How I Learned Chinese

06/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In first grade I bought a How to Speak Chinese book. I had only learned to read English a year before, but that didn't stop me from trying to decipher it on the bus to Nishuane Elementary School. I gazed at the mysterious characters hoping to learn--as if by osmosis--what they signified. It was a failed experiment.

Since then, I've always been fascinated by China. My favorite movie in middle school was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When it was nominated for Best Picture, I couldn't help but feel it was a tribute to my dedication. And I wasn't surprised when, in high school, the rest of the world started to catch on to sinophilia as well. Of course China's powerful, I thought, they have a million people in their army. As a precocious middle-schooler and Civilization III addict, I placed a lot of stock in CIA World Factbook-endorsed calculations of military might.

But I could never really get behind Chinese food. I went to restaurants from New York to San Francisco without finding satisfaction. It was all too oily, too bland, too slimy.

But in tenth grade, I visited Momofuku Noodle Bar with my best friend Jim. Today, Momofuku is a global brand name, and its chef, David Chang, has received every laurel the culinary community can grant. The storefront that housed the Noodle Bar when I went in 2004 now plays host to the two-Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko. But then, it was still a humble--albeit increasingly beloved--ramen shop.

The food at Momofuku challenged my conceptions of what it meant to cook well. They were serving dishes that were legitimately daring, with ingredients (fish cake, bamboo shoot, Korean dragon sauce) far out of the ordinary for New York haute cuisine. But they did it so directly and unprepossessingly that it just felt natural. Of course we combine silken tofu and shiso with heirloom cherry tomatoes, they seemed to say. They taste great together.

Chang, asked about his inspiration, always cited the authentic Szechuan and Cantonese cuisines of Chinatown and Flushing. I decided to give Chinese another chance.

I did to New York Chinese food what I had already done to Magic cards, SUVs and German expressionism: obsess. I spent hours on foodie message boards trying to find the most authentic restaurants. I trekked around Mott, Bayard, Eldridge in search of hand-pulled noodles and char siu bao zi, the original Momofuku pork buns. When the Times' restaurant critic Frank Bruni proclaimed Szechuan Gourmet in Midtown some of the best Asian in the city, I tasted half the menu over several visits. I became a convert. I was entranced by the mouth-tingling ma la sensation of Szechuan food; I loved the spice, the texture and the variety of China's divergent regional cuisines. Part of my newfound adoration was surely the product of a more adventurous palate, but another part was the discovery of restaurants that were trying to recapture the delight of true Chinese food rather than appeal to American tastes.

Last year, when I was a sophomore at Yale, I was lucky enough to study Chinese food in class. I was taking "Comparative Life-Systems" with Professor Sussman of the German department. The class's scope was as broad as it sounds. I had heard of Professor Sussman as someone who encouraged people to write on topics they love, so when he assigned us to write a research paper on one of the cultures we'd studied, I instantly thought of Chinese food.

What I learned as wrote this 10-page paper enriched my enjoyment of Chinese food even further. I learned the economic reasons for China's various food cultures--in the north, for example, people eat buns and noodles because it's easier to grow wheat than rice in their dry climate. I learned about the subtle cultural underpinnings of the ingredients and flavors used in Chinese cooking.

I also discovered the work of Fuschia Dunlop. In her memoir, Shark's Fin and Szechuan Pepper, she explains how she, a young Cambridge-educated Brit, went to China and ended up one of the foremost Anglophone experts on the country's food. Her training and wide-ranging eating gave her the experience she needed to write the best English cookbook on Szechuan cuisine, Land of Plenty.

Since my mom gave me the book in August, I've cooked countless Szechuan dinners. Mostly, I use Asian chilis and Szechuan peppercorns to stir-fry tofu and scallions--a step up from a typical college dinner, though nothing fancy. But occasionally, I'll have friends over for a real Szechuan dinner: chicken with chilis, dry-fried amaranth, fish-fragrant eggplant. Such recipes defy my friends' expectations of greasy chow fun and reveal the range of one of the world's great food cultures. And for me? It's a sign that, even if I still can't read Mandarin, I've become fluent in Chinese.