An offhand question from the owner of a bookstore, passed along from one of her customers: "Who is the Marcella Hazan of Chinese cooking?"

Being the Marcella Hazan of anything would be quite a feat. Hazan is an Italian cooking teacher and cookbook author whose books, best-sellers all, have translated Italian cooking for Americans in a way that is satisfyingly authentic without being too demanding. These are flavors, techniques and ingredients that we can at least understand. The format of the Hazan books is attractive and accessible. Her recipes are always delicious and they always work, and their range is comprehensive.

It's tricky to translate cuisines. We may think we want real Chinese food, for example, but the Chinese food we're used to comes mainly from restaurants and may or may not be authentically Chinese. (In fact, the chances are it isn't.) So when a book tries to be truly authentic we might very well be horrified, as in "what do you mean, fermented fish eyes?" Assuming, of course, that the fermented fish eyes were obtainable.

After scanning what's on the market and asking Chinese cooking experts, I discovered that there is no one "Marcella Hazan" of Chinese cooking. There are several names, however, that turn up in discussion, all of them with their particular qualities.

The list begins with Gloria Bley Miller, whose still-classic 1966 book, "The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook" (now available in paperback: Simon and Schuster, 1984, $14.95), sold 200,000 copies in hardback and is still selling. Any cookbook that has been in print for 20 years needs to be taken seriously.

And the most recent names to enter the field as confirmed experts are those of Barbara Tropp and Nina Simonds, both relatively young American women who have studied intensively in China and have devoted their lives to its cuisine. The names to remember in between are Irene Kuo, Virginia Lee and Kenneth Lo. (Ken Hom is another wonderful cookbook author and real expert, but he is more interested at the moment in an intersection between Chinese and French cuisines.)

So where should you start? If you are looking for basic Chinese-restaurant food -- no Szechuan to speak of and nothing too shocking by way of ingredients -- you couldn't do better than "The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook." It is comprehensive, including chapters on the Chinese philosophy of food, regional variations, ingredients, techniques, equipment, even one on teas. And yes, it appears that there are 1,000 recipes in this book.

There is very little chatter in "The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook" and few complications -- hardly any "see page x" references, for example -- and maybe a certain lack of sparkle.

At the opposite end of the chatter-and-sparkle spectrum, then, is Barbara Tropp.

Tropp is respected by others in her profession as a serious scholar of Chinese cuisine. Her 1982 book "The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking" (William Morrow, $24.95) is what could be called a document. Entertaining to read and absolutely confidence-inspiring in its no-stone-unturned agenda, the book is also a bit difficult to cook from.

Recipes tend to be formidably long, although when you read all the way through them you discover that they aren't as difficult as they look. "Strange Flavor Eggplant," for example, runs to more than two pages of small print but is really just a matter of a few ingredients and simple techniques. Tropp does not compromise, however, in terms of ingredients or exotic flavors -- some recipes really are as long and as difficult to execute as they look.

But nowhere else will you get as complete a story to go with your recipes. Some of it is personal recollection, but much is information that will eventually become useful to the purposeful cook even if its relevance is not immediately apparent.

If you are the type who can't read Homer without first mastering ancient Greek, you should find that Tropp matches your way of life.

Nina Simonds has produced two books -- "Classic Chinese Cuisine" (Houghton Mifflin, 1984, $11.95 in paper) and "Chinese Seasons" (Houghton Mifflin, 1986, $19.95) Much of her work has appeared in Gourmet magazine, which excerpted a series of articles based on work done for the first book. Gourmet doesn't fool around with pop-cuisine authors, and to appear there at length is validation of Simonds' expertise.

Simonds is at least as serious a student of Chinese cuisine as Tropp but not nearly so wordy. The recipes are not run-of-the-mill chop suey kind of stuff -- in fact, many of them may present you with completely new ideas even if you are used to eating in Chinese restaurants. But they are not especially difficult to execute, and ingredients are mostly to be found in large supermarkets, which have become quite attentive to the demands of foreign cuisines.

There are some cookbooks in which, for reasons that are uncanny or unknown, certain cooks always find something they want to cook, and right then. Simonds' books are like that for lots of people. And in this way they are comparable to Marcella Hazan's -- on many a page, recipes that sound interesting, look like they will taste good, and aren't too tricky or complex.

