The year after I graduated college, I spent a year working and traveling in France. It was an adventure for a girl who had grown up in suburban Michigan, and although I had traveled fairly extensively in Europe in college, living somewhere and learning how to fit in to another culture on a daily basis was nonetheless a challenge. However, France is one thing; China is quite another. I envy and greatly admire someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, who in her early twenties decided to attend a school for foreigners in China in order to learn Chinese and study the culture. Not only did she choose China for her adventure abroad- she chose Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a mid-sized provincial capital where the sight of foreigners still provoked stares and finger-pointing. Not initially having any intention of a career in food, Dunlop found herself seduced by the intense allure of Chinese cuisine, and has since made it her life’s work to learn about it and instruct others. She takes us on her journey in her fascinating memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
The memoir chronicles several of Dunlop’s visits to China, both as a student and to research her cookbooks (Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking; Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province), but it’s that first year that really makes an impression, as Dunlop experiences many foods and flavors for the first time. In one memorable passage, she recounts her first taste of stir-fried rabbit heads, a dish she had once avoided but eventually succumbed to in a late-night, post-drinking attack of the munchies. She rapturously describes the creaminess of the brains; the silkiness of the cheek. Equally evocative are the descriptions of humble noodle dishes enlivened with scallions, ginger, and the zing of chilies and the famous Sichuan peppercorns. Every day provides opportunities for discovery, and Dunlop is not shy about diving in headfirst. She makes friends with street vendors and other locals, fully taking advantage of her surroundings where many Westerners would languish and bemoan the lack of “normal” food.
In addition to the vicarious thrill of reading about the inevitable exotic fare, the book also reveals a great deal about the Chinese culture, their relationship to food, and their relationship to foreigners. In the cooking school Dunlop attends, her curiosity and hunger to learn drive her forward in spite of the outright scorn and derision of her classmates, both for being foreign and female. However, she manages to find a few kindred spirits, including a would-be pick-up artist who takes her under his wing and teaches her authentic Sichuan home cooking.
The Chinese attitude to food and cooking is equally as fascinating as the dishes Dunlop learns at cooking school. Cooking is looked down upon as a menial task, regardless of the complexity of many dishes. Recipes are closely and jealously guarded by chefs, and many have been lost to the ages because a chef refused to share his secrets with the next generation. The years of famine have created a culture of extreme excess and wastefulness, where it is commonplace at a banquet or other large dinner to throw away three times as much food as what is consumed. Middle and upper class appetites for a more meat-heavy diet are exhausting the environment, while peasants in the Chinese countryside still subsist on simple diets with very little meat. In one chapter, Dunlop suffers a crisis of conscience when treated to an extravagant dinner with Communist leaders in a poor provincial town, but fears angering them by refusing their generosity.
I don’t think I can overemphasize the impact this book had on me in terms of rethinking what we (i.e. Westerners) consider edible, and the attitudes towards a living thing becoming food. In China, the boundaries are fuzzy at best. Pretty much anything that moves is fair game; no distinctions are made for creatures considered “cute” or “lovable”. Where we would look at an animal and possibly see a creature with a soul, a Chinese person might simply see a potential meal. Dunlop describes it thus:
Culture shock hit me hardest when I was invited to lunch by a motherly middle-aged woman in her special rabbit restaurant, not long after I had arrived in Chengdu. ‘Come into the kitchen and watch,’ she urged me. When we entered, the main ingredient for our stew was sitting sweetly in the corner of the room, nibbling lettuce. The following is an extract from my diary, written in the kitchen that day as I watched:
Death of a Rabbit
Hit rabbit over the head to stun it.
Hang up by foot.
Slit its throat.
Immediately peel off skin.
Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver.
From live rabbit to dish on table in less than 10 minutes. (pp. 49-50)
The above incident perfectly illustrates Dunlop’s observation that “They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them. They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died.” (p. 49; italics mine).
