Review: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop

(3 of 5 stars)

This is one of the times I wish we implemented half-stars in our rating system. As a non-fiction book about food, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is above average. It’s informative, has recipes, is easy to read, and is engaging.

The book took me a while to get into because for the first quarter of the book. I don’t think this would be the case if I weren’t Chinese and cynical about westerners who write about my mother-land. In the beginning, I was annoyed by the author who seemed an an over-eager, graceless, nosy foreigner trying to exploit the exotic cuisines of the orient. It’s a rough start, but the book does get better after that.

Dunlop weaves historical tidbits in with anecdotal tales of color characters and friends she meets in China. There’s a handful of political drama and commentary, but most of it is about the food in China.

One of the later chapters about industrialization, commercialization, and pollution in food felt out of place with the rest of the book, but I suppose it makes sense as a memoir since it describes the author’s shift in thinking about food. I read most of the book as just a story about food in China, told by an English woman, but if I had paid more attention to the title when I started and realized it was a memoir, I would have read it with a different eye.

This book should be put on a must-read list for anyone who’s thinking of going to China on a food excursion. It’s great that someone finally wrote about the different regional cuisines of the country. Maybe now people will stop patronizing places like Panda Express when they feel like having Chinese food.

One word of warning: don’t read this book on an empty stomach.

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Hotpot with Friends

hot pot!!

When the weather’s cold and you have friends over, there’s nothing better for dinner than hot pot.  It’s DIY, which means I don’t have to spend forever preparing something in the kitchen.  I guess it’s a bit intimate since everyone is fishing tasty morsels out of the same giant pot, but it’s okay, boiling broth kills 99.9% of bacteria (I made that up) and what’s some shared saliva between friends?

If it’s just the BF and I eating hotpot, we’ll just use one pot and do an all-veggie one. But since we were having some friends over, why not have some meat? The blue dutch oven was designated the spicy, meat-free broth. The split pot was for meat, one side was spicy broth, and one side was non-spicy. In the end, I think there was a lot of splash damage and the non-spicy side and spicy side started tasting the same.

One of my favorite things (other than dipping hot stuff into raw egg sauce) about hot pot is sipping the broth afterward. It’s so flavorful from all the food that’s been cooked in it.

Chinese Dinner for Chinese Parents

The BF got Land of Plenty, a cookbook full of Sichuan recipes. He made some fish-fragrant eggplants (yu xiang qie zi / 鱼香茄子 ) for dinner a few days ago which were such a success that I felt we were finally ready to take the next step: make Chinese dinner for my parents this weekend. Chinese parents are notoriously critical of everything, so I was nervous about cooking dinner from the motherland for them.

Of course, we couldn’t just cook one dish, so we decided on two more: dry-fried green beans (gan bian si ji dou / 干煸四季豆) and Sichuan-style steamed fish (qing zheng xian yu / 清蒸鲜鱼).

Fish fragrant eggplant

We added some freshly fried tofu to the eggplant dish to give it more substance which wasn’t that much more work since we already had oil from deep-frying the eggplant. The fried tofu was a good addition, but we should have made the sauce stronger or more salty because the tofu soaked up a lot of the liquid from the sauce and the dish ended up being a bit more bland than it was the last time the BF made it.

Stir fried long beans

The dry-fried green beans were also easy to make thanks to the oil we already had. Flash-frying it first in oil really does make a lot of difference in the texture of the beans. We also added some finely chopped shiitake, pieces of fried tofu, and salt-preserved mystery Chinese veggies to the dish to give it more savory bits.

#project365 fish getting ready for a steam bath.Finished fish

before & after

For the fish course, I bought two whole bass (small ones) from the market. They were washed and then marinated in some xiaoxing wine, then stuffed with Chinese bacon (even though the recipe called for ham, I think it really meant Chinese bacon), slices of shiitake, and dried shrimp. Then the whole thing was put into a big bowl with boiling broth poured over it, and then steamed for about 10 minutes. I went too long with the steaming so the fish was slightly over-done, but the flavor of the fish was fantastic. The Chinese bacon really does add a lot to the dish. I usually don’t cook meat other than for my parents when we do dinner, so I’m pretty happy that they seemed to like the fish.

My parents seemed to enjoy dinner, which was a relief. It’s ironic that I had to look up Chinese recipes in a cookbook written by a white British woman, but I have to admit that the dishes we chose were hit.