The ways in which our names, words and means of expression are linked to our cultural identity has a remarkable parallel in the world of food. Both language and food, after all, are cultural necessities -- things that have been linked to civilization in almost every known instance. They are often the means by which a culture survives and develops.
So it's particularly delightful to discover a book like Swallowing Clouds, in which A. Zee sets out to explore the connections among Chinese language, culture and cuisine. Along the way, tucked in among the anecdotes of his childhood and succulent descriptions of traditional Chinese food, he has managed to impart a strong sense of modern Chinese culture and to inform the reader about some of the Chinese language.
With chapter headings like "How to Avoid Being Vulgar" and "Sleep of the Truly Inebriated," it's apparent that Zee is much more interested in taking us on an enjoyable journey than a purely didactic one. Nevertheless, within the first paragraph of the drinking chapter, Zee relates how the Chinese character for alcohol comes from simply combining the symbols for liquid with fermentation. Building upon this basic lesson, he then substitutes the appropriate symbol into the text wherever possible, expounding its various permutations with stories both mythological and mundane. It's a fascinating method that's enacted throughout the book.
For anyone looking to get a fast course in Chinese, Swallowing Clouds is not a language lesson. However, as Zee mentions in his introduction, the book can easily serve as a jump-start for the language. It certainly proved possible to unravel many of the characters on a simple Chinese restaurant menu with the help of the book. Quite often, the knowledge came with a sense of history and culture that made the food seem even more exotic and less like the common American-hybrid diet it's become.
For readers who want a few recipes with their history and etymology, Zee has gracefully included a brief selection of some of his favorite homemade dishes, most of them derived from his mother. As lyrically written as the rest of the book, they become a fitting partner for a text that has the capacity to nourish both the body and the mind.