Françoise Sabban. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Legend has it that when Emperor Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty (sixteenth to eleventh centuries B.C.), appointed his prime minister, he chose Yi Yin, a cook widely renowned for his great professional ability. Indeed, in the Chinese classics (the oldest of which date from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.) the art of proper seasoning and the mastery of cooking techniques are customary metaphors for good government (Chang 1977: 51; Knechtges 1986). Moreover, in certain contexts the expression tiaogeng, literally “seasoning the soup,” must be translated as “to be minister of state!”
That government should be likened to the cooking process is not really surprising, considering that the foremost task of the emperor was to feed his subjects. Seeing the sovereign, the intermediary between heaven and earth, in the role of provider of food is in keeping with a mythical vision of primeval times. According to legend, the first humans, clad in animal skins, lived in caves or straw huts and fed on raw animals, indiscriminately devouring meat, fur, and feathers in the same mouthful. Shennong, the Divine Farmer, one of the mythical Three August Sovereigns and founders of civilization, taught men to cultivate the five cereals and acquainted them with the blessings of agriculture (Zheng 1989: 39) after Suiren had taught them to make fire for cooking their foods. In mythology, cooking is associated with the process of civilization that put an end to the disorder of the earliest ages and led to a distinction between savagery and civilized human behavior.
Throughout Chinese history, the cooking of foodstuffs and the cultivation and consumption of cereals were considered the first signs of the passage from barbarity to culture. Thus the Chinese of the Han ethnic group set themselves apart from surrounding nationalities who, they said, had no knowledge of agriculture or did not know about the cooking of food (Legge 1885: 223; Couvreur 1950, 1: 295; Chang 1977).
Cooking and food, then, were assigned a major role in ancient China. This is very clear in the Zhou Ritual, a compendium describing the idealized administration of the Zhou dynasty (1066-771 B.C.). Written in the fifth century B.C., this compendium indicates that half of the personnel of the imperial palace were occupied in the preparation of food, meaning that more than 2,000 persons were involved in handling the food of the sovereign and his family (Knechtges 1986: 49).
In the third century B.C., the authors of the Lüshi chunqiu, a compendium of the cosmological and philosophical knowledge of the time, credited cook and prime minister Yi Yin with inventing a theory of cuisine and gastronomy that became a major point of reference for posterity. The culinary principles of Emperor Tang’s minister (in fact a set of rules of good government) were to remain the implicit standard adopted by all the subsequent authors of culinary works. Yi Yin classifies all foodstuffs according to their origin, categorizes flavors, indicates the best sources of supply and the best products, and stresses the importance of the mastery of cooking techniques and the harmony of flavors. He points out that raw foods, whether they belong to the vegetable, animal, or aquatic kingdom, have a naturally disagreeable odor, which can be corrected or intensified by the combination of the five flavors and the mastery of the three elements, water, fire, and wood. These techniques make it possible to create, at will, balanced sweetness, sourness with acidity, saltiness without an excess of brine, sharp flavor that does not burn, and delicate but not insipid tastes (Chen Qiyou 1984; Knechtges 1986).
To this day, cuisine in China is implicitly defined as the art of using cooking and seasoning to transform ingredients steeped in savagery—as their unique smells indicate—into edible dishes fit for human beings living in society. Dishes cooked in this manner are not only edible but healthful. In ancient China, all foodstuffs were considered both nutriment and medicine. In principle, the dietary regime was supposed to provide all that was needed to maintain the body’s vital energy. It was—and still is—believed that the first step in treating an illness must be a change of diet and that medications should be brought to bear only if diet proves ineffectual. Foodstuffs were, therefore, classified by their “nature” (hot, cold, temperate, cool) and their flavor (salty, sour, sweet, bitter, acrid) as part of a humoral medicine founded on matching, contrasting, or combining these qualities with those of the illness to be treated. Although there is some controversy as to where ideas of hot and cold foods originated (with Greece and India leading candidates along with China), it is a credit to the great originality of the Chinese that they invented what one might call a “medicinal gastronomy,” which, still in vogue, endeavors to heal by using the pharmacopoeia without sacrificing the aesthetics or the tastes of high-class cuisine.
The Importance of Cereals
Although emperors and the princes enjoyed the privilege of savoring the very finest dishes, they, like everybody else, could not get along without cooked cereals. For in ancient as in modern China, cereals have been assigned the function of nourishing and sustaining life, which has given birth to the model of the Chinese meal, whose antiquity is suggested by the classic texts. When Confucius asserted, for instance, that a little coarse rice washed down with water was enough to make him happy, he meant to indicate that he was humble and modest, but he also was making the point that no one can survive without these two ingredients. In normal times, Confucius liked to eat his rice accompanied by fine dishes and complemented by wine. But he made it clear that the quantity of meat should never exceed that of rice. Underlying this recommendation is the norm that makes cereal the centerpiece of the meal (Legge 1893).
Cereal, or more precisely starch, remains the basic ingredient of the daily meal in China, and despite an increased meat consumption of late in urban areas, a very large majority of the population continues to derive almost 90 percent of its proteins from vegetable foods.
An ordinary meal consists of a starch cooked in water or steamed and a choice of several dishes prepared with meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, and products derived from soybeans. Such a pattern is not peculiar to China. This kind of meal was also the norm in preindustrial Europe and still exists in many countries where foods such as couscous, corn tortillas, polenta, and bread are considered the staff of life. The dishes or sauces that accompany them are more a matter of seasoning and gastronomic pleasure than of dietary bulk.
