Cooking With Words The linguistically modified meals of the redoubtable Inspector Chen

When I first started work on the English manuscript of Death of a Red Heroine, a novel in the Inspector Chen series set in contemporary Shanghai, memories of Chinese food came crowding back into the lines. I sort of indulged myself in it, believing things could be like in Proust’s multi-volume Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), with a biscuit capable of evoking all manner of associations. Also, the Chinese restaurants in St. Louis are so hopelessly Americanized, I could not help missing those genuine Chinese specials. So writing about them seemed to offer a sort of psychological compensation in another language, in another land. As it turned out, however, the compensation was not easily achieved. Rather, it became surprisingly frustrating experience. It is not simply because some of my chosen food items were not available or appreciated here, such as chicken feet, stinking tofu, or shepherd’s purse blossom (a weed plucked away as inedible in my American neighbors’ backyard). More than anything else, it is because some essential concepts in Chinese culinary experience do not exist in the English language.

Let’s start with the word xian, one of the most important concepts in Chinese gastronomic experience. In terms of etymology, xian consists of two components, fish (yu) and lamb (yang), but the word applies to any dish—even in a vegetarian restaurant. The highest compliment a Chinese gourmet could think of paying is xian. At first glance, “delicious,” would be the best corresponding word in English, but it is way too general, too vague, and incapable of signifying the taste unique, to the Chinese palate. A real example may serve to illustrate. Chuck, an American friend of mine, came to love chicken noodle soup—possibly under my influence—at my home. The soup, made of the farm-raised chicken, was far from xian enough, so I thought of msg (monosodium glutamate), and added a generous pinch of it. It took me quite a while to explain xian to Chuck, who remained perplexed about the concept without a corresponding English description,  as the soup was delicious enough to him. In effect, the taste produced by msg may be said as close to xian as possible. With the necessity of xian taken for granted, the popularity of msg among the Chinese is a matter of course. Without organic xian available, the synthetic msg, an easy and inexpensive solution, comes into mass production, and into my cupboard. So it seems, the vocabulary makes it possible for people to go after the experience accordingly.

For another, Chinese word ma. In Sichuan cuisine, ma is a must, conventionally, and conveniently, translated as “hot.” But ma is not the hot (la) you find in hot pepper. Ma, which literally means numb, is a different taste. At the beginning of the Inspector Chen series, I discussed ma with a Chinese food critic for the sake of the English writing. He came up with the definition that it is “like thousands of ants crawling on your tongue.” I did not use the sensational phrase in my books, which may likely scare away a non-Chinese gourmet, yet which serves to show how different ma is from la. In Sichuan, one of the most popular specials is Ma La Hotpot, which in itself speaks of the two different flavors. Ma is made from a huajiao (proper name: Zanthoxylum bugferum Maxi). A chef from Sichuan, who claims ma is the soul of Sichuan cuisine, makes a point of bringing huajiao all the way from the old country, even at the risk of potential trouble at Customs. But sans the vocabulary in English, how can I recapture the Sichuan soul in my books?

When examined more closely, it is not simply a matter of arbitrary signifiers in the language. Rather, is it must like the Wittgensteinian paradigm that notes, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world?”

And the problem is not confined to specific tastes. Here is another Chinese word, chan, which also does not have a corresponding English word. Chan is not hungry; rather, it means “a craving for something with its specific taste.” Chan can be used as verb or as adjective. As a verb, it usually takes an object. There’s even a well-known story about it. Zhang Jiying, a high-ranking official of the Jin dynasty (265-420), missed Songjiang river perch so much, he resigned his position in the capital for the sake of the precious fish. Zhang Jiying was consequently much celebrated in the classical Chinese poetry. Almost a century later, Xin Qiji, a poet in the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) still declared, “Don’t tell me the perch is fat. / With the rise of the western wind, / Jiying is not going back yet.” Evidently, chan, far from being negative, can be viewed as the pursuance of personal taste at a deliberate distance from the politics. Similarly, Inspector Chen in today’s Shanghai can be chan, more or less as a result of his ideological disillusionment, not simply an epicurean detective like Pepe Carvalho in novelist Manuel Vazquez Montalban’s Barcelona. But again, I failed to find the English equivalent, which left me unsure about the representation of that idiosyncratic streak in Inspector Chen.

