1) The Artful Eater-A Gourmet Investigates the Ingredients of Great Food, by Edward Behr

“An appreciation of individual ingredients…The 18 chapters address in depth salt and pepper, certain herbs, Atlantic salmon, Southern country ham, mustard, beef, eggs, cream, vanilla, apples, walnuts, and coffee, among other foods… Contains a good measure of practical information-recipes, a new list of sources of supply, and much advice on cooking and eating.”

Very informative and entertaining. Two thumbs up!

2) Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper-A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China, by Fuchsia Dunlop

“Food writer Fuchsia Dunlop went to live in China as a student in 1994, and from the very beginning, she vowed to eat everything she was offered, no matter how alien and bizzare it seemed. In this extraordinary memoir, Fuchsia recalls her evolving relationship with China and its food, from her first rapturous encounter with the delicious cuisine of Sichuan Province to brushes with corruption, environmental degradation and greed.”

I usually avoid books on Oriental food/culture that are written by Western authors, but this one is a happy exception. It’s easy to tell that she genuinely feels for Chinese food and culture, perhaps even more so than I myself. Perhaps it’s also a case of 局外者清, because she brings to attention certain things I’ve failed to notice.

“Chinese chefs and gourmets often talk about kou gan, or ‘mouthfeel’. Certain textures are especially prized. Cui, for example, denotes a particular quality of crispness that is found in fresh crunchy vegetables, blanched pig’s kidneys and goose intestines, not to mention sea cucumbers that have been properly cooked. Cui crispness offers resistance to the teeth, but finally yields, cleanly, with a pleasant snappy feeling. It is distinct from su, which is the dry, fragile, fall-apart crispness of deep-fried duck skin or taro dumplings. Some foods, like the skin of a barbecued suckling pig, can be described as su cui because they offer both types of crispness, simultaneously.”

“In the English language, with all its expressive beauty and startling diversity, it is hard to describe the appeal of a braised sea cucumber. Try as you might, you end up sounding comical, or revolting. A Chinese gourmet will distinguish between the bouncy gelatinous quality of sea cucumbers, the more sticky, slimy gelatinousness of reconstituted dried squid, and the chewy gelatinousness of reconstituted pig’s foot tendon. In English, it all sounds like a dog’s dinner.”

Huo hou literally means something like ‘fire-time’, and it refers to the control of the degree and duration of cooking heat. The third pillar of the Chinese culinary arts, after the arts of cutting and of mixing flavours, huo hou is probably the most difficult to master. It cannot be taught in a clinical way, it is grasped only through experience, by trial and error…

At the cooking school, we were taught about the different types of flame: the intense heat and dazzling light of the high flame (wang huo); the vigour of the strong or ‘martial’ flame (wu huo-the character wu is the same as that in wu shu, the martial arts); the gentle swaying of the ‘civil’ flame (wen huo-the character wen carries connotations of culture and literature); and the pale blue glow of the tiny flame (wei huo).”

“In English, as in most European languages, the words for the living things we eat are mostly derived from the Latin anima, which means air, breath, life. ‘Creature’, from the Latin for ‘created’, seems to connect animals with us as human beings in some divinely fashioned universe. We too are creatures, animated. In Chinese, the word for animal is dong wu, meaning ‘moving thing’. Is it cruel to hurt something that (unless you are a fervent Buddhist) you simply see as a ‘moving thing’, scarcely even alive?”

Somehow, reading about all this in a different language adds a whole new dimension to what you understand.