Synopsis: Englishwoman moves to Chengdu, China for post-graduate study only to end up as the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. The author’s following 14 years of Chinese culinary exploration is recounted in this memoir/travelogue/cookbook.
My Take: While I love Chinese food, I’ve always approached it from a the perspective of an ignorant gweilo – happily eating what more culturally enriched friends recommend, but not really understanding what to look for myself. Usefully, in this book Fuchsia Dunlop manages to explain the nuances of the different Chinese cuisines and the markers of high quality dishes without forcing the reader to digest an entire book about nothing but food. By mixing in elements of travelogue, memoir, culinary appreciation and social commentary on the development of China from the early 90s through to today, Dunlop is able to hold the reader’s attention with a diverse smorgasbord of interesting tidbits while also providing an in-depth explanation of the unique characteristics of Chinese cuisine. I found concepts like ‘mouthfeel’, ‘complex flavours’ and the myriad specialised ways of cutting ingredients for the wok particularly fascinating.
Highlight: Other that learning that chillies were only introduced into Sichuan cooking in the 16th century by Portuguese traders, the most surprising thing I learnt from this book was the many intricate and highly specialised ways various ingredients could be cut to create different flavours in a wok:
“Every student would be casually carrying around a lethally-sharp cleaver, which took some getting used to. To begin with I retained my European view of the cleaver as a bloody, murderous knife – it was only later that I began to appreciate it as the subtle, versatile instrument that it really is. (The cleaver is usually the only knife in a Chinese kitchen, and it is used for every kind of cutting, from peeling ginger and garlic cloves to chopping through meat and bone; the flat of the blade is also used for crushing pieces of ginger to release their juices, and for scooping up cut foods and transferring them from chopping board to wok.)
The art of cutting is fundamental to Chinese cooking. We had to learn all the different knife techniques, and the myriad of different shapes into which food can be cut. There were ‘horse-ear’ slices of pickled chilli; slivers, cubes and chunks of meat and poultry, ‘fish-eye’ slices of spring onion, wafer-thin ‘ox-tongue’ slices of radish and lettuce stem.
Also fascinating was the amount of thought that goes into developing the ‘complex flavours’ for your dish:
A well balanced Sichuan meal ‘will awaken your tastebuds through the judicious use of chilli oil, stimulate your tongue and lips with tingly Sichuan pepper, caress your palate with a spicy sweetness, electrify you with dry fried chillies, soothe you with sweet and sour, calm your spirits with a tonic soup’.