Say the words "Chinese food" and most people conjure up white cartons filled with fried rice. Or, some may imagine banquet feasts that feature "delicacies" such as monkey brains.
The truth lies somewhere in between, and with Fuchsia Dunlop as your lively guide you'll learn more about Chinese food than you can possibly digest in Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
Dunlop, now a food writer and twice-published author on Chinese cuisine, began her 15-year culinary adventure during a visit to China in 1992. Later, while a foreign student at Sichuan University, Dunlop found herself bored by government restrictions that limited her research on China's ethnic minorities. So she instead spent her days haunting street markets and befriending cooks.
In these Chengdu markets and kitchens, she confronts her horror at the casual honesty of Chinese meal preps (that bunny in the corner could be bubbling on the stove within 20 minutes). She also discovers dishes layered with textures and flavors that delight her British palate.
Eventually, after a decade of research that included a stint in a professional cooking school, Dunlop found that she "ate dog hotpot, braised frogs and deep-fried timber grubs" without blinking.
This isn't to say that all she learned to do was to eat exotic foods. For example, one chapter dedicated to the pursuit of tasting Sichuan pepper (it tingles on the lips) from an actual pepper tree becomes a sobering study of the gulf between impoverished peasants and privileged Communist Party officials.
Food study serves as a useful vehicle for grasping cultural and historical diversity and Dunlop does this with humor, skill, and timing – even though her table threatens to sag from countless stories.
China's modernization boom continues to grab headlines with its food issues: SARS, pollution, animal welfare, and overconsumption. Dunlop is obviously troubled by these hors d'oeuvres in the main-course conflicts between China and the West. But just as it seems the 2008 Olympic host is on the verge of rising up to consume the globe with its insatiable appetite, Dunlop muses that perhaps this binge can't last forever. Let's hope she's right.
• Kendra Nordin is a staff editor.