Chinese Food Updates
E. N. Anderson
This website posting traces the development of the Chinese food system through such borrowings as well as through local innovation.
Many years ago I wrote a book, The Food of China (1988), intended as a modest contribution to a cultural ecology of east Asia. This book has remained one of the few accessible studies of Chinese food, and as such has achieved a rather undeserved status as a reference book. It is now far out of date for such a purpose. In particular, archaeology has made enormous strides since the 1980s, dramatically pushing back the dates of Chinese agriculture, and greatly increasing our knowledge of early millennia.
Many readers of the earlier work became captivated by descriptions of wonderful food, and missed the fact that I was largely describing a highly successsful agricultural system, and crediting its success to the billions of anonymous farmers and food workers who created it. The world now needs more than ever the insights of traditional East Asian agriculture.
I have written a number of obscure publications on Chinese food since 1988 (notably Anderson 1990, 1991, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2011a, 2011b, 2013a, 2013b), and have now finished a new book, Learning Is Like Chicken Feet, hopefully forthcoming from University of Pennsylvania Press, that will bring together a great deal of material on early and medieval Chinese food. The present posting adds stray notes, especially on Chinese food ethnography—an area that has progressed greatly.
In the period since The Food of China appeared, serious studies of Chinese food have greatly increased. My book was soon followed by Frederick Simoons’ encyclopedic Food in China (1991). Meanwhile, several brilliant studies by the great French scholar Françoise Sabban brought a whole new level of sophistication to the field. Then, with the new millennium, came several truly magistral syntheses of selected areas. H. T. Huang’s life work on Chinese fungal and fermentation technologies reached fruition in the enormous volume (Huang 2000; Dr. Huang passed away in 2012 at the age of 95). Lillian Li completed a similar life project in her definitive study of famine in Chinese history (Li 2007).
Hu Shiu-Ying, an amazing ethnobotanist whose career spans over 70 years of research, produced her own life synthesis, Food Plants of China (2005). Dr. Hu is, at the present writing, still going strong at well over 100 years old—surely a testimony to Chinese food and medicinal herbs.
The sociology of Chinese food has also advanced greatly. A number of Chinese scholars have devoted time and energy to interpretive studies, revealing the social and cultural complexities of food, eating, and food ideologies in the Chinese world. Among these are Sidney Cheung, Rance Lee, Ambrose Tse, David Wu, Yan Yunxiang, and many others. Western anthropologists such as Sidney Mintz and James and Rubie Watson (Watson 1997; Watson and Watson 2004) have also contributed greatly. The medical aspects of Chinese foodways have received much attention, with outstanding work by Elisabeth Hsu, Vivienne Lo, and many others.
Jacqueline Newman has not only contributed introductory works, but has also done yeoman service editing the food journal Flavor and Fortune. Dr. Newman has chosen a “popular” approach and style, but her scholarly knowledge of Chinese food is orders of magnitude greater than that of many a scholar who writes in proper academic style. Newman (who has given her collection of over 4000 Chinese cookbooks to SUNY-Stony Brook) has edited for many years a journal, Flavor and Fortune, which though popular in tone is scholarly in content and standards. She has described regional cuisines, as have many contributors to the journal. One recent article describes mushrooms of China, with references to early Chinese sources (J. Newman 2010), and including such unusual species as chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), enoki (Flammulina velutipes), and lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), and followed by an enthusiastic article by her husband on how to grow shiitake (Lentinula edodes; L. Newman 2010).
In 2005 I had the opportunity to teach a short course on Chinese food history at the Universita di Scienze Gastronomiche, Pollenza, Italy. This made me try to catch up somewhat on the explosion of information since 1988. In the years since The Food of China appeared, I drifted away from Chinese studies, because of pressures in my department (Anthropology) at the University of California, Riverside. I came to rest in Native American studies, doing research first on the Northwest Coast and then for over 20 years with the Yucatec Maya of Quintana Roo, Mexico. This is a group whom I have come to love, and many of whom have become literally family (through Maya adoption practices). Even so, with retirement, I found myself drifting back toward Asia. Partly, I am simply getting too old for field work in the Quintana Roo rain forest (not the least harsh environment on the planet).
