SWALLOWING CLOUDS

By A. Zee

Simon and Schuster. 378 pp. $24.95

THE AUTHOR of this charming book -- an informal rumination that takes Chinese cuisine for its jumping-off place -- envisions its traveling in a glove compartment, developing a patina of soy sauce stains as it accompanies the reader into various Chinese restaurants. While you're waiting for your Moo Shoo Pork, Zee suggests, you can use the book to decipher those characters that appear on the left side of your menu. You'll find yourself beginning to recognize the most common radicals: "fire," for instance, and "water" and "fresh," as they combine to form the names of different dishes.

Well, the characters on the left of the lunch menu I first consulted were "A1," "A2", and "A3," but the dinner menu proved more productive. The ideograms Zee had presented so entertainingly stepped forward clear as day: the little flask shape that symbolizes fermentation, the upright four-legged pig tucked into the names of the pork dishes, and the sign for "insect" disconcertingly apparent in every offering containing shellfish. There was the pig under the roof signifying "home-style"; and there too was our old friend Ma Po Bean Curd, which I now knew meant "The Pock-Marked Woman's Bean Curd Dish" and which, I was horrified to see, contained minced pork, when anyone who's read Swallowing Clouds knows it ought to be made with lamb.

Even more interesting, however, was the way my silent, hitherto expressionless waiter, reading the book over my shoulder, all at once volunteered that he had been a language teacher back in his homeland. He proceeded to point out several other characters, and embarked on an enthusiastic discussion of the advantages of the Chinese system of writing. (You can divine the meaning of a word even if you don't know how to pronounce it, he said -- even if it's Japanese instead of Chinese.) While diners elsewhere in the room drummed their fingers on their tabletops, he explained at great length the significance of intonation. ("Ma, ma, ma, and ma," he said, with no variation in tone that I could discern. "All four words so different! How could Westerners find our language too foreign?")

In the end, the calligraphy was the least of what my waiter found to discourse upon, and that seems fitting; for Swallowing Clouds is no mere cookbook-cum-dictionary, in spite of what a cursory glance through its pages may suggest. It is also a study of the very nature of the Chinese culture. You may eventually -- in fact, almost immediately -- forget the symbol for "without." (It's "forty strong men" plus "forest," resulting in a forest "without" trees; got that?) But the chances are you'll remember the sense of delicacy and poetry and the attention to detail exhibited by a people who refer to a fish as a "slicing through water" and who categorize vegetarian dishes as "white silk" and give the name "wonton" -- literally "swallowing clouds" -- to their dumplings. Dishes tend to be called after lowly cooks rather than, as in the West, after kings or divas, and they come complete with ancient folk tales that seem surprisingly gentle and unheroic. That pock-marked woman, for instance, was simply a faithful widow who eked out a living by serving her bean-curd dish to coolies. Thousand-year-old eggs -- which are actually aged only a month or two -- were invented when a young duck-herd repaid a girl's honesty by leaving her some eggs that she failed to find until they had lain soaking for some time in a wet lime pit.

In another writer's hands, this material could have seemed too rarefied, but Zee -- a theoretical physicist born in China and living now in California -- has a quirky, personal style that draws the reader in. "If you are not that interested, you may want to just skim this note," he says modestly, and "As I write this, my mouth starts to water!" He obviously adores his wife, a German-Irish American whose gustatory opinions and cooking methods he describes with pride; and he thanks his mother for providing the small, painstakingly inked characters that dot the text. It's true that he embraces colloquial English a bit too enthusiastically, peppering his remarks with "Hey!" and "Boy!," but this Western-style breeziness does make the lessons slide down painlessly. A particular pork dish is "just cholesterol city itself," and he's not above quoting from a modern martial-arts novel when he wants to make a point.

"Is {Swallowing Clouds} about food or language?" he asks. "Or is it really about culture? I will consider the book a success if I manage to confuse bookstore owners and librarians about where to put the book. The only solution, ladies and gentlemen, is to put it in all three sections -- culture, language, and food."

And don't forget your glove compartment.

Anne Tyler's most recent novel is "Breathing Lessons."