In China, not all staples have the same status. Two of them, rice and wheat, are the most highly valued, with millet and maize less appreciated. Tuberous plants, such as taros, yams, and white and sweet potatoes, are generally disliked and considered poor substitutes for the prestigious cereals.
From an agricultural point of view, wheat, various millets, and maize are the typical cereals of the north, whereas rice is characteristic of the regions south of the Yangtze River and of western China. But that more wheat buns are eaten in Beijing than in certain poor country places of Guangdong Province is not simply a matter of climate and geography. When in the past the prince and his entourage enjoyed ravioli made of fine wheat flour, the peasant, the soldier in the field, and the hermit made do with gruel, in keeping with their social status (Sabban 1990). Access to “fancy” cereals still depends on a family’s economic situation. Sometimes the inequalities are stark. Whereas prosperity and city living attenuate the differences by offering wide food choices to the inhabitants of Beijing, Shanghai, or Canton (Guangzhout), who thus do not experience the constraints of local supply, poorer people and peasants living far from urban centers have access only to the cheapest local products.
It is, therefore, only on festive occasions that ordinary people treat themselves to a good banquet, during which they almost dismiss the tyranny of the daily cereal. On such occasions cooked dishes become the center of the meal, and when rice or steamed buns are served at the end, the guests will casually take only a mouthful or two. For once, they have filled up on dishes that ordinarily only complement the meal. Such short-lived disdain for a foodstuff that is venerated in day-to-day life is a way of expressing one’s pleasure and satisfaction.
The Historical Roots of the Different Chinese Cuisines
In an area larger than that of Europe, the territory of China stretches some 5,000 kilometers from the Siberian border in the north to the tropics in the south and a similar distance from the Pamir Mountains in the west to the shores of the Yellow Sea in the east. This climatic and geographical diversity makes for a variety of Chinese cuisines. However, the division of China into gastronomic regions is relatively recent and does not obscure the ancient contrast between North and South China, which is as pertinent as ever.
As already suggested, the production of different cereals as basic staples has made North China and South China two distinct entities with identifiable political, cultural, and economic roots. Throughout Chinese history the location of the capital has moved back and forth between the north and the south, and with it the court and the decision-making bodies. Such shifts also meant that each new capital became the center of innovation in fashions and taste, and on such occasions the other part of the Chinese world was made to adopt the values and views of the capital.
This struggle for preeminence has always been mirrored in the cuisine and food habits of the Chinese. A political exile, for instance, might evoke a specific food to signify his homesickness and indignation about the injustice he is suffering. Or, again, one who has betrayed an unfamiliarity with foods peculiar to the “other” China gives a reason for others to stigmatize his or her ignorance, or naivete, or haughtiness.
The strong allusive value of some foodstuffs that assumed the rank of regional emblems thus made deep or nuanced comparisons unnecessary.
As we have seen, wheat was to the north what rice was to the south. Most characteristically northern, however, were the breads, cakes, and wheat-based noodles, all subsumed under the generic term bing until the end of the Tang (A.D. 618-907) (Sabban 1990). These foodstuffs were highly appreciated by the aristocracy and identified those who ate them as “northerners,” as did mutton and milk products.
The cuisine of the south, by contrast, was characterized by rice and also by pork, vegetables, and fish. Indeed, as shown by archaeological findings from ancient times and supported by more recent texts, fish have long occupied an important dietary role for the Chinese, who very early developed techniques of pisciculture. But even more important than pond-raised aquatic animals were the freshwater fish and shellfish present in the rice paddies of the lower Yangtze River. In this area, covered with rivers, lakes, and streams, large carp grew naturally along with an abundance of vegetables.
If before the Song (A.D. 960-1279), the northerners with their noodles, butter, and milk tended to elevate their own preferences as the standard of taste, the southerners were occasionally able to defend their indigenous products. King Wu of Jin who reigned from A.D. 266 to 290, for instance, unfavorably compared lao—a kind of yoghurt made from the milk of sheep and highly prized for its excellence in the north at the time—with a soup made of young aquatic plants growing in the southern lakes (Xu Zhen’e 1984).
Between the end of the Tang and the beginning of the Song, the center of gravity of Chinese civilization shifted from the north to the south. Subsequently, the Song period marked the rise of a new urban society and of a nationwide economy based on a network of transportation and distribution (Shiba 1970). Kaifeng and Hangzhou, the respective capitals of the northern and southern Song dynasties, were the scenes of an unprecedented mixing of populations, for it was here that inhabitants of north and south, as well as people from Sichuan, met and mingled. In this encounter, each group became conscious of its own food habits. Once they were recognized as distinct, the culinary styles of the north, the south, and Sichuan could be combined and finally become the cuisine of the capital.
In a parallel development, the discourse on cooking and food habits assumed new dimensions. The food of the emperor and his entourage had always been commented upon, and it was understood that the governing class and the well-to-do ate choice dishes (and sometimes too much of them), whereas the rest of the population, in keeping with its rank, consumed coarse cereals and vegetables. Before the Song period, testimonies to these contrasting habits were rare and widely scattered. Only the recipes of the agricultural treatise Qimin yaoshu, written in the fourth century by a northern notable, provided a glimpse of the tastes of the contemporary elites (Shi Shenghan 1982).
