Individual chapters centre on particular topics and associated characters: fire; water; alcohol; won ton (the "swallowing clouds" of the title); meat; chicken and duck; fish; crab and other seafood; grains, vegetables and mushrooms; bamboo; bean curd; vegetarianism; philosophy and religion; tea; dim sum, porridge and other snacks; elixirs and medicines; and banquets. Five "interludes" present additional linguistic material. One appendix introduces the numbers through a drinking game; the other offers a few recipes — for red-cooked pork shoulder, smoked fish, smoked chicken, gan si, jellyfish salad, celery and dried shrimp salad, beef jerky, vegetarian chicken, and a dip for cold crab.
Zee digresses extensively in these chapters, however, to cover a host of related culinary and cultural topics. There are stories about the origins of dishes, explanations of the history of characters, and background on aspects of broader culture. The chapter on bean curd, for example, describes the introduction of the chili pepper to China and the story behind Ma Po Bean Curd, with some background on the social status of women, while the chapter on bamboo offers an introduction to classical Chinese poetry, working through a poem by Su Tung-po. And there's an entire chapter on Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and the Stove God.
Characters and radicals for foods and basic concepts are introduced progressively. Over two hundred are covered, but they're not pushed too hard: one could read Swallowing Clouds and just come away familiar with a few very common characters, though students of Chinese languages could learn much more. There are also plenty of etymological and other linguistic digressions.
Due to technical constraints I have to choose an excerpt without Chinese characters, which makes it unrepresentative.
"Ginger imparts to Chinese cuisine one of its characteristic flavors. Besides its warming effect, ginger is also thought to stimulate the digestive tract, and thus a slice of ginger is included in almost every dish. In fish dishes, it plays the same role as the lemon slice in Western cuisine. Incidentally, the Romans developed a taste for ginger, and the caravans plying the Silk Route supplied them with it and other spices from China. Ginger is mentioned in the Koran. It is a disgrace that our mass-marketed ginger ale is so underflavored."As the last sentence demonstrates, Zee makes occasional references to his personal experiences with Chinese food in the United States; there's also a slight emphasis on Canton and Hong Kong.
I highly recommended Swallowing Clouds to anyone curious about Chinese food and culture. It will have particular appeal to those learning Chinese, or curious about Chinese characters, but it is presented in such a way that those without an involvement in the language can easily follow it. Zee's approach is informative but above all fun.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Dr Pui Chi (Percy) Ip, who loved food and learning.