Rabbit may not be that far out for many adventurous Western eaters, but Dunlop ventures much farther afield, sampling various types of offal, dogs, rats, insects, etc. At the end of the book, there is a moment of truth of sorts when, back in England, she finds that her perspective on what is edible or desirable to eat has irrevocably shifted. In the months since I have read this book, it’s a subject that continues to surface from my subconscious from time to time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be intrepid enough to try some of the delicacies which become familiar flavors to Dunlop, but I am inspired to push the limits of my comfort zone and expand my palate and my mind. If I took anything from this book, it’s that taste is one hundred percent a matter of cultural perception, and completely malleable under the right circumstances.
For my newly-minted book club, I had the ambitious idea that not only would I read a food-related book a month, I would also try to post a recipe or two from said book. June’ s book was Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton; go here to see the book review and discussion. (I actually made the dish a couple weeks ago, but time has a habit of slipping away from me these days, hence the delay in posting.)
It wasn’t hard to choose a recipe out of this book- I went with Ants on a Tree (not to be confused with Ants on a Log, an entirely different animal) because the author constantly refers to it as his family’s favorite dish, and it’s the one thing his daughter has been willing to eat even through her pickiest phases of toddlerhood. It’s a Szechuan (or Szichuan, depending on your fancy) noodle dish consisting of seasoned ground pork (the “ants”) and bean thread noodles (the “tree”), and it would give me an excuse to use some of those Szechuan peppercorns I bought a while back at Penzey’s.
The nice thing about this recipe, and one reason I imagine it’s become a favorite at the author’s dinner table, is that it’s pretty easy to throw together. I’m sure after making it a few times and having the seasonings memorized, you could whip it together in a matter of 30 minutes or less. I love highly-seasoned food, so I did enjoy this dish; my only difference of opinion is that I found it a little too “decadent” (see my note below re: oil) to want to consume it on a regular basis. Also, I wouldn’t consider this a one-dish meal since it’s just meat and carbs with no veg, so I made a batch of my Chinese-style kale to eat alongside the noodles. We had leftovers, which I would venture to say tasted even better in my lunch the next day.
Making this dish led me to ponder having my own hungry monkey someday, and wondering what his or her unwaveringly favorite food would be. Until then, I’ll just have to live vicariously through the Amster-Burtons, and raise a forkful of noodles as a salute to Iris and her international palate.
8 oz. ground pork
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs hot bean paste (sometimes sold as spicy bean paste, or hot bean sauce)
1 tsp cornstarch
6-8 oz cellophane (bean thread) noodles
1-2 tbs peanut or other neutral oil (see notes)
2 scallions, white & light green parts only, thinly sliced (the darker tops can be sliced and used as a garnish)
1 red jalapeño or Fresno chili, seeded and minced
1/4 cup chicken stock (canned or from concentrated bouillon is fine)
1 tbs dark (mushroom) soy sauce
1/4 tsp ground Szechuan peppercorns (see notes)
Notes: You may try to see if you can get away with using less than the 2 tbs oil called for in the original recipe, as I found the end result to be a little on the greasy side (perhaps the pork I used had a higher fat content than what the author normally uses). Also, the Szechuan peppercorns are listed as “optional”, but if I was of a mind to leave them out, I’d just make a different dish instead; in fact, I would even suggest upping the amount to 1/2 tsp if you’re feeling gutsy.
Directions: Put some water on to boil. Meanwhile, combine regular soy sauce and cornstarch in a medium-sized bowl to dissolve the cornstarch. Add the sugar, hot bean paste and pork, stirring thoroughly to combine. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Place the noodles in a large bowl and when your water comes to a boil, pour over the noodles to cover. Soak for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain in a colander.
Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and jalapeño and cook 30 seconds, stirring frequently. Add the pork and stir-fry until no longer pink, breaking up any chunks, about 3 minutes. (You really want to break up the pork as small as possible, or the meat will all sit at the bottom of the dish, negating the whole “ants on a tree” thing.)
Add the noodles, chicken stock, dark soy sauce and Szechaun pepper. Cook, tossing the noodles with tongs or two wooden spoons, until the sauce is absorbed and the pork is well distributed throughout the noodles. Transfer to a large platter and serve immediately, garnishing with a few chopped scallions if desired.