Each week as part of SunLit — The Sun’s literature section — we feature staff recommendations from book stores across Colorado. This week, staff from Out West Books in Grand Junction recommend four volumes with a Chinese flavor to welcome the Lunar New Year.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
By Peter Hessler
From the publisher: In the heart of China’s Sichuan province, amid the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, lies the remote town of Fuling. Like many other small cities in this ever-evolving country, Fuling is heading down a new path of change and growth, which came into remarkably sharp focus when Peter Hessler arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer, marking the first time in more than half a century that the city had an American resident. Hessler taught English and American literature at the local college, but it was his students who taught him about the complex processes of understanding that take place when one is immersed in a radically different society.
From Marya Johnston, Owner: I read this book when it first came out, and loved it, not knowing that a few years later I would be living in Sichuan myself (though now Fuling, where Hessler taught, is considered part of the Chongqing autonomous region).
Because Hessler actually lived in China, this story is much more experiential than so many books about the “middle kingdom.” As a result of having read this book, there were things about living in China that were not a surprise to me; people huddled around a charcoal brazier to stay warm this time of year, cormorant fishermen, the reception of westerners with fascination and, of course, the food. Though it was published 20 years ago and China has changed so much since then, Hessler’s China still exists in the countryside. It’s a superb tribute to the country and its people.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
By Jung Chang
Simon & Schuster
From the publisher: Through an engrossing record of Mao’s impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist; and her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution.
From Marya Johnston, Owner: This wonderful book spans three generations of exceptional change in China from a female perspective. Based mostly in Sichuan, this family history starts with the bound-foot traditional grandmother’s days as a concubine, and continues as Jung Chang’s mother, an idealistic student, became swept up in the horrifying events of the Cultural Revolution such as the re-education of and indoctrination of students and “struggle sessions.” Today, there are statues of Mao all over China. He is considered a hero and his horrible deeds are swept under the rug. “Wild Swans” is a must-read story of survival and humanity in the face of appalling hardships.
Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
By Fuchsia Dunlop
From the publisher: Fuchsia Dunlop, the first westerner to train at the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, “has done more to explain real Chinese cooking to non-Chinese cooks than anyone” (Julia Moskin, New York Times). In this book, Dunlop recalls her rapturous encounters with China’s culinary riches, alongside her brushes with corruption, environmental degradation, and greed. The resulting memoir is a vibrant portrait of Chinese culinary culture, from the remote Gansu countryside to the enchanting old city of Yangzhou.
From Marya Johnston, Owner: I absolutely cannot talk about Sichuan without talking about the food. I was told once that there were 250,000 restaurants in Chengdu itself and I don’t know if that’s true, but I made a concerted effort to try as many as possible in my five years there. Fuchsia Dunlop was not only the first westerner, but also one of the first women to attend the famous Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.
When it became a bestseller, this memoir of her experience opened up Sichuan cuisine to the western world. Now, Chengdu is a city of at least 10 Michelin-starred restaurants. This book details not only life in Sichuan in the 1980s, but the province’s penchant for making food a multi-sensory experience. While the tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorn has recently become commonplace here in America, Fuchsia taught me to listen for the Ding Ding Tang candy seller or the San Da Pao “three cannonshots” rice ball vendor. I feel pretty lucky to have enjoyed a 34-course lunch with Fuchsia in Chengdu at the famous Yu’s Family Kitchen.
Food of Sichuan
By Fuchsia Dunlop
From the publisher: Almost 20 years after the publication of “Land of Plenty,” considered by many to be one of the greatest cookbooks of all time, Fuchsia Dunlop revisits the region where her own culinary journey began, adding more than 70 new recipes to the original repertoire and accompanying them with mouthwatering descriptions of the dazzling flavors and textures of Sichuanese cooking.
From Marya Johnston, Owner: Fuchsia’s first cookbook, “Land of Plenty,” was considered the seminal work for westerners on Sichuan cooking. “Food of Sichuan” updates and replaces that cookbook. She has adapted Sichuan recipes for the western cook and most ingredients can be found in the U.S. now (in Denver, try Pacific Market). From Dan Dan Mian, the most famous of all Sichuan street snacks, and Gong Bao Ji Ding (authentic Kung Pao Chicken) to Pock-marked Mother Chen’s Bean Curd (Ma Po Dou Fu), Fuchsia makes it so the home cook can make their own genuine Lunar New Year feast .