Since her first Sichuan cookbook came out several years ago, Fuchsia Dunlop has been a particular hero of mine, on par with Paula Wolfert and


Why Fuchsia Dunlop Is My Hero


Since her first Sichuan cookbook came out several years ago, Fuchsia Dunlop has been a particular hero of mine, on par with Paula Wolfert and David Thompson -- part anthropologist, part gourmet. Not only is Land of Plenty easy to cook from, but it explains the culinary theory behind spicy, fragrant Sichuan cuisine -- how complex flavors are created, how ingredients should be sliced and steamed and fried -- with a level of detail that before was only available to people who can read Chinese.

Last week, Norton published Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Dunlop's memoir of her travels in China. These days I read food books for education, not escape, so I'm not a big fan of culinary memoirs, particularly when they're chick lit plus recipes. But Dunlop's story is much more than a few reminiscences about peppers she'd chopped interspersed with literary gasps of delight. She was the first Western student to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine back in the mid-1990s, flouting bureaucracy and convention to do so, and tells about her adventures hitchhiking around Tibet and pestering street-snack stall owners in Chengdu to let her train with them. The part that's rocking my world right now is the section I'm reading on how she overcame her deep, practically unconscious Western likes and dislikes about the textures of foods and learned to appreciate texture as the Chinese do:

Chinese chefs and gourmets talk often about kou gan, or 'mouthfeel.' Certain textures are especially prized. Cui, for example, denotes a particular quality of crispness that is found in fresh crunchy vegetables, blanched pig's kidneys, and goose intestines ... Cui crispness offers resistance to the teeth, but finally yields, cleanly, with a pleasant snappy feeling. It is different from su, which is the dry, fragile, fall-apart crispness of deep-fried duck skin or taro dumplings. Some foods, like the skin of a barbecued suckling pig, can be described as su cui because they offer both types of crispness, simultaneously.

If you want to express the springy elasticity of a squid ball, you might refer to its tan xing, which also describes the bouncy aspect of ... sea cucumber texture ... Nen is the tenderness of just-cooked fish or meat, or the fresh suppleness of very young pea shoots; hua the smooth slipperiness of 'velveted' slices of chicken. Another lovely texture word is shuang, which evokes a refreshing, bright, slippery, cool sensation in the mouth: one might use it for certain starch jellies soused in vinegar and chilli oil.

Sorry if the words goose intestines and blanched pig's kidney turn your stomach (her loving description of eating cracked rabbit heads still makes me cringe). What's great about this book is that she doesn't pooh-pooh our nausea -- she just eventually moved beyond it. For me, reading this section is like touring a contemporary art museum with an art historian who can explain all the cultural references and theoretical underpinnings of the works on display.

It even makes me hungry for some cui dry-cooked pork intestines.

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