Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop (Norton)





When the SARS epidemic became news in China, speculation claimed that the illness might be caused by eating civet cat. This theory was particularly disturbing to Fuchsia Dunlop, who only days before had feasted at a banquet where she had been served a claypot soup that had been proudly identified by her host as containing civet meat.

Less than ten years before, Fuchsia had been daunted by the prospect of eating preserved duck eggs in Hong Kong, on her introductory trip to Asia. A self-confessed "worrier" when she first went to China, she soon "realised that if you want a real encounter with another culture, you have to abandon your cocoon." As a woman who had been taught that it was bad manners to refuse food that was given to you, and who yearned to escape academia for a culinary life, Fuchsia came to China to research ethnic minorities and became seduced by Sichuan pepper instead.

As a student living in a province that is famous for its food, Fuchsia is delighted by the way that Sichuan's "dark pink, pimply" peppercorns make her mouth "dance and tingle." That unfamiliar and alluring sensation leads her to eat everything she can find in this cuisine that "makes the ordinary extraordinary." She falls in love with Sichuanese food, and her new passion leads her to a new career--learning everything she can about the food of China and presenting to the rest of the world through cookbooks.

And yet to learn the language of cookery, Fuchsia needs to learn not just how to speak Chinese, but how to live in China. With the "basic grammar of cuisine," comes the hard-won knowledge of how to behave, how to speak the different dialects of the provinces she lives in, and how to become "nonchalant about risk." She succeeds so well that this well brought-up English girl slurps, spits, and splutters strange sounds at the table, admitting that "inside me, there is someone who is no longer entirely English." She becomes a foreigner in her own country, while in China she is "all too often a big-nosed barbarian," one of those blessed and cursed people who "juggle cultures."

Because she is a juggler, Fuchsia does not write an ordinary book extolling the delights and horrors of eating in China. She knows too much to have her knowledge fail to permeate her pages--and has lived in China long enough that she doesn't present herself as an expert--but as someone who has observed while learning.

She sees the city of Chendu change from a quiet city of wooden houses and "labyrinths of lanes" to a city that is "futuristic in its gleaming ambition" and admires the "brazen confidence" of a country with the courage to remake itself. She recognizes the decadence of eating shark's fin while still savoring it in her mouth, and makes at least one of her readers long for the opportunity to eat a fried rabbit's head, "cleft in half and tossed in a wok with chili and spring onion." And she poses difficult questions to those who love to look at China as the world's most voracious consumer, pointing out that it is a country that is just "catching up with the greed of the rest of the world."

When she concludes with a vivid story of how she quite mindfully eats a caterpillar that she has inadvertently steamed, along with vegetables from her mother's garden in England, describing her qualms and its "insipid, watery taste," it's impossible to keep from remembering the first taste of escargot or a live oyster. Fuchsia Dunlop's gift is to unite the world of adventurous eaters by making them look at their various barbaric appetites and understand that while it's all a matter of taste, learning the tastes of other countries can break down barriers while eradicating boundaries. Bon appetit!