In the Song period, the discourse on food practices began to take a larger view. Although the opposition between north and south remained at its core, some attention was now paid to other, more remote and even foreign regions, and, at times, value judgments yielded to quasi-ethnological descriptions. In this way, the customs and cuisines of foreign peoples came to be considered as legitimate as those of the Chinese. Thus, the culinary part of a household encyclopedia of the early fifteenth century contains a list of Muslim recipes and another of Jürchet (also Juchen or Jurchen) recipes (Qiu Pangtong 1986). It is true that beginning in the late thirteenth century, the Mongol domination added impetus to the greater openness that had emerged in the Song period. A diet book containing many recipes, visibly influenced by foreign customs practiced in central Asia and India, was written in Chinese by the court dietician and presented to Emperor Tuq Temür in 1330 (Sabban 1986a).
In the sixteenth century, the literati Wang Shixing commented on the proverb “[t]hose who dwell on the mountain live off the mountain, those who haunt the seashore live off the sea” by noting that
the inhabitants of the southern seashore eat fish and shrimp, whose odor makes the people of the north sick, while the men of the northern frontiers consume milk and yoghurt that southerners find nauseating. North of the Yellow River, people eat onions, garlic, and chives, which do them much good, whereas south of the Yangzi people are chary of spicy foods. (Wang Shixing 1981: 3)
Then he tolerantly and wisely concluded: “These are ways peculiar to different regions, and any attempt to make them uniform by force would be useless.”
Beginning with the Qing or Manchu dynasty (A.D. 1644-1912), regional differences of cuisine were no longer perceived as the traceable consequences of geographic and climatic diversity but rather as veritable styles defined by a series of criteria involving the nature of the ingredients, seasonings, and types of preparation. The schema founded on three culinary styles, and supplemented by the cuisine of Sichuan dating from the Song period, gave rise to the notion of a China divided into four major gastronomical regions. But as the country’s frontiers expanded as a result of the Manchu domination, what was called the “North” stretched even farther north, reaching as far as Shandong, Beijing, and Tianjin; the “South” came to include Zhejiang and Jiangsu, as well as Anhui, with the region of Canton becoming the country’s “Deep South.”The West still meant Sichuan but also came to include Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan, and Hubei.
This division is still recognized today, although the limits of these four regions are often drawn very loosely. For example, the cuisine of Canton is seen as including that of Fujian Province and Taiwan, which may not be altogether justified. Nonetheless, once travelers from Beijing have crossed the Yangtze River, they are in the south, and everything is different for the palate.
A regional cuisine is defined by certain dishes, by the frequent use of certain modes of cooking, by the use of specific ingredients, and especially by its condiments and spices—in short, by the tastes that set the one Chinese cuisine apart from all the others.
North of the Yellow River, garlic and onions have always been in favor, as Wang Shixing said long ago. Peking duck, with its fat and crunchy skin, must absolutely be eaten with a garnish of raw scallions and sweet sauce, tianmianjiang. The aroma of mutton blends with that of garlic, and the taste of balsamic vinegar cleanses these strong flavors with its tempered acidity.
Sichuan has the strongest condiments and spices, and the sharpest among them, chilli pepper and fagara, or Sichuan pepper (Xanthoxylum Piperitum), are highly prized. Together with sesame oil or puree and fermented broad bean paste (doubanjiang), they are used to flavor dishes and produce harmonies of flavors bearing such evocative names as “strange flavor” (guai wei), “family flavor” (jiachang wei), or “hot-fragrant” flavor (xiangla wei).
The inhabitants of the low-lying plains of the Yangtze, a land of fish and rice, produce the most tender vegetables and raise the biggest carp and the fattest crabs. They slowly simmer dishes of light and subtle flavor enlivened by the presence of refreshing ginger and the fillip of Shaoxing wine. This is the only region of China where gentle flavors and sweet-and-sour tastes are truly appreciated and beautifully cooked.
The complexity and richness of Cantonese cuisine cannot be reduced to a few dominant flavors, for the art of the Cantonese cook is characterized by mastery in blending different flavors or, alternatively, permitting each one of them to stand out on its own. Seafood, however, is one of the main features of this cuisine. Its preparation emphasizes freshness by, for instance, simply steaming a fish au naturel. Oyster sauce is used to season poached poultry, fish, and briefly blanched green vegetables. But Canton is also famous for its roasted whole suckling pigs and its lacquered meats hung up as an appetizing curtain in the windows of restaurants.
China’s culinary diversity can also be seen in the streets, where itinerant vendors sell small specialties (xiaochi) to hungry passersby at all hours of the day. Soups, fritters, skewers, fried, cooked, or steamed ravioli, cakes, crepes, tea, fruit juice—the choices seem infinite, though they depend, of course, on the season and the region. In the streets of Beijing, skewers of caramelized haws are offered in winter, whereas ruby-red slices of watermelon appear on the hottest days of summer.
To this mosaic of practices, habits, and tastes, one must add the cuisines of some 50 ethnic minorities. Among these are those of Turkish origin living in the autonomous region of Xinjiang and the Hui families, who in every other way are indistinguishable from the Han Chinese disseminated throughout the territory. These Islamic communities have developed a “Chinese” cuisine from which pork and all its derivatives are absent but are replaced with mutton and beef, which are consumed after Islamic ritual slaughtering.