Kenneth Lo was educated both in China and at Cambridge, so his cultural background could provide the bridge to the East that Westerners often need. I talked to one expert in Asian cooking who thinks that Kenneth Lo has said everything there is to say about Chinese cooking.

Lo has written more than half a dozen books, all of them on Chinese cuisine and many of them general. One you are likely to see in independent bookstores is a Penguin paperback called -- hold on to your hats -- "Chinese Food" (1972, $4.95.) For a five-buck investment, cheaper than many of the less-serious and marginally authentic paperbacks on the subject, you get a complete introduction to Chinese food as it is eaten in China and as it is eaten abroad (a separate section is devoted to this).

Some of Lo's books may actually be too authentic, however, calling as they do for pigs' trotters and lard and other substances that elicit tortured "eeeyewww's" from most Americans who own woks. And these Americans may be more comfortable with the Chinese-food-abroad section, in which are found all the standard Chinese restaurant preparations. Another problem in the Penguin editions is the British nomenclature, measurements and ingredients. Cornflour, for example, exists in American health food stores, but cornstarch is usually used here in its place. Many Americans don't have scales, and "8 ounces chicken breast" may be difficult to calculate.

Nevertheless, Kenneth Lo is the e'minence grise of Chinese cooking. His style is a bit reminiscent of Elizabeth David's (another e'minence grise, in the cooking of Europe, especially France) in its off-handedness. "Heat oil in frying pan," for example, may not answer all your questions.

So although Lo's books are not without difficulties, if you want the last word from an authentic Chinese expert, seek out any one of his general titles.

Two other general Chinese cookbooks in which you'll find lots you want to cook are "The Key to Chinese Cooking" by Irene Kuo (Knopf, 1984, $19.95) and "The Classic Chinese Cookbook" by Mai Leung (Harper and Row, 1976, $12.95 in paperback). Both of these books are careful and thorough with an underlying wish to instruct. They both cover the range of Chinese cuisines from north to south, and while neither one is stingy with exotic ingredients, they do offer many dishes that can be prepared from what's available in large Washington supermarkets. Kuo's book may be slightly more comprehensive.

So here's the summary: If you are a scholar and love to read cookbooks in bed, buy Barbara Tropp's book.

If you like unusual flavors and authenticity, are a bit adventuresome and require straightforward recipes without a lot of blather, try Nina Simonds.

If you only trust authorities who are a little long in the tooth and already proven, and if you don't mind doing a bit of extrapolation yourself, find Kenneth Lo.

If you are looking for a good, solid, general Chinese cookbook that includes recipes from all regions and for the complete range of Chinese food, look toward Irene Kuo or Mai Leung. Gloria Bley Miller's "Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook" is not a sparkler -- it doesn't advertise its own recipes with lots of poetic language or pep talks -- but it is comprehensive if what you're interested in is anything but spicy.

Finally, if you are only interested in spicy Chinese food -- or at least the food of the Szechuan province -- there is a reissue this year of a 1976 book called "Mrs. Chiang's Szechuan Cookbook" (by Ellen Schrecker with John Schrecker, Harper and Row, 1987, $18.95). I find the graphic organization, with ingredients and procedure listed side by side, confusing. The recipes are by no means fiery hot, but they satisfy the longing for a bit of spice and hot ingredients are listed with variable quantities.

SZECHUANSTART NOTE cqEND NOTE SPICED BEEF SHREDS ON FRIED NOODLES (About 2 servings)

FOR THE BEEF MIXTURE:

12 ounces flank steak (slice paper thin against grain, shred slices into matchstick strips)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 egg white, approximately

1 teaspoon pale dry sherry

2 teaspoons cornstarch

FOR THE SAUCE MIXTURE:

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons pale dry sherry

1 tablespoon Chinese red vinegar or cider vinegar

1 to 2 tablespoons chile oil

1 tablespoon black soy sauce

FOR THE VEGETABLES:

1 teaspoon finely minced ginger root

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 scallions, cut into 1 1/2-inch strips, including green part

1/2 cup bamboo shoots, cut into matchstick strips

1/2 green or red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch strips

2 dried chile peppers, torn into small pieces, seeds reserved

1 tablespoon sesame seed oil

FOR THE NOODLES:

2 to 3 cups oil

1 ounce bean thread noodles

Mix beef ingredients and sauce mixture ingredients separately and set in 2 bowls. Heat oil in wok to deep-fry temperature (350 degrees). Meanwhile, loosen noodles by pulling them apart. Test oil by dropping in a piece of noodle; if it pops up and turns white, the oil is ready. Deep-fry noodles on both sides. (This takes less than a minute.) Drain on paper towels; put on serving platter.

