A Tribute to Chengdu

The original plan for today's blog post -- to compile a summer reading list of cookbooks and culinary memoirs -- has been scratched and put on the back burner for now. Here's why: Among the handful of titles that I planned to mention (and start reading myself) was "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China," by British journalist Fuchsia Dunlop. So I'm flipping through the pages of Dunlop's third book (she has two cookbooks to her name), and I'm looking for a few lines to excerpt, and all of a sudden, the word Chengdu pops off the page.

Author Fuchsia Dunlop, from the cover of "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper"(Courtesy W.W. Norton/Tang Yuewu)

Again and again.

"Shark's Fin" is the tale of Dunlop's adventures in the mid-1990s as the first Westerner enrolled at the esteemed Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. The school -- and most of Dunlop's story -- is based in Chengdu.

Yes, that Chengdu, the town that was all but flattened by the catastrophic 7.8-magnitude earthquake on May 12, a natural disaster that to date has left 40,000 dead and five million homeless.

As the capital of Sichuan province, Chengdu is also the epicenter of Sichuan cuisine. To wit, Dunlop writes:

Mention Chengdu to any Chinese person and the first thing they will say in response is almost certainly that the food is very spicy: 'Are you afraid of chilli heat?' (Ni pa bu pa la?) is the customary warning for travelers on their way to Sichuan. But give them a moment more and they are likely to smile with remembered pleasure, and murmur something about the magnificence of the local cuisine.

Adding to the series of coincidences is NPR reporter Melissa Block's interview with Dunlop on May 2, only days before NPR began its Chengdu Diary series that would become round-the-clock coverage on the earthquake.

Since last week, I've been thinking of a way to pay tribute in the kitchen to the dead and their survivors, and I had no idea until I found the following passage in Dunlop's book how appropriate that might be:

People in contemporary China often feed their recently dead relatives in a way that seems to emphasize their closeness to the living. They might lay little dishes of cooked food by their graves, home-smoked bacon, green beans and rice, whatever the rest of the family is eating, so the deceased seems to take part in a shared household meal.

Today, I plan to test a Sichuan dish from one of Dunlop's books and share it with you later this week, and I'm trying to track down Dunlop for an interview. I'll keep you posted.

Of all the aspects of this multi-faceted subject that is food and cookery, the one that fascinates me most and speaks to my heart is the legacy of the recipe. When a culture experiences a massive catastrophe -- be it war or natural disaster -- it's my contention that one thing that endures long after bodies are buried is the recipe. If it's not published in a book or informally scribbled in someone's notes, it's stored in the memory bank of a survivor, and that one connection is enough to keep a culinary thread alive.

Now, if you excuse me, I've got some "Shark's Fin" reading to do....

Today is chat day: Read the What's Cooking transcript.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 20, 2008; 10:25 AM ET Cook's Library
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The book sounds fascinating on its face, and moreso now. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll be eager to hear your further thoughts as to content, quality of the storytelling and the quality of the writing.

Peace and healing to all those affected by the earthquake.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 20, 2008 11:25 AM

I hope you get the interview. The earthquake was so tragic, and will take so long just to dig out. Also, Kim, I couldnt find the link to the Tues session of What's Cooking, and couldnt get signed on. Is there a way to put a link in the MA section on Monday or Tuesday. Thanks!!!

Posted by: East Coast, USA | May 20, 2008 12:44 PM

There is a link to the chat on the left of this page: "Kim's Web Chats." You also can go to the blue navigation bar at the top of every WaPo page and choose "discussions" from the News drop-down menu.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 20, 2008 1:36 PM


Bravo for finding a way to pay tribute to the victims of the earthquake by using your food platform for something especially meaningful. I'm a food blogger myself and have had trouble writing about "just food" since the earthquake. The scope of the tragedy makes me feel like I should be talking about it more, to the exclusion of other more self-indulgent topics. You're managing to do both. Thanks.

Posted by: Cheryl | May 20, 2008 1:41 PM

Thanks, Kim.

I was watching news reports about the moment of silence observed yesterday at the start of the 3-day period of mourning for the quake victims. At the time, I was thinking that it was hard to grasp many of the details of the tragedy (likewise with the Myanmar typhoon) because of the relative inaccessability of the location to westerners, including journalists. I appreciate your bringing a bit of the region as it was before this terrible event to our attention.

Posted by: alex | May 20, 2008 4:35 PM

Hi Kim,
Thanks for writing a tribute to the victims of the earthquake. Though I should point out that Chengdu, though it suffered some damage, is still pretty much intact. The city is outside of the hardest hit area and is now the center for food and supply distribution to surrounding rural areas that were much harder hit and almost completely destroyed.

Posted by: AppetiteforChina | May 21, 2008 10:43 PM

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