Nor must one forget su cooking, which goes back very far and was already highly regarded under the Song. Based on the exclusion of all animal foods, this cuisine was adopted by the Buddhists and others who wished to eat a meatless or light diet. In their gastronomic version, su dishes bear the names of normal meat-containing dishes, and the cook’s art consists of using vegetable ingredients to reproduce the taste, consistency, and shape of the meat normally included in these dishes.
Such diversity might make it appear as if there were no Chinese cuisine but several Chinese cuisines, and it is true that there is no haute cuisine without regional roots or affiliation with a genre (be it su, Islamic, or even traditional court cooking) that imparts its rhythm, its style, and its specific flavors to a gourmet meal. Nonetheless, everyday cooking is the same from one end of China to the other in its principles and its results. Throughout the territory, people use the same flavoring agents, namely soy sauce, ginger, scallions, and chilli peppers, supplemented, to be sure, by local condiments. Moreover, certain originally regional dishes, among them “Mother Ma’s soy curds,” “vinegar carp of the Western Lake,” and “sweet-sour pork,” have become so widely known that they are on the menu of ordinary restaurants in all parts of the country.
The Principles of Cooking Technique
The Chinese word for “to cook” is pengtiao, composed of two morphemes signifying, respectively, “to cook” and “to season.” In China, cooking foods and combining their flavors are thus two equally important operations.
Certain condiments, as well as mastery of the techniques of chopping and cooking—which, in turn, are related to the use of specialized tools such as the wok and chopsticks—are indispensable in the practice of Chinese cooking. In other words, there is a close connection between the manners of the eater and the work of the cook. Small pieces and foods that can be broken up without using a knife are better suited to the use of chopsticks than any other food. But it would be naive to attribute the functioning of the Chinese culinary system merely to the way food is served and eaten, for Chinese cooking developed out of the interaction of all its constituent parts.
A clear distinction must be made, however, between day-to-day cooking designed to feed a family as economically as possible and professional cooking by specialists highly trained in every technique. The endeavors of the latter have nothing to do with necessity and are exclusively concerned with providing satisfaction and pleasure to the senses.
Characteristic of cooking in the home is the chopping of ingredients into uniform small pieces, followed by their rapid cooking, usually sautéing in a semispherical iron skillet or wok. The cooking is done with little fat but with a gamut of seasonings dominated by soy sauce, fresh ginger, scallions, sesame oil, Chinese vinegar, fagara, and chilli peppers. Such preparation of food makes for a remarkable economy of equipment. In addition to a rice cooker, all that is needed to prepare any dish is a chopping board—a simple tree “slice” 5 to 10 centimeters in thickness—a cleaver, the wok, and a cooking spatula.
In the city most people cook on a gas ring; in the countryside they have a brick stove with several holes in the top so that the wok can be placed directly over the flame. Since fuel is scarce and expensive, it is always used sparingly, which has given rise to the widespread practice of quick stir-frying over high heat. Sometimes the cook will make use of the heat generated by cooking the rice to steam one of the dishes of the meal above the rice on the rice cooker. Several different dishes are cooked in the same wok, one right after the other, but this is done so rapidly that they have little time to cool. And even if they do cool, the rice, always served piping hot, will provide a balance.
Becoming a professional cook demands long years of apprenticeship under the watchful eye of a great chef, and before the aspiring kitchen boy can himself become a chef, he must pass through all the work stations. If he chooses the specialty of meat and vegetable cooking, he will go to the “red work bench” (hongan), where he will learn all about chopping and carving, composing, cooking techniques, and seasoning. If he prefers the white vest of the “pastry cook” he will go to the “white work bench” (baian) to learn the meticulous art of preparing little dishes made from flours and cereals, including the proper cooking times for pasta products.
A great chef does not, of course, have to be concerned with economy, for he is called upon to use ingredients to their best advantage and to bring out their quintessential flavor by treating them according to the rules of the subtle and difficult techniques he has mastered. He will, thus, use the hump or the heels of a camel without worrying about the rest of the animal when asked to create two of the great dishes of the haute cuisine of North China. Nor is there any economy in the use of fat, a great deal of which is used for deep frying, a practice generally absent from family cooking. Ovens, which are unknown in private homes, are part of the equipment of professional kitchens, particularly in restaurants located in such culinary regions as Beijing or Canton, where roast meat is a specialty.
Even though the same basic principles inform both the great gastronomy and the home cooking of China, professional practice gives cooking a scope and a complexity that cannot possibly be achieved at home. And so one usually turns to a restaurant if one wants to taste the grand specialties prepared with rare, costly, and such delicate ingredients as shark fins, bird’s nests, sea cucumbers, abalones, shark’s skin, and mountain mushrooms.
A Rich Repertory of Products and Condiments
Because most Chinese enjoy such a wide variety of foods, it is often asserted that there are no food taboos in China. In fact, the Chinese make the claim themselves, even though they recognize that China’s Muslims avoid pork and devout Buddhists reject all flesh as well as garlic and onions. Doubtless, such a claim stems, in part, from the popular understanding that a number of unexpected animal species such as the cat, the dog, the snake, and even the anteater end up as a ragout under the chopsticks of Cantonese food lovers, and from the knowledge that Chinese cooks do not, in principle, shun any edible product as long as they are able to prepare it according to the rules of the art. Indeed, haute cuisine calls for “the precious fruits of sea and mountain,” essentially animal by-products whose consumption is limited because they are so rare and costly. If their strangeness strikes the imagination, they are not the only gustatory exotica that speak to the originality and the history of China’s culinary repertory.
