You know you’re reading a good book when, having accidentally left it on a bus during rush hour (along with your favourite scarf and cotton shopper bag), the first thing you do when you get to your desk is log onto Amazon and order a new copy.
You know it’s a really good book when, even though you’re only a third of the way through when you lose it, you’re so inspired by the author’s vivid descriptions of Sichuanese cuisine that you order her Sichuan Cookery book at the same time.
Picking up Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper during my monthly browse at Foyles, I was half-expecting to find a ‘daring eats’ style of travel diary in the vein of Mr A Bourdain — a compelling romp, salivating food tales, but not really getting under the skin of the country in question.
I’d vaguely heard of Fuchsia Dunlop, knew she’d spent some time in China and was widely held as the Chinese food expert in the UK. As a British-born Chinese person, I find it occasionally vexing that there’s currently no high-profile Chinese chef or cook flying the flag for Chinese food in this country. Who was this expert, I thought, and what could she possibly know?
Turns out, she knows a hell of a lot. And boy, can she write. Only a few pages into the book, I was already warming to her and her eloquent yet friendly voice. My respect ratcheted up several notches as she described her immersion into Sichuanese life during a year-and-a-half long stint there in 1994, on a British Council China scholarship. She throws herself whole-heartedly into the deep expanses of the centuries-old food culture of Chengdu, making friends with chefs, locals and even sweet-talking her way into a 3-month professional chef’s training course (all in Chinese, of course).