Incidentally, the same can be said, vice versa, for the lack of corresponding Chinese words in the culinary experience. For instance, talking about how a steak is done—the literal translation of “rare” (shen) or “medium” (banshen)—fails to work in Chinese. Instead, a Chinese speaker will instead say “half cooked (banshu),” or “twenty percent cooked (erfenshu).” In the conventional discourse, rare or uncooked is not wholesome, so by using shu (cooked), or the different degree of shu, the consumer’s sense of decorum may be reassured. And by and large, “well-done” is still the common preference for steak.

When examined more closely, it is not simply a matter of arbitrary signifiers in the language. Rather, is it must like the Wittgensteinian paradigm that notes, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world?”

Whether it is a question of chicken or egg, or a matter of linguistic determinism, the stories of Inspector Chen had to go on, a politically disillusioned cop with occasional solace found in Chinese eateries; so I had to describe the practically indescribable in English as well as I could.

In Death of a Red Heroine, there is a chapter about Detective Yu and his wife Peiqin treating Inspector Chen to a river crab (dazha crab) dinner at home. Crabs are the favorite among the Shanghainese, so I thought a crab meal could make a scene typical of the cultural milieu. And I anticipated no problem in writing about crabs, which, though not as popular as in China, are not absent in American restaurants or market. Snow crabs, blue crabs, Jonah crabs—crabs are crabs, whatever the name they are called.

But I immediately ran into a problem. For Shanghainese, the most scrumptious parts of the crab are xiehuang and xiegao. In the City God Temple Market, a dash of xiehuang on top of the mini soup bun could double, or triple, the price of the luscious snack. I had talked about xiehuang and xiegao in Chinese for so long without bothering to find out what exactly they are. For a possible clue, I could bring to mind only a phrase in connection with it, jiucishixiong (preferable with female crabs in the ninth lunar month, and male crabs in the tenth lunar month). So I had to open a dictionary. Xiehuang is the female crab ovary and digestive gland; xiegao, the male crab seminal collection of semen and organs. I drew in a deep breath, and double-checked. No mistake. But how could I represent the mouth-watering flavor by using the English dictionary definition? Still, I had to work on the chapter in spite of this question.

It was an excellent meal, literally a crab banquet. On the cloth-covered table the crabs appeared rounded, red and white, in small bamboo steamers. The small brass hammer shone among the blue and white saucers. The rice wine was nicely warmed, displaying an amber color under the light. On the windowsill, a bouquet of chrysanthemums stood in a glass vase, perhaps two or three days old, thinner, but still exquisite.

“I should have brought my Canon to photograph the table, the crabs, and the chrysanthemums,” Chen said, rubbing his hands. “It could be an illustration torn from The Dream of the Red Chamber.”

“You’re talking about Chapter 28, aren’t you? Baoyu and his ‘sisters’ composing poems over a crab banquet, ” Peiqin said, squeezing out the leg meat for Qinqin. “Alas, this is not a room in the Grand View Garden.”

“Not even in Qingpu Grand View Garden.” Yu was pleased that they had just visited the garden. “But our Chief Inspector Chen is a poet in his own right. He will read us his poems.”

“Don’t ask me to read anything,” Chen said. “My mouth’s full of crab. A crab beats a couplet.”

“The crab is not really in season yet,” Peiqin apologized.

“No, it’s the best.”

Apparently Chen enjoyed Peiqin’s excellent cooking, relishing the Zhisu sauce particularly, and using up a small saucer of it in no time. When he finished eating the golden digestive glands of a female crab, Chen was literally sighing with pleasure.

“Su Dongbo, the Song Dynasty poet, said on one occasion, ‘O that I could have crabs without a wine-supervisor sitting beside me.'”

“A wine-supervisor of the Song Dynasty?” Qinqin said for the first time during the meal, showing his interest in history.

“A wine-supervisor was a low-ranking officer in the 15th century,” Chen said, “like a medium rank police officer nowadays, responsible only for other officials’ behavior at formal feasts and festivals…”

[After the meal], Yu and Peiqin accompanied Chen to the bus stop. Chen thanked them profusely before he boarded.

“Everything was OK this evening?” Peiqin said, taking Yu’s arm.

“Yes,” he said absentmindedly. “Everything.”

But not everything…

He kissed the nape of her neck, feeling grateful for the evening.

