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Fuchsia Dunlop's "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper"

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Fuchsia Dunlop's "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper"

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After my last book review of “How to Cook a Dragon”, I needed something to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. A good meal and a good book cleared my head, and then I got back on the proverbial rickshaw.

I've said it before- stories of foreigners (usually Americans or continental Europeans) getting lost in Asia usually make for a good lure. The same curiosity that compelled the protagonists often compels the prospective readers to keep turning pages. Sometimes rightly so, and sometimes not. This time, with Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper it turned out beautifully.

What might have been the most important part of the book is the immersion factor. The background for the author's journey to the province of Sichuan is set within the first ten pages of chapter 1, and we almost never hear about it again. That's absolutely perfect. A reader wants new experiences, not memories of the past- if the past was so important, that's what the book should have been about!

“Growing up in Oxford, studying in Cambridge, working in London, I had been propped up by a string of academic and professional credentials that had seemed to define me in the eyes of other people. But in China none of that mattered.”

That tells you everything you need to know about the author's past, really. And very little else is forthcoming. The pages are instead full to the brim with luscious, intensely intriguing detail of China as it was after Mao, but before the modernist eruption around the turn of the millennium.

I've no wish to spoil the book's magic for you, so I won't delve into deep detail. However, several of the author's tales come with recipes at the ends, and the ones I've tried have been superb. Speaking as a chef, the level of detail imparted in the storytelling is enormous, and any trained cook will be nodding knowingly as they turn the pages. There's nothing flowery about the storytelling where food is concerned, it's all very down to earth, realistic, and sensible.

The prose itself is also deeply thoughtful in its detail, giving a comprehensive mix of history, geography, family life, and all manner of Chinese customs past and present, deftly mingled through tales of the author's daily life in China. Her thorough exploration of first Sichuan then Hunan is sometimes tempered by sobering lessons from the natives, but that's to be expected. No story is all smiles.

I recommend this book readily as I would several other accounts of life in Asia. Those I've reviewed here that I found to have some merit will be linked below. Swing by the library and pick this one up for an entertaining, engaging read that's full of lessons that will stick with you long after you're finished with the book.

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