New Lore: Chinese Food Studies Updates
Some “mispronunciations” turn out to be more interesting than they seem. Sharp-eared foodies may have noticed that wolfthorn berries, now so popular in the western world as an antioxidant “nutraceutical,” are called either goujizi or gouqizi (Trader Joe’s sells them as “goji berries”). This is reflected in, and may in fact come from, the fact that the phonetic element of the character for ji is actually pronounced qi, even though the full character (the phonetic plus the “tree” radical) is pronounced ji. The linguist David Prager Branner discusses these cases and others (Branner 2011:107). The same misreading, or perhaps simply a dialect variant that is reflected in the character, affects some other food plants: qianma “nettle” gets read as xunma, jicai “shepherd’s purse” (a very good cress-like vegetable) as qicai, and pielan or piela “kohlrabi” as pilan—in all cases the variant pronunciation following the phonetic without the “plant” radicals.
Cantonese hot non-vegetarian dishes are yitfan (see So 1992:136ff).
Tea has received its own art magazine: The Art of Tea, up to issue 9 as of the end of 2010. Unsurprisingly, it is supported by the Taiwan tea industry. It is beautiful and detailed. Going well beyond tea merchandising is Frederick Dannaway’s essay (2010) on the world-in-miniature and tea in China and Japan. He notes, correctly, that the Chinese do not say “microcosm” or “world-in-miniature” for their bonsai landscapes and compressed urban gardens. In fact they simply call them mountain landscapes or gardens or even worlds, as if they were the real thing. And, indeed, they are…you need only look closely (Stein 1990).
Globalization and Diaspora: Chinese Food Outside China
Much research on Chinese food in recent years has focused on the process of globalization. In most arenas, globalization has meant the spread of American pop culture at the expense of everything else. It is currently a bit politically uncorrect to say this, but look at any photograph of any street in any city in the world, and think where the clothing styles, sign styles, building styles, car styles, and other styles originated. The only serious exception to Americanization, outside of local scripts on the signs, is the religiously-entailed women’s clothing in the more conservative Muslim cities. In foodways, however, the Chinese have more than held their own. Chinese food has been going global for centuries, since it spread along the Silk Road and along land and sea routes to Southeast Asia.
The long process of blending Chinese and Southeast Asian food thus commands attention, and has received it in several excellent studies (see Tan [ed.] 2011). Notable is one on Chinese food in Singapore (Huat and Rajah 2001). Chinese settled in southern Malaya by the 1500s, and a fusion cuisine, “Nonya” food, arose as they married into local communities. It influenced both parents: returning migrants brought Sinicized versions of Malay foods back to China, and Malay food has adopted countless Chinese ingredients and techniques. It differs from both parents in a strong emphasis on turmeric and lesser galangal; it uses more hot spices than Chinese food, but less than Malay. A very similar evolution has taken place in Indonesia, where the peranakan (Indonesian-Chinese) communities developed fusion cuisines and influenced Indonesian food profoundly. (Ultimately, they influenced the whole world, through such inventions as ketchup.) “Nonya” cuisine (“nonya” is a local word for a Chinese woman of status) has been self-consciously revived and modernized in Singapore (and to a lesser extent in Malaysia). Thus, it has progressively changed.
The initial diaspora of Chinese food was almost entirely from the south coastal provinces, Fujian and Guangdong (Anderson 1988; Tan 2011). Southeast Asian Chinese food is primarily from Fujian, with varying degrees of Guangdong and other influences. The names for foods show this: they are almost entirely in Hokkien (Southern Min), the language of southern Fujian and neighboring northern Guangdong (Anderson 1988; Tan 2011). The Philippines seems slightly more complicated, with some highly Tagalog-influenced Chinese words that do not always show clear Hokkien roots. Carolyn Ang See (2011) provides an excellent account with full food vocabulary; words can be Tagalog, Hokkien, Cantonese (e.g. siomai for siumai) or even possible Mandarin with much Tagalog influence. Sometimes the etymology is astonishing: the standard Philippine noodle dish pansit is from Hokkien pian sit (Mandarin bian shi), “fast or convenient food.” On top of this, Philippine languages have borrowed many Spanish words for dish types and ingredients. Sometimes these Spanish words were in turn borrowed from native American languages; for instance, various pronunciations of the Nahuatl (“Aztec”) word camote have become the usual names for the sweet potato.
