A photographer friend, who shares my passion for Chinese food, pulls a rather nifty move when ordering in Chinatown restaurants. He insists on laboriously copying the menu's Chinese-character designations of our choices, in order to impress the chef and maybe score extra shrimps or larger portions of noodles.
He has good visual grasp, and reproduces the characters accurately enough to express the desires of our appetite, without in the least knowing what he is writing. Were he to have access to A. Zee's masterly Chinese-menu decoder Swallowing Clouds, he would not only understand the meanings of his squiggles, he'd also be fully versed in all the history, folklore, and science that have conspired to shape both language and cuisine in China. Zee, a respected Southern-California scientist with two tomes on high-brow stuff like 'particle physics' and Einsteinian 'gravity' to his credit, is also an avid sinologue and an unabashed gourmet. Here is an ex-pat home-boy, who satisfies his longings for his roots by way of exuberant though scholarly exegeses on written Chinese, as well as on the source materials of the home-country's endlessly inventive way of cooking and eating.
There are, he tells us, thousands of Chinese 'letters' (or, characters), something that is inconceivable to us 26-letter-alphabet people. They are apparently as logical as they are artistic, once they are closely examined. And examine Zee does, patiently and exhaustively deciphering and illustrating. He demonstrates how ordinary line-drawings of simplistic depictions of, say, 'fire', 'rain', 'man', and 'tree' are pictorially rather than intellectually joined together into diphthongs and triphthongs to express complex ideas in a single character.
He is so enthusiastic about his native language, and such a good teacher, that even the casual reader will inevitably be seduced by the repeated examples and insights, with which Zee undertakes to inform us. This makes the book an excellent primer for anyone wanting to start learning Chinese.
The fact that Swallowing is also a treasure-trove of Chinese culture and history is a bonus. When one adds its generous and entertaining helpings of gastronomy to the equation, it becomes an invaluable reference tool for anyone who has ever tried Chinese cuisine; which must be just about everyone in this country.
Zee deals with all the facets of this highly polished culinary sensibility through expert discussion, nostalgic, personal anecdotes (childhood in Hong Kong), and many recipe suggestions. He does it vividly, often mouth-wateringly, creating a craving for the wondrous dishes, while unstintingly catering to our curiosity of a nation which the West has obstinately refused to want to comprehend.
I chose the book's eponymously titled chapter on wontons for a closer look. Zee begins it with a practical, instructional guide to the universally favoured dumplings, demystifying them with simple pointers (a thinner casing makes all the difference), and offering valuable hints of filling variations. He proceeds with the etymology of the name: won means 'cloud'; ton 'swallow'. He dissects the name-characters into their components (cloud is a marriage of 'rain' and 'sky'; swallow, a joining of 'man' and 'open mouth'), and then gives us examples of the variations that have evolved during millennia. All of this reinforces the notion that slurping down a properly home-made, perfectly steamed wonton is like gulping an evanescent delicacy, a lacy vapour, an airy but unforgettable mouthful.
In the same chapter, Zee finds room to relate a bitter-sweet legend of a painting about wontons which magically materialize in pots of plain, boiling water; then a digression to other dumplings, notably 'pot stickers'; and finally to a much-deserved condemnation of the British Empire, which forced an entire nation to become addicted to opium just for the sake of its balance of trade.
This is a delightful addition to any library, be it of food-books or otherwise. I know that I'm giving it to my friend who likes to copy out menu items in Chinese. Now he'll be able to do it without looking, and maybe he'll finally persuade the chefs to regale him with favoured-customer portions, instead of, like in the past, merely managing to amuse the waiters. ò
Byron Ayanoglu is a Montreal-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction, specializing in food and travel.