“Go to bed now,” she said smiling. “I’ll join you soon…”

Finally she came over to the bed and slid under the towel blanket. He was not surprised when she pressed herself against him. He felt her moving the pillow to a more comfortable position. Her robe fell open. Tentatively, he touched her smooth skin on the belly, feeling the warmth of her body, and pulling her knees against his thighs. She looked up at him.

Her eyes mirrored the response he had expected.

They did not want to wake up Qinqin.

Holding his breath, he tried to move with as little noise as possible; she cooperated.

Afterwards, they held each other for a long time…

Before he fell asleep, he heard a faint sound near the door. He lay listening for a moment, and he remembered that several live crabs remained unsteamed in the pail there. They were no longer crawling on the sesame-covered bottom of the wooden pail. What he heard was the bubbles of crab froth, bubbles with which they moistened each other in the dark.

Instead of bogging down in xiehuang or xiegao, I managed to represent in a roundabout way, quoting from Su Dongpu (1037-1101), the Chinese literary classic Dream of Red Chamber, or intertextualing through Li Qingzhao (1084-1151), and the philosophical masterwork Zhaungzi. The result seemed not to be too bad. Several western critics commented positively, mentioning the scene of crab dinner as exquisite and exotic. In Paris, a young actress also chose to read the part of the crab meal as her favorite to the audience in the mall, incidentally, close to the food court there. According to a Chinese-American reviewer, however, while the metaphor about crabs froth-moistening each for survival (modified from Zhuangzi’s proverbial one about fish saliva-supporting each other in a dry rut) is poignant, the attempt to recapture the palatability of crabs fizzles out. “It’s just like scratching your itching outside the boot,” he said, and I understood why. The river crab being the favorite among the Chinese, so much has been said and written about it, there is something like a special crab discourse with associations and connotations embedded in it. My writing in English fails to do justice to the flavor unique to the Chinese palate.

Still, not all readers’ responses were disappointing. From Europe, enthusiastic response to the Oriental gourmet inspector convinced the German publisher to assign me a book about eating in Shanghai. They wanted me to travel there and enjoy the goodies in the city with expenses covered, and that in the company of a German co-author would do the writing. while all I needed do was eat and talk. It was an offer too good for me to refuse. Of course I knew better than to talk about xian or ma, xiehuang or xiegao, though I did treat my German co-author to the xiehuang-topped mini soup buns in the City God Temple Market and she really liked it without asking me what made the golden dot on top of the bun.

So I had no choice but to continue writing in English. As chan as my main character, I have Inspector Chen involved in a case while going after the three-white lake goodies in Tai Lake (Don’t Cry, Tai Lake), and in another case, making his breakthrough while indulging himself in Suzhou style noodles (Shanghai Redemption). needless to say, all the Shanghai palatable specials have to present themselves, which, incidentally, have made a convenient excuse for my repeated trips back there.

During a trip to Shanghai last year, I happened to read an article over dim sum at the hotel, “Torture More Painful Than Daily Job” by Shen Hongfei n the Shanghai Book Review. I was, riveted with the hilarious description of his painful experience of dealing with a Chinese delicacy in a foreign language:

I had dinner with a French man in a Bund restaurant last year. He had lived in China for a year, married a Chinese wife, yet without being able to speak Chinese, not even the “pillow Chinese,” so to speak. Still, that does not dampen his passion for his Chinese wife and for the Shanghai dazha crabs (river crabs). For his painstaking studies and well-practiced skill in dealing with the crabs, he’s as a pro as a native Shanghainese. I could easily imagine the intimate scene of the couple making money by hard work during the day, and in the evening, nesting on the sofa and cracking water melon seeds in noisy harmony.

For a westerner to relish dazha crabs like Shanghainese, the difficulty comes close to that of obtaining the full score in English proficiency test, immigrating to the United States in 2000, and becoming the American President in 2012. But as we chatted on, I caught myself floundering in awkwardness, increasingly tongue-tied. Talking about dazha crab in Mandarin already involves a sense of distance (the related terms had better be enunciated in the dialect south of the Yangtze River), let alone in English. It felt like tackling a river crab with the fork and knife, and wearing a pair of gloves too. He was really to blame for his earnest question before opening the shell of the second crab, ‘Hairy crab, do you prefer male or female?’