Such consumption of animal foods has a long history in China despite the frequent assertion that the country was traditionally a kind of “vegetal kingdom.” Neither hunting nor pastoral activities were proscribed in ancient China and both classical written sources and archaeological findings testify to the importance of cattle breeding in ancient and medieval China. The first millennium of the Christian era probably paralleled the “golden age” of domestication in China in which the utilization of draft animals and the production of meat products gave rise to increasing leisure (and increasing warfare). It has only been in more recent times that activities leading to meat production and to specialized breeding of animals for hunting have become progressively marginalized (Cartier 1993; Elisseeff 1993).
China also stands out for the exceptional richness of vegetal species grown and eaten there—many times more than the fruits and vegetables known in the West. Moreover, these plants are used in an intensive manner, and roots, stems, leaves, shoots, seeds, and sometimes flowers are all exploited for their respective qualities.
The original stock of plants in China was later supplemented by large numbers of new plants, which were very quickly assimilated. As early as the first century B.C. the Chinese acclimatized plants imported from central Asia (which had mostly reached there from the Near East, India, and Africa) such as cucumbers, coriander, peas, sesame, onions, grapes, and pomegranates. Under the Tang (618-907), spinach was acquired from Persia. This was a time when there was great interest in the exotic, and in North China, fresh fruits that grew in faraway southern countries were highly prized. Thus we know that citrus fruit and litchi were carried from Lingnan (today in the Canton region) by special courier for Empress Yang Guifei.
Finally, in the mid-sixteenth century under the Ming, the “American plants” appeared in the coastal areas of Fujian and Guangdong, with the Portuguese and their ships instrumental in bringing maize, sweet potatoes, and peanuts to China. The tomato did not become known until the following century, and the chilli pepper had to await the eighteenth century. These new arrivals became highly popular in China, and scholars subsequently went so far as to attribute the country’s population growth in the eighteenth century to the availability of maize and the sweet potato (Ho Ping-ti 1955). The chilli pepper wrought a deep change in the fundamental taste of the cuisines of Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan, which are known today for their highly spiced character.
To these expanding natural resources must be added a large number of “processed” foods made from meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit and subsequently used in the culinary process as basic ingredients or condiments. These processed foods have their own history, for their production is predicated on the availability of the appropriate technologies. The oldest texts (of the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.) mention the names of forcemeats, coulis, and seasoning sauces, as well as vinegars, pickled and fermented vegetables, and “smoked and salted meats,” all of which shows beyond a doubt that aside from day-today cooking there was already a whole food “industry” founded on foresight and the stockpiling or conservation of foodstuffs.
The oldest example of this kind of organization is provided by the description of the ideal functioning of the imperial household of the Zhou in the Zhou Ritual. The household administration naturally included brigades of pigtailed officials in charge of preparing the daily meals, along with pork butchers (laren), the wine steward (jiuzheng), and the employees of the manufactory of spiced preserves (yanren) and of vinegar (xiren) (Biot 1851; Lin Yin 1985).
For the period before the sixth century of the current era we have no idea what these functions involved or, rather, what items were produced under the supervision of these officials. A weighty agricultural treatise of this period devotes a fourth of its space to food preparation. This section contains as many cooking recipes in the narrow sense as it does recipes pertaining to brewing, pickling, malting, and preserving. All of these recipes testify to great expertise and to the widespread use of preserved foods (Shih Sheng-han 1962). The most remarkable, and probably the oldest, of these recipes are those for making seasoning sauces by fermenting grains and legumes and the more than 20 recipes for different vinegars, which are also obtained by subjecting cooked cereals to acetic fermentation. In addition, this text contains a large number of recipes for pickled vegetables, “smoked and salted meats,” and, of course, alcoholic beverages, the role and importance of which in Chinese culture we shall examine next.
Contrary to what one might expect, however, this treatise does not even allude to certain products that are today considered the very emblems of Chinese cooking. An example is soy sauce, which is so universally used in our day. Then it was probably perceived as nothing more than the residual liquid of a spicy paste until the Song period, when it became clearly identified with its own name. Similarly, the clotting of soy milk for a curd called doufu (tofu) seems to have been unknown in the written sources until the tenth century, when the first reference to this subject can be found (Hong Guangzhu 1987: 8).
Conversely, some foods that have almost disappeared today seem to have enjoyed a certain vogue in the past. Lao, for example, which is a kind of fermented milk, and butter were luxury foods highly prized by the upper classes of society, at least until the end of the Song (Sabban 1986b). The reputation of these products (and the taste for them) lasted until the Qing period, although they were probably difficult to obtain outside of court circles, which had access to cows and ewes as well as to a “dairy” that produced for the emperor and his entourage. Perhaps the popularity of the Beijng yoghurt today and the recent fashion of “dairy cafés” offering traditional sweets made of milkcurd are vestiges of these ancient and prestigious treats.