Keep oil hot. Add beef mixture and stir to separate pieces. Blanch briskly until beef just loses its redness. Remove with a strainer to a bowl.

Remove all but 2 tablespoons oil from wok. Heat oil, then add ginger, garlic, scallions, bamboo shoots, bell pepper and chile peppers. Stir-fry for about 15 seconds. Stir in sauce mixture; cook and stir for several seconds. Return beef to wok. Mix well. Add sesame seed oil. Transfer entire contents of wok onto fried noodles. Serve hot.

From "The Classic Chinese Cook Book," by Mai Leung (Harper and Row, 1976, $12.95 in paperback) STIR-FRIED SHRIMP WITH CUCUMBERS AND PINE NUTS (6 servings)

This dish reflects three basic characteristics of eastern regional cooking: It is exquisite in appearance, rich in flavor and sweet in taste. Tiny river shrimp are traditionally used in the recipe because of their sweet and delicate flavor, but even frozen saltwater shrimp are delicious when prepared in this manner.

1 1/2 pounds medium-sized raw shrimp, shelled

FOR THE SHRIMP MARINADE:

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon rice wine

2 slices ginger root, smashed with the flat side of a cleaver

1 teaspoon sesame oil

FOR THE CUCUMBERS:

3 English ("gourmet seedless") cucumbers or 6 pickling cucumbers

4 cups peanut, corn, or safflower oil

2 ounces rice stick noodles

FOR THE MINCED SEASONINGS:

2 teaspoons minced ginger root

1 tablespoon minced scallions

FOR THE SHRIMP SAUCE:

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine

3/4 teaspoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 1/2 tablespoons chicken broth

2 cups pine nuts, roasted in a 325-degree oven until golden brown

Score each shrimp along the length of the back and remove the vein; the scoring will allow the shrimp to "butterfly" when cooked. Rinse all the shrimp and drain thoroughly. Place the shrimp in a linen dish towel and squeeze out as much moisture as possible.

Mix together the shrimp marinade ingredients. Place the shrimp in a separate bowl. Pinch the ginger root slices in the shrimp marinade repeatedly for several minutes to impart the flavor. Add the marinade to the shrimp, toss lightly and let marinate for 20 minutes. Discard the ginger root slices. Trim the ends off the cucumbers and discard. Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise, remove the seeds and cut each half lengthwise into thirds. Roll-cut the lengths into 1-inch pieces {cut the strips into slivers, cutting diagonally off the ends so that they look like spears, and roll the strip of cucumber as you go along}.

Heat a wok, add the oil and heat to 425-degrees, or until smoking. Drop the rice noodles into the hot oil and deep-fry very briefly until they are puffed and lightly golden. (This should take no longer than 5 seconds.) Turn the noodles over and fry for a few seconds more. Remove them and drain on absorbent paper. Transfer the noodles to a platter and break them up lightly with your fingertips; make a slight depression in the center. Remove the oil from the wok, reserving 1/2 cup.

Reheat the wok, add 6 tablespoons of the oil and heat until very hot. Drain the shrimp and add half of them to the hot oil. Stir-fry over high heat for about 1 minute, or until the shrimp change color. Remove with a handled strainer, and drain. Reheat the oil until very hot and stir-fry the remaining shrimp in the same manner. Remove the oil from the wok.

Reheat the wok, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and heat until very hot. Add the minced seasonings and stir-fry for about 10 seconds, until fragrant. Add the cucumber and stir-fry over high heat for about 30 seconds, until they are heated through. Add the shrimp sauce and the shrimp. Toss lightly over high heat for about 20 seconds; then add the pine nuts. Toss lightly to combine the mixture, and spoon it over the fried noodles. Serve immediately.

