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Book Review: The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop

Book Review: The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop
The book cover of the Food of Sichuan,

Dunlop writes from first-hand experience, with a finely sharpened cleaver in hand as it were, and her own journey has been no less engrossing

Amit Dixit
January 01 , 2021
03 Min Read

In 1825, the celebrated French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in his Physiology of Taste: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” To paraphrase him with a pinch of fleur de sel: If you want to know a country or a people, know their food. It is nothing but serendipity that I am reviewing two books in this issue which have to do with the same region: Sichuan. Maybe the universe is telling me something. 

But never mind me. This book is a culinary gem—written with great depth of knowledge and even greater affection—and has survived the test of time. Since this bestselling window into the world of Sichuanese food was first published in 2001, much has changed in the world as well as the region, including the cuisine itself. Dishes that were popular in the 1990s— when the West was just discovering Sichuanese food (before that Chinese food popular in the West was mostly Cantonese, although the same can’t be said of India, where the fiery flavours of Sichuan found favour a long time ago)—have disappeared and new ones have taken their place. Some enthusiastic chefs have dipped into Sichuan’s heritage to revive authentic dishes, while others have embraced cheap flavours and— horror, horror—MSG. This new edition brings us up to speed on a constantly evolving cuisine, supplemented with sensational photographs by Yuki Sugiura. 

Dunlop writes from first-hand experience, with a finely sharpened cleaver in hand as it were, and her own journey has been no less engrossing. Her trial by Sichuan pepper began in 1994 when she landed up at Chengdu’s Sichuan University on a British Council scholarship to study Chinese. The move was, in part, guided by her interest in the food, which had been piqued by a few previous visits. She eventually signed up for private classes at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. After she finished her course at Sichuan University, the principal of the cooking school invited her to enrol as a regular student. This was a rare honour, since no foreigner had done it before. Thus began three months of intense training, including educational stints at local restaurants. Over the decades, Dunlop’s knowledge of Sichuanese food has widened. So, when it was time to revise the book, she took up the challenge gamely. (“Writing a cookbook that attempts to encapsulate the cuisine of a place is like pitching a tent on quicksand.”)

The recipes were retested, revised and refined, taking in advice from local chefs. The food of Sichuan has such a reputation for fieriness that of people headed to Sichuan, their friends will politely inquire if they are ‘afraid of chilli-heat’ (pa la) or not. Even the local women are known as la meizi (‘spice girls’). But chillies were only introduced in China by the Portuguese in the late-16th century (like they were in India) and found culinary use much later. It’s really the Sichuan pepper you should be looking at, which creates a peculiar tingling and numbing effect in the mouth and is the most distinctive ingredient in the Sichuanese repertoire. Beyond the populist perception, this is a sophisticated cuisine—one of the world’s greatest—and Dunlop’s excellent book will reveal its subtle layers to you. 

The book is a publication of Bloomsbury Rs 1,699.


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