This entire food “industry” was predicated on a remarkable knowledge of the phenomenon of fermentation, which is still used in the production of popular ready-to-use condiments such as soy sauce (jiangyou), salted black beans (douchi), sweet-salty sauce (tianmianjiang), and fermented broad bean paste (doubanjiang).
In addition to these condiments produced by fermentation, the Chinese developed original techniques for turning plant materials into edible substances much sought after for their consistency, their malleability, and their taste. In this category one finds a considerable variety of noodles made with cereal or leguminous plant flours. Mianjin, or “gluten,” is a kind of firm but elastic dough obtained by rinsing a sponge of wheat flour. Also used are all the secondary products of soy milk, such as fresh or dried curd and its skin and gelatin. The textures of these particular substances have stimulated the imaginations of many cooks; thus, they not only have played a vital role in the development of su cooking diffused by Buddhist temples but also have made their mark on home cooking and on the cuisine of great restaurants. In this area the Chinese developed a technical prowess that may well be unmatched by other societies (Sabban 1993).
A Culture of Alcoholic Beverages
China is known as the land of tea, but in fact alcohol has been drunk there longer than the brew of the plant that has conquered the world. Yet tea has come to overshadow the other Chinese beverages called jiu. Difficult to translate into Western languages, this word jiu designates today all alcoholic liquids, from the lightest beer to the strongest distilled alcohol, with wines made from grapes and rice and sweet liqueurs in the middle.
Before the advent of distillation, which is generally assumed to have occurred around the fourteenth or fifteenth century, jiu meant all alcoholic beverages obtained through the fermentation of cereals. But these were not beers whose fermentation was induced by malt, such as are found in several other ancient societies, but rather beverages with alcohol contents of between 10 and 15 percent obtained through a “combined fermentation” that called for the preliminary production of an ad hoc ferment that subsequently started the fermenting process in a mash of cooked cereals (Needham 1980; Sabban 1988). Each of these two processes involved fairly lengthy preparation and maturation. The cereal, the water, and the ferment (qu) were so indissolubly associated that the Chinese sometimes compared the jiu that had resulted from their transmutation to a body in which the cereal occupied the place of the flesh and muscle, the ferment that of the skeleton, and the water, like blood, irrigated all the veins.
This original technique, which subsequently spread to Japan, Korea, and all of Southeast Asia, has existed in China for a very long time. The first texts that have come down to us allude to the precise fermenting time of the qu needed for making jiu (Hong Guangzhu 1984). The “invention” of this precious liquid is attributed to Du Kang, a legendary figure venerated as the “immortal of jiu ” who is the object of a cult in several villages of North China. He is supposed to have lived at the end of the Shang dynasty (1324-1066 B.C.). We do know from the texts and from an abundance of magnificent utensils found in archaeological sites that the Shang aristocrats loved to drink, and there is evidence that some of their predecessors had also succumbed to this passion. In fact, the production of alcoholic beverages in China seems to go all the way back to the end of the Neolithic and perhaps even further. The site of Dawenkou in Shandong (4000 B.C.) has yielded a great variety of earthen vessels used for preserving, storing, and consuming alcoholic beverages.
There is no question that since the presumed time of their appearance alcoholic beverages have enjoyed considerable popularity in China. The sixth-century agricultural treatise Qimin yaoshu gives more than 30 recipes, each one for a specific beverage identified by its mode of production, its ingredients, and its flavor, color, strength, and so forth (Shi Shenghan 1982). We also learn from the texts that these beverages played an important role at all levels of society. Their production was controlled by the institution of state monopolies in the course of the first dynasties, and there were times when their consumption was forbidden. Every ritual involved alcoholic beverages as offerings to the gods or the ancestors. But alcohol was regularly used for more mundane purposes, and families were consequently ruined and promising careers cut short. In a word, it is clear that alcoholic beverages were present at every moment of people’s lives. In the sixteenth century 70 kinds of jiu were counted (Du Shiran et al. 1982), and to this profusion should be added the exotic “grape wines” imported from central Asia, which became very fashionable in court circles under the Han and the Tang.
Alcoholic beverages maintain their importance in the present. No banquet, for example, would be complete without them. Indeed, the ceremony of marriage is referred to by the expression he xijiu or “drinking the wine of happiness,” and each of the guests is invited to raise a glass in honor of the bride. The latter, as she was already enjoined to do in the ritual books of the third and fourth centuries B.C., must exchange a goblet with the groom. To testify to their mutual commitment, betrothed couples no longer drink out of the two halves of the same gourd but now cross their arms and give to each other the goblet they hold in their hands.
In eastern Zhejiang, a region where the production of a renowned rice wine is a tradition, people would bury several earthenware jars of good wine at the birth of a child and not open them until the day of his or her marriage. A family celebration without alcoholic beverages is unthinkable, and even on the occasion of a funeral it is customary to offer a drink to friends who have come to salute the deceased for the last time. Seasonal and religious festivities as well have always included generous libations, and until the advent of the republic in 1912 the winter solstice was celebrated with libations to heaven performed by the emperor and his ministers, whereas families made offerings of alcohol to their ancestors.
