Thursday, 26 April 2018

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper for Cook The Books

It's been ages since I cooked along with Cook The Books Club - even when there's been a book scheduled that I was really keen to read or already loved, time has got away from me and I've missed it.

I thought this was a good time to come back though. Deb, from Kahakai Kitchen chose Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, which I have been wanting to read for a while. Fuchsia is a bit of a national treasure: she gets trotted out whenever people want to talk to an English-speaking person about Chinese food, or authenticity, or the migration of food culture. The broad strokes of her career (first Western person to train as a chef at the culinary school in Sichuan) are very well known but I was interested in the detail.

And the detail was very interesting. A snapshot of China in the early 90s, when things were starting to open up a bit. The experience that white people seldom have of being completely other. The deep, rich history of Chinese cuisine. The desire to break off the treadmill of being a clever woman on a predictable academic and career path.

Unfortunately, I found much of the actual food descriptions stomach-churning. While her desire to immerse herself in the cuisine and to learn to appreciate the foreign textures and flavours is admirable (it reminds me a bit of Anthony Bourdain "you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. You’re at Grandma’s house, you eat what Grandma serves you"), I found it very hard to deal with the things she found herself eating. The almost blasé approach to animal cruelty and eating endangered species (although she did say she may end up vegetarian and gives quite an interesting explanation for the animal cruelty) was a kind of cultural relativism that didn't sit well with me.

As it happens, the dish I personally most associate with Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan is 成都豆腐花 - Chengdu street tofu with soy chilli, peanuts and preserved vegetables as served at A Wong. Which is vegan. And Andrew Wong has shared the recipe.
Chengdu street tofu - not as pretty as Andrew Wong's.
The fish-fragrant aubergine that initially captured Fuchsia's imagination can also be vegan if you use vegetable stock, so I made that as our main course (following Diana Henry's recipe for Fragrant Sichuan Aubergine in Simple), along with some marinated mushrooms (which I reheated to serve). And then I let the vegan side down by serving it on egg fried rice. But it was delicious. And no endangered species died.
Urchin kept bumping my elbow - didn't get one single focussed picture)


Deb in Hawaii said...

It's so nice to have you back this round! I have only barely started the book but I am a bit worried about the food descriptions. Ah well. When I traveled for work in Asia--only in Taiwan and Beijing as far as China markets went--they were the partners who would like to feed me things at dinner, then ask me if I liked them and then finally tell me what I had just eaten and laughing about it. Some scary stuff. ;-/
But your tofu looks delicious--like something I would order and love. Thanks for joining in!

grace said...

interesting! i too would have a problem even thinking about eating an endangered species, but i suppose i can appreciate her perspective.

Claudia said...

You chose two delicious dishes! I've been wanting to do that Sichuan eggplant. Actually there were a lot of things I want to try, and got a couple of her cookbooks out of the library.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

Glad you joined us this month. I felt the same way about the endangered species but I didn't buy Dunlop's half hearted attempt to justify it. Glad you went with a vegetarian option.

Debra Eliotseats said...

I almost landed on the eggplant dish too because I definitely wanted to do something vegetarian, too.

Velva said...

Really enjoyed this post. I agree, I would have difficulty trying to make the leap in enjoying food that is endangered. However, on the other hand from strictly a food culture perspective, I get it. Still I would pass. On the other hand, what you have here looks delicious! Thanks for sharing this vegetarian option.


Simona Carini said...

I like your choice of recipes (like also the idea of tofu as street food) and I agree with your thoughts about the book. Was Urchin interested in tasting the food?


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