From "Classic Chinese Cuisine," by Nina Simonds (Houghton Mifflin, 1984, $11.95) WHOLE SEA BASS IN BLACK-BEAN SAUCE (4 servings)

Choose a bright-green stir-fried vegetable.

1 sea bass, about 2 1/2 pounds

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cornstarch for dusting

FOR THE DRY SEASONINGS:

2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and coarsely chopped

4 quarter-sized slices of peeled ginger, coarsely chopped

1 large whole scallion, finely chopped

FOR THE LIQUID SEASONINGS:

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1 teaspoon sugar

3/4 cup water

2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water with 2 tablespoons sesame oil

4 tablespoons oil

Have the fish cleaned and scaled, but leave the head and tail on. Rinse and dry it. Score the fish 3 times on a slant on each side, about 1 inch apart. Sprinkle and rub the salt over the inside and outside. Dust the fish lightly and evenly with the cornstarch.

Prepare the dry seasonings and put them on your working platter. Mix the liquid seasonings (except cornstarch and oil) and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Dissolve the cornstarch in a separate bowl.

Heat a large skillet that will accommodate the fish over high heat until very hot; add the 4 tablespoons oil, swirl and heat for 30 seconds. Slither the fish into the skillet and brown it for 2 minutes. Gently turn the fish over, with 2 spatulas if necessary, and brown it on the other side for 2 minutes. Remove it to a plate.

Add to the skillet all the dry seasonings and stir and toss to explode their flavors. Add the liquid-seasoning mixture and bring to a boil. Return fish to the pan, lower the heat to maintain a very gentle simmering, cover and simmer for 6 minutes. Turn the fish over gently, cover and simmer another 6 minutes. Remove it to a hot serving platter.

Give the cornstarch mixture a big stir, add it to the sauce and stir in a circular motion until it thickens smoothly. Pour it over the fish, scraping all the speckles of dry seasonings on top.

Variation For a hot and spicy sea bass, substitute for the black beans, 1 tablespoon hot bean sauce, and add 2 teaspoons Chenkong vinegar or red wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar to the liquid-seasonings.

From "The Key to Chinese Cooking," by Irene Kuo (Knopf, 1984, $19.95) CUCUMBER, CARROT AND CELLOPHANE NOODLE SALAD (4 to 6 servings)

2-ounce package cellophane noodles

4 cups boiling water, approximately

2 carrots

3 teaspoons salt

2 to 3 cucumbers, depending on their size

2 scallions

6 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground roasted szechuanSTART NOTE: cq END NOTE peppercorns

1 tablespoon hot pepper flakes in oil

Put the dried cellophane noodles in a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. It should only take 10 minutes of soaking at the most for the noodles to become soft. (If for any reason, the noodles do not seem soft enough after you have soaked them for 10 minutes, put them in a saucepan, cover them with water, and let them boil for about 2 minutes.)

Peel the carrots and cut them into very thin strips, 4 inches long and about 1/8 inch wide, the width of a wooden match-stick. (This is not easy; raw carrots are hard to cut, especially with a cleaver. If you have special difficulty try a thin-bladed paring knife.)

Put the carrot shreds into a large bowl, sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt over them and mix them very thoroughly.

Peel the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise and scoop cut the seeds in the middle. Then cut the cucumbers into strips the same size as the carrots. Put the cucumber strips in a bowl, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and let stand for 10 minutes.

Clean the scallions, then cut them, both green part and white, into the same size shreds as the other two vegetables. Put in the bowl with the carrots.

Smash the garlic cloves with the flat side of your cleaver, then peel. Chop the garlic into pieces about the size of a match head. Add the chopped garlic to the carrot and scallion shreds.

Drain the cucumber shreds. Squeeze out as much of their moisture as you can, then add to the shredded vegetable bowl.

Drain the cellophane noodles and chop them coarsely, the way you would cut spaghetti into smaller pieces for a child to eat. Add the cellophane noodles to the shredded vegetable bowl.

Now add the soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, ground roasted szechuan peppercorns, hot pepper flakes in oil and remaining teaspoon salt. Mix thoroughly so the shredded vegetables and noodles are covered with the sauce.

From "Mrs. Chiang's Szechuan Cookbook," by Ellen Schrecker with John Schrecker (Harper and Row, 1987, $18.95)