‘Uh…Well, this—this, as for the hairy crab, of course I prefer xiong, gong, masculine, male, particularly in November. But in October, I then prefer female (damn, how can I say jiu ci shi xiong [female crabs in the ninth lunar month and male crabs in the tenth lunar month]?) But, male or female? The “linguistic torture more painful than the daily job,” in linguistic context or in emotional context, overwhelmed me then and there, grabbing me through the dining table unerringly to the toilet.

Shen was apparently tormented by the connotative disassociation between the signified in one language and the signifier in another. It reads like an anecdote at the beginning of a New Historicist essay, except that it does not develop into a theoretical exploration. Nonetheless, it is thought-provoking. Here the language is shown as modifying, if not determining people’s reaction to the dazha crab on the dining table. As suggested in the article, with dazha crabs being the favorite among the Chinese people south of the Yangtze River, and with a “crab discourse” historically deposited in the southern dialect, talk about the crab in that dialect is consequently capable of bringing up gastronomic associations. For that matter, the Mandarin (Beijing or other northern dialect) appeared to be much less effective. Then, how about the English?

Not that abstractly, words in a language may be said to function at two levels, the denotative and the connotative. For the denotative, it is what you find in a dictionary, such as xiehuang, “female crab ovary and digestive gland,” and that’s it. For “hairy” in the English dictionary, it is just an adjective for “hair,” neutral in itself. But the connotative, it carries associations and feelings beyond the denotative, so it may emotionally affect the speaker or the listener. At the connotative level, “hairy” is anything but pleasant to the Chinese culinary imagination. As for “male” or “female,” they come with a more biological nuance. When used on a dining table instead of in a laboratory, the association overwhelmed Shen. How could he have any appetite while engaged in a talk full of biological color? Coincidentally, I had the same problem with the crab in the Death of a Red Heroine, particularly with xiehuang and xiegao. What could be so tempting in the epicurean evocation in Chinese changes negatively in English with anatomical undertone? It may be argued what in one language works in terms of Jungian cultural unconscious, does not work at all in another, and sometimes even has the opposite effect.

So the French gourmet was facing mission impossible when talking about the crab in English to a linguistically sensitive Chinese gourmet like Shen. Shen’s reaction might have been exaggerated, but there is no mistaking the emotional negativity evoked by the English vocabulary in that context. It is then understandable why Shen had to flee from the table to the toilet.

To coin a phrase after a current popular one gmo—genetically modified organism, we may describe the above-discussed as lmo—linguistically modified organism. Here it may help to further our exploration in connection with the theory of linguistic relativity, especially in the context of writing or speaking in different languages at this global age. According to Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist and philosopher, speakers of different languages may conceptualize and experience the world differently because of linguistic differences. The theory is sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in recognition of the formative influence from his mentor Edward Sapir, an anthropologist-linguist at Yale. It holds that the structure of a language shapes the ways in which its respective speakers comes to terms with their world, and influences their cognitive process in a number of ways. The crab example above may well illustrate the point. With the words xian, ma, chan and the crab discourse in Chinese, people react and respond accordingly, but in the other language, lacking these words with different connotations, different reaction and response come up instead.

Shen’s reaction might have been exaggerated, but there is no mistaking the emotional negativity evoked by the English vocabulary in that context. It is then understandable why Shen had to flee from the table to the toilet.

In Whorfianism, the principle is often defined in two versions. For the strong version, language is seen as determining thoughts and cognitive categories, and for the weak version, the linguistic categories are viewed as influencing thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior. In the light of the varying response to the Inspector Chen series in different languages, I find my fictional alter ego more inclined to the weaker version, being linguistically modified and influenced. In the meantime, language itself is being modified in this global age, so Inspector Chen may still have a long way to go.

During a visit to Los Angeles years ago, before I started the series, I offered to cook a Chinese meal for my American host. I shopped at a local supermarket, where I asked about bean curd, but the salesman was confused. In desperation, I started speaking Chinese mixed with English, “Doufu, bean curd—” “Tofu! You should have said that earlier,” the salesman said, shaking his head at my pathetic English, and taking me to the isle in question in no time. Years later, I still think “bean curd” is a correct dictionary translation, but in terms of connotation, it is a different story. For that matter, tofu, and dim sum, and laomian, just to name a few here, are actually becoming English. So there is no telling whether some day ma and xian will also appear in English too. At least in the menu at a Chinese restaurant in New York, I saw “Ma La Tofu” not too long ago. The same ma that is the soul of the Sichuan cuisine. But then the language shift like that is beyond the investigation of Inspector Chen.