The plate can be a tricky place for translators. Who’s in charge, the brain or the stomach? Do words reveal or hide what’s on the plate? Food is culture much more than it is words, and learning the names of new foods and pantry items is only step one. Culture does not reside in dictionaries. It turns slippery when we try to sink our teeth into it.
I have been linked to Chinese since childhood, growing up in Taiwan. What makes Chinese cuisine such a good example of language in the disservice of food is its familiarity: many American urbanites have a close relationship with Chinese food via takeout. This lulls them into thinking that they know the cuisine. But Chinese according to Sichuan Village/Gourmet/Kitchen is not telling you or your taste buds the truth. “Chicken with Garlic Sauce” isn’t what you think it is; it’s “Fish Flavor Chicken” and it doesn’t have a sugary sauce. A Sichuan chef coined this name to invoke the exotic, Sichuan being mountainous and 900 miles from the ocean.
To approach Chinese cuisine, and Chinese culture in general, it is best to find a Vergil rather than a dictionary. University of Chicago linguist James D. McCawley comes to my mind. His students loved following him to local Chinese restaurants and badgered him for a Chinese restaurant cheat sheet. His answer was the book The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters. It is the best kind of primer, and has an excellent glossary of Chinese characters. But even the most straightforward of food and language guides is still bound to err on the side of omission. I don’t mean that Chinese words are hard to translate into English. Rather, it’s the English words themselves that get us into trouble. Let’s follow a few and find out why.
What is a “Chinese” cookbook? At 3.7 million square miles, China is an enormous country (only slightly smaller in size than the United States). Think what an “American” cookbook might mean and you’ll see the problem. Our country has many distinct regions with their own foods: Cajun, California, New England, Southern, Southwest, Texas. China has the same problem: Cantonese, Fujianese, Mongolian-Northern, Shanghainese, Sichuan. All different. And don’t forget Chinese-American (Chinese “diner” food). There are cookbooks for every region. Which one is “Chinese”?
And what about the authors? There are Chinese Chinese, or Chinese who fled China for the West, or Chinese from overseas communities (like Singapore), or Chinese Americans like Ken Hom (who was born in Tucson), or Westerners who studied in China (like Fuchsia Dunlop) or who teamed up with someone from one of the first three categories. Who is Chinese?
In American cooking, when we chop, it’s usually an onion. Finely or coarsely chopped. In Chinese cooking, “chop” is myriad: flowers, rice grains, smacked, roll-cut, strips, dice, thumbnail, silk threads, horse ears. The different shapes are essential because wok cooking is based on maximum use of minimum cooking oil. All the ingredients in a dish must be done cooking at the same time, so the cut is what makes simultaneous cooking possible with a variety of ingredients.
To be or not to be—sticky, that is. Although both Chinese and non-Chinese eat rice, they are not eating the same thing. First, in China the meal is rice, and the dishes accompany it. (The word for food, fan, means rice.) Chinese rice is short grain and absorbs a lot of water, like risotto. This makes it stick together so it’s easily picked up with chopsticks. American eaters prefer long-grain rice; the grains, when cooked, are separate. By and large, the Chinese restaurants of America serve American-style rice.
No. 4: “Hands on” (unnecessary to state)
Chinese culture is agricultural at heart. The Chinese connect much more physically to food than Americans do. Both men and women are food shoppers. To delegate this to someone else is inconceivable (unless it is your cook, whom you have trained). FreshDirect is unthinkable. So are shredded or sliced vegetables in bags from the produce section. Preparing the ingredients, cutting them into different shapes and sizes, and cooking them holds the family together. It is a defining principle of Chinese culture, understood by all, and unnecessary to state.
Lagniappe: Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book
It’s time to look at a “Chinese” Chinese cookbook, and that should be Pei-Mei's three-volume Chinese Cook Book (1969). It is en face Chinese and English. There are color photos of every dish. The book also has something to demonstrate about the task at hand—we can translate words, but how do we translate culture? It always struck me as odd that the Chinese-language recipe for each dish was so uniformly short. (American recipes err on the side of wordiness and train-of-thought asides.) Then I realized it’s because everyone already knows what’s going on in a Chinese kitchen. Everyone, that is, except us non-Chinese.