were scarfing down a bland diet.
Later, she studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge University. She first became interested in China through a post-university, subediting job with the BBC. That led her to study Mandarin and eventually gain a scholarship at Sichuan University, in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu. Up to that point Dunlop’s idea of the cuisine of the Middle Kingdom was Chinese take-out.
Living in a dormitory filled with Caucasian students, Dunlop’s goal was to advance her knowledge of China’s ethnic minorities, but that became a dull chore. Chinese officials seemed not much interested in this girl asking questions about minority groups.
SICHUAN HIGHER INSTITUTE OF CUISINE
She dined out a lot with her school buddies and later with Chinese she met socially. Then Dunlop took a step that ultimately changed the course of her life. She enrolled (the first Westerner) in the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. That did it.
Today Fuchsia Dunlop is a highly regarded cook and expert on Chinese cuisine. She has written several books on China and the food of its provinces including my favorite, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. Others are Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, and the highly acclaimed cookbooks: Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook and Sichuan Cookery.
Her latest, published this month, is Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China. It introduces readers to China’s Lower Yangtze region called Jiangnan. Shanghai is its capital.
SHE DREW THE LINE AT STEWED BEAR PAW
Dunlop’s introduction to Chinese cuisine was dramatic. Sichuan food is spicy — hot with chilies and Sichuan pepper. She was not prepared for that. Nor was she prepared for what Westerners would classify as strange or bazaar foodstuffs — dog meat, snake, grubs, caterpillars, and camel hump. Gamely, she tried almost everything but drew the line at stewed bear’s paw, although there’s a recipe for it in her memoir.
MAO PREFERRED PEASANT FOOD
Later, she became interested in the food of Hunan Province. Chairman Mao Zedong was born in the then-small Hunan village of Shaoshan. There’s still a cult of Mao there and residents are proud of the Hunanese peasant food that Mao favored. In Revolutionary Cookbook, Dunlop has an anecdote about Mao telling a Russian envoy that he couldn’t be a revolutionary if he didn’t eat chilies. While China has a long history of haute cuisine, Mao sought to eradicate that during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Dunlop says accomplished chefs were “sent down” to the countryside, ridiculed by the Red Guards and forced to work the fields and factories. It was several years after Mao’s death in 1976 that China began to recreate its long food traditions.
CHINESE EQUATE FOOD AND HEALTH
A fascinating aspect of Dunlop’s memoir is her account of how Chinese food is used to balance the mind and the body. In the early part of the first millennium when Buddhism was entering the country, the Chinese picked up the system of “humors” — in which foodstuffs are classified as heating, cooling, moistening, or drying — hence, the penchant of the Chinese to equate food and health. Food is seen as medicinal.
MSG, THE COOK’S COCAINE
Of especial interest is Dunlop’s consideration of the food additive MSG. She says, “For me MSG is the cook’s cocaine, a white powder that offers a turbo-charged intensity of gastronomic pleasure. But isn’t life beautiful enough without taking drugs?” However, she tells us MSG is ubiquitous in China to enhance the highly desirable flavor umami. “Chinese chefs tell me they now use MSG because their customers find everything tastes boring without it,” she says.
SAN FRANCISCO SICHUAN AND HUNAN RESTAURANTS
For those San Franciscans who wish to try Dunlop’s favorite Chinese cuisines (Sichuan and Hunan), here are a few local restaurants: Henry’s Hunan North, 1398 Grant Avenue; Hunan, 924 Sansome Street; Sichuan Home, 5037 Geary Boulevard; Sichuan Table, 4401 Balboa Street; Little Szechuan, 501 Broadway. But take into account that Dunlop describes the food she found dining in China. You are dining in San Francisco — yes, a sophisticated gourmet capital, but for Sichuan and Hunan cuisine, these may be pale comparisons.
Fuchsia Dunlop will be in the Bay Area this month from her home in London and will appear for a reading of her new book at Book Passage in the Ferry Building, Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 12:30 p.m.