How to communicate a culture? History books are unreliable without the context of everything they exclude. Anthropology asks the world not to question the anthropologist or his particular biases, experiences, traumas, and psychological eccentricities. And the other disciplines—literature, math, science, philosophy—very often fail to include those on the margins: women, ethnic minorities, the poor.
But everyone eats! And while every culture has its version of haute cuisine, food is the rare cultural expression that is dominated, perpetuated, and expertly practiced by the often voiceless masses. After all, even the most celebrated chefs were children once, eating nursery food prepared by mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and nannies.
So let's look at culture this way: ingredients, tools, techniques, the structures of various meals, the roles of the cook and the eater and the host and the guest. A picture of culture emerges; values are expressed in the uses of a chicken or the order of a dinner. Economics, gender roles, religious customs, technological resources, the structure of the family, the impact of historical events, the realities of place—all is revealed through cooking and eating.
In How to Cook and Eat in Chinese we have a document that reveals, translates, and interprets one culture to another—a double feat. In Buwei Yang Chao we have a guide who is modern and brilliant and droll and down-to-earth; who cooks balanced, flavorful, traditional, creative dishes; who has a deep and delicate understanding of both Chinese and American food culture, cooking, and eating habits; and who arrives at these knowledges through an appreciation of cooking as a vital part of daily life and human existence.
I was introduced to this book by a 5'3" Connecticut blonde who speaks flawless Mandarin and understands in her tiny bones the difficulty of respectfully communicating culture. This fact has always struck me as profoundly appropriate. Sometimes the best cultural communicators are surprising; sometimes they are expatriate math teachers who love to cook or lawyers who have endless curiosity about the world or women who simply like to eat and love their friends.