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.