Monday, March 19, 2007

READER'S CORNER: corax on anthony zee's swallowing clouds

a. zee. SWALLOWING CLOUDS. a playful journey through chinese culture, language, and cuisine. seattle: university of washington press 2002. 384 pp. ISBN: 0295981911. paperbound $18.95.

i was thinking about a tea-related recipe [for tea-smoked chicken] that i had not seen in a long time, but it took a bit of rooting around to dig it up. i finally found it, in a book i had not opened in quite awhile; then, as inveterate bibliophiles are wont to do, i ended up rereading the whole book.

the book, by dr anthony zee [a theoretical physicist at UCSB, forsooth], is called SWALLOWING CLOUDS -- which happens to be the literal translation of won ton, as he explains in chapter 4. [others identify the term 馄饨, i.e. hun2tun2, as the name of a primordial god of chaos mentioned by the early daoist writer zhuangzi -- but where's the fun in that?] as soon as one attempts to classify or categorize the book, one runs into complications. but these are anything but haphazard or unintended. on the contrary: they are part and parcel of zee's intentions.

'there are,' as zee says in his preface, 'three leading characters in this book: the language, the food, and the culture of china.' he confesses his inability to concentrate on any one of those at the expense of the other two; and this is in fact a principal source of the book's charm. zee hopes that you will not 'just sit at home and read this book. take it with you whenever you go to a chinese restaurant ... order some of the dishes mentioned ... i hope to see your copy of this book stained with soy sauce.' having read it several times over the years, i can testify that this is a very realistic vision; SWALLOWING CLOUDS would certainly make any trip to a chinese restaurant fascinating, alone or in the company of friends. it has a kind of alluring fun about it that only the best glimpses into another world can give.

so if you're fascinated by the way life in china has evolved; by the way the cuisine, and the tea, of china mirror its overall culture[s]; or by the way in which the hanzi actually picture ideas, this book is destined to become a favorite of yours. it's no wonder that zee has garnered blurbs from both ken hom and nina simonds; and as a writer, he is thoroughly engaging. reading SWALLOWING CLOUDS, you come to feel as though you know him. [it's also no wonder that it has been reprinted a number of times since its original publication in 1990 by simon & schuster.]

readers of CHA DAO will be particularly interested to learn that the book devotes an entire chapter [chap. 14, 'the sublime faith in illusions'] to the role of tea in chinese culture. in this chapter you will learn, among other things, how the written character for 'tea' -- 茶 -- is composed of the ancient chinese symbols for 'grass' and 'wood'; what the word 'book' in lu yu's book of tea [cha jing] has to do with 'silk'; in which year [729 CE] the emperor of japan took his first taste of tea; the literal meaning of gongfu and its etymological relation to 'work/skill'; and how the tradition of yixing pottery developed. there's a great tea anecdote cited from the classic dream of the red chamber. and so on, and on. i can't begin to capture for you how beautifully zee writes about all this; let me just mention that another of his books was nominated for a pulitzer.

incidentally, that tea-smoked chicken recipe i was looking for turned up in appendix B. you begin by steaming a chicken with scallions and sliced fresh ginger, letting it cool, and cutting it in half. in your wok, under a bamboo rack, you put a mixture of 1 T raw rice, 2 T loose red tea, and 1 T brown sugar [zee sensibly suggests lining the bottom of the wok first with tinfoil]. place the halves of the chicken on the rack, cover the wok, turn on the flame, and smoke the chicken for 10-15 minutes on each side, or until it is golden brown; then let it cool some, and slice it into 1.5" pieces. [zee recommends using jasmine tea; i think it might be prudent to start with something less floral-scented.]

-- corax

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