Alcoholic beverages are also items of gastronomy consumed for no particular reason at a drinking party or to accompany a meal. Drinking with friends is a social activity mentioned in the oldest literature. In grave no. 1 of the Mawangdui site dating from the Eastern Han period (about 168 B.C.), where the spouse of the Marquis of Dai is buried, the arrangement of the objects contained in the northernmost funerary chamber is thought to represent the deceased seated at a lacquered table laden with meat dishes and goblets containing two kinds of wine. There is little doubt that this scene depicts either a drinking party or the first part of a banquet devoted, as usual, to the drinking of alcoholic beverages (Pirazzoli-t’-Serstevens 1991).
Although drinking parties sometimes had a political function, for instance when the seating arrangements concretely showed patterns of social hierarchy (Yü Ying-shih 1979), they were mainly moments of joy and exaltation. Almost all the poets have devoted some of their writings to the celebration of wine and the inspiring inebriation it brings. Poets of the Tang and Song period felt that wine was as necessary as paper, brush, and ink, and there was no lack of hardened drinkers among the rhymesters. It is even said that once when the great Li Bai (701-62) was in his cups, he thought that he could catch the moon when he saw its quivering reflection in the river and so perished by drowning. Perhaps it was a befitting end for a poet who, certain of his modern confreres do not hesitate to say, was permanently steeped in alcohol.
Drinking in China is a form of entertainment and a way to shed inhibitions. Sometimes it also gives rise to games and contests that make the losers drink more and more. At popular banquets the game of morra marks the time for drinking amid peals of laughter and screams of excitement. The famous eighteenth-century novel The Dream in the Red Pavilion furnishes a fine example of the jousts associated with wine drinking in literary circles: Any participant who did not succeed in improvising a song or poem with prearranged constraints within a limited time was made to drain his cup on the spot.
Although getting drunk is the admitted aim of these drinking bouts, drinking without eating is unthinkable. In order to “make the wine go down” (xiajiu), one must sip it while nibbling at some tid-bits or little dishes that not only fill the stomach but also sharpen one’s thirst, although they should never distract the drinker from the appreciation of the wine.
The social standing of the drinker determines how fancy these indispensable accompaniments can be. A small bowl of fennel-toasted beans is all there was for poor Kong Yiji, the hero of a novel of Lu Xun, who occasionally treated himself to a nice bowl of warm wine at the corner tavern (Yang and Yang 1972). By contrast, goose braised in marc, pork of five flavors, fish with crayfish eggs, and the finest specialties of Suzhou carefully selected to go with the drinks were enjoyed by Zhu Ziye, the gourmet of the recent novel by Lu Wenfu (Lu Wenfu 1983). A contemporary of poor Kong Yiji, Zhu Ziye was vastly more wealthy.
The prewar taverns no longer exist, and the wine of Shaoxing is now rarely served warm, but people never fail to drink at a banquet or any other celebration. The choice of beverages has become wider: There are now clear alcohols made of rice or sorghum like the famous maotai and wines made of glutinous rice, the best of which is probably the yellow wine of Shaoxing. In addition, there is osmanthusflavored liqueur, grape wines, which are now produced in China, and also port wine and even cognac.
Beer has been regularly consumed ever since it was introduced by the Europeans early in this century. “Qingdao,” the best known and most renowned brand, is manufactured at Qingdao in Shandong, a town and region taken over in 1897 by the Germans, who established a brewery there in 1903 (Wang Shangdian 1987). Today, beer is the first alcoholic beverage people will buy if they are looking for a little treat.
The Art of Making Tea
Appearing much later than alcoholic beverages, tea began to acquire considerable importance in the Tang period, when its use became widespread. At first it was perceived as a serious competitor of wine, which it implicitly is to this day. Certain “weak natures” who could not tolerate alcohol very well actually replaced wine with tea when they attended official drinking parties. A Discourse on Tea and Wine (Wang Zhongmin 1984) from the late Tang period pits Tea against Wine in a debate that allows each of them to argue and preach in favor of his own brotherhood. Wine calls himself more precious than his opponent and better able to combat death, whereas Tea accuses Wine of causing the ruin of families and prides himself on being a virtuous drink of beautiful color that clears away confusion. But in the end Wine and Tea make peace when Water reminds them that without her neither of them amounts to much and that they should get along, since tea often helps to dissipate the vapors of drunkenness. And it is true that infusions of tea were first used for medicinal purposes (Sealy 1958; Chen Chuan 1984). Tea, however, very quickly became much more than a mere remedy.
Part of its enormous success can be attributed to its commercial value both within and without the borders of China, in nearby regions, and throughout the world. Of the three stimulating beverages—coffee (from Ethiopia and Yemen), tea (from China), and cocoa (from the New World)—that the Europeans “discovered” in the late Renaissance, tea was the most widely disseminated and is still the most commonly consumed today. China gave us this custom of drinking tea, which also took root in Japan, Korea, and northern India. It should be noted that all of the tea consumed in western Europe was initially imported from China until the British broke this monopoly by launching their highly successful tea plantations in Ceylon and India toward the end of the nineteenth century.
Sichuan was the cradle of the decoction of a bitter plant thought to be tea, which was probably first used toward the end of the Western Han period (206-23). The names employed at the time are still somewhat doubtful, but the plant was clearly Camellia sinensis. At that time tea was not infused but prepared in decoction, perhaps seasoned with salt, onions, ginger, or citrus peels, and its leaves were sometimes simmered in cooked dishes. Clearly this was a far cry from what we call “tea” today. Two factors are thought to have facilitated the spread of tea throughout China to its northern most frontiers, beginning with the Sui (581-618) and the Tang (618-907). One is that tea soon came to be an item of tribute and, thus, became known and appreciated in court circles. The other has to do with the vigorous growth of Buddhism between the beginning of the Christian era and the Tang period. It is reported that tea was a great help to Buddhist monks, whose religion prohibited the drinking of “intoxicating” beverages like wine and whose practice of meditation demanded fasting and staying awake for many hours at a time. Tea plantations therefore followed the founding of Buddhist temples in the mountains.
Most would agree, however, that it was Lu Yu, author of the famous Classic of Tea (Carpenter 1974; Lu Yu 1990), who in the middle of the eighth century provided the Chinese culture of tea with its veritable birth certificate. The Tang period, moreover, marks the beginning of the “tea policy” adopted by the Chinese government. More or less successful, depending on the period, this policy, which lasted until the Qing period, regulated the monopoly, the tribute, and the taxation of tea and monitored an official trade in which tea was exchanged for “barbarian” horses on the country’s northern and northeastern frontiers. Doubtless the vast scope of tea consumption and the potential profits of its cultivation played a decisive role in the elaboration of this policy. Lu Yu himself probably only codified and formally described the practices and the techniques peculiar to his time and to the literati. His work in three chapters was devoted to the origins, the cultivation, the processing, and the drinking of tea. It had enormous influence on the rise of the culture of tea, which developed not only in China but in Japan as well.
Lu Yu’s work gave rise to an endless number of treatises that either followed in the same vein or provided more elaborate information. It is important to note that in China—unlike Japan, where tea was associated with a Zen discipline—the art of tea was always in the realm of practical “know-how,” somewhat ritualized but only done so to encourage a more thorough enjoyment of life. Lu Yu explains the comparative merits of different beverages in perfectly straightforward terms: “To quench one’s thirst, one should drink water; to dissipate sadness and anger, one should drink wine; to drive away listlessness and sleepiness, one should drink tea” (Fu Shuqin and Ouyang Xun 1983: 37). But despite such straightforwardness, he insists that the processing, preparation, and drinking of tea must be done according to the rules, and he heaps scorn on those who, believing that they are drinking tea, settle for “stuff that has washed out of the rain spout” (Fu Shuqin and Ouyang Xun 1983: 37).
It goes without saying that although Lu Yu was sometimes worshiped as the “God of Tea,” planters, processors, and lovers of the divine brew have gone beyond the master’s instructions. As processing techniques evolved, they led to modifications in the preparation of tea and changes in the consumers’ tastes. As early as the Tang period, “steam wilting” was discovered, a technique that made it possible to free the brew of its “green taste.” Then, under the Song, planters began to wash the leaves before wilting them, and loose-leaf tea replaced the kind that had hitherto been pressed into “cakes” that had to be crumbled before being used in decoctions. In the early Ming period the growing taste for loose-leaf tea spelled the victory of infusions over decoctions. The leaves of C. sinensis were now mixed with fragrant flower petals whose scent is imparted to the infusion. Today the best known of these infusions is jasmine tea.
In the Tang period, several local teas had already acquired a great reputation, and by the Song period 41 kinds of tea were considered worthy of serving as tributes. Today there are three major types of Chinese teas: green tea, oolong tea, and black tea. Green tea, which is the kind most frequently consumed in China and Japan, is not made to undergo fermentation, whereas oolong tea, most popular in the southern provinces, is semifermented. Black teas, mainly produced for export, are called “fermented.”
Drinking and serving tea today are such commonplace activities that they do not elicit any commentary. Wherever they might be, people can expect to find a thermos of boiling hot water, covered mugs, and tea leaves ready to be steeped. In any waiting or reception area, the visitor is offered tea. Tea is never drunk with the meal. But when invited to share a meal, visitors are always received with a cup of tea. And this little offering is repeated to mark the end of the meal. On all such occasions this gesture must be made, whether or not the tea is actually drunk.
Every Chinese worker—blue or white collar—and every traveler carries a glass receptacle whose lid is tightly closed over some hot water in which a small handful of tea is steeping. In the course of the day more water is added and the liquid becomes paler and paler. This type of consumption, which in Taiwan is facilitated by automatic dispensers, is suited to the normal use of tea conceived as a mildly stimulating internal lubricant that will aid the digestion. The tea used throughout the day is usually of rather poor quality and in principle affordable for everyone. In lean times, the habit continues even without tea and people drink hot water, calling it “tea.”
Along with such routine tea drinking in all parts of the country, the southern provinces have developed a veritable culture of tea. Every town or village has its “tea house,” which can be quite modest, where people go to relax, to talk to their friends, and to share and comment on the latest news. These “tea parlors” have a long history in China. Indeed, those of the capitals of the northern and southern Song have become legendary thanks to the authors of the Descriptions of the Capital (Gernet 1962), who vaunted their lively and refined character.
In Canton and its region, however, and in Hong Kong, too, tea drinking is a more serious matter, as is everything that involves food. In Canton, the gastronomic capital of China, there are vast numbers of establishments that from morning until midafternoon offer tea lovers the opportunity to order a large pot of their favorite tea along with, if they choose, an incredible variety of “little dishes”—ravioli, fritters, dump-lings, tartlets, pâtés, noodles, and so forth—all of them especially designed to accompany tea without overpowering its taste.