In the Western Hemisphere, Chinese food meant Cantonese food—from central Guangdong—until recently. The standard food names are Cantonese, sometimes in the Taishan (Toisan) dialect; most of the early Cantonese migrant were from Taishan or the nearby “four districts” (the sei yap of California Chinese history) that speak a closely related dialect. Only in the last 40 years have Sichuanese, Shanghainese, north Chinese, and other regional cuisines spread much beyond China’s borders. Another aspect of the mix has been the recent emigration of vast numbers of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries. They have started restaurants that not only reflect the fusion cuisines of their homelands, but also reflect fusion in their new homes with local traditions. It is thus common in the United States to find “Vietnamese” restaurants that serve sinicized Vietnamese staples, standard south Chinese dishes, and American Chinese dishes like beef broccoli and ginger beef.
An eclectic cuisine has developed and become almost universal. “Chinese” restaurants in North America and Europe, for instance, typically serve the more famous dishes of several regions. This regional fusion was looked upon with some disquiet by traditional gourmets, but it is now quite standard in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as in diaspora communities (Wu 2011 gives excellent descriptions and provides his full share of the disquiet).
Americans first learned of Chinese food in China itself, and developed a stereotype of it (based on Canton experience) as a lot of unsavory dishes of cut-up cats, dogs, and such (Coe 2009; see pp. 32 ff for colonial racist quotes). Chinese emigrants came to America in the Gold Rush and in much larger numbers in the late 19th century, bringing rural Cantonese food, especially from the Taishan (Toisan) district of Guangdong). This food was not necessarily China’s finest, and only slowly won acceptance. Coming of more variety and quality led to an explosive growth of acceptance, making Chinese food universal and beloved (Coe 2009; Newman and Halporn 2004).
More recently, Chinese restaurants from Korea and Japan to America and Europe have developed local versions of Chinese food. (On this, there are several excellent recent studies, notably Newman and Halporn 2004; Roberts 2002; Wu and Cheung 2002; Wu and Tan 2001. For Korea, a superb article by Kim Bok-rae, 2009, chronicles in detail the changes involved. Here the main influence was from Shandong, not south China. For France, see Sabban 2009.) They accommodate to local tastes by changing spices, substituting local ingredients, etc.
They also, alas, often use much cheaper and worse ingredients than they would dare to use at home. American Chinese food has gone through several stages in my lifetime. When I was young, most American Chinese came from impoverished backgrounds, and cooked (by necessity) rather cheap, simple food. Accommodation to American ways led to making this cuisine even cheaper and simpler, resulting in the food of the “chop suey joints” of old (Coe 2009). These were small local restaurants that served very humble food—“chop suey” is from Cantonese tsap sui, “miscellaneous leftovers.” New waves of ever-more-affluent, ever-more-educated immigrants brought higher standards, and now the best restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and—especially!—San Francisco are as good as any (except perhaps the very best) in Hong Kong or Taiwan. The Los Angeles area now has highly specialized restaurants; one excellent one specializes in hui tou, a shallow-fried dumpling like a pot-sticker but larger and juicier, with a rather thick wheat-flour skin surrounding finely minced, highly flavored pork or beef. Vegetarian and Buddhist restaurants exist, as do ones specializing in Zhuang minority food, Manchurian food, medical food, and countless other items.
Far from all restaurants come up to this standard. Even the old-fashioned “chop suey joint” survives in rural communities; it has become all but extinct in urban America.
Similar progress is documented for Australia, Japan, England, and elsewhere, with perhaps less eclipse of the low-end (Cheung and Tan 2007; Wu 2011; Wu and Cheung 2002). David Wu, anthropologist and self-described Chinese gourmet, has traveled widely in the world, and eaten at every sort of Chinese restaurant from the humblest New Guinea émigré shack to the finest and most expensive restaurants in China and Taiwan. He provides us a memoir (Wu 2011) with his reminiscences and frank opinions of Chinese food around the world—finding it very lacking indeed in many of the émigré communities.
In western South America, where Chinese restaurants are known as chifa (presumably a corruption of Mandarin chi fan or Cantonese sik faan “eat rice”), food of the old “chop suey joint” style survives and flourishes, providing cheap, filling food. New “wine palaces” in the central cities have not displaced the old chifas.
In Hawaii, the old “chop suey joints”—fondly remembered by working-class Hawaiians—have given way to “all you can eat buffets” that provide modernized but bland fare (Wu 2008; similar restaurants exist on the mainland, but are not so common). There are many Native Hawaiian and mainland Anglo-American influences in the cuisine. Emphasis has been on providing cheap, filling food to a varied but typically nonaffluent clientele. David Wu, veteran of countless meals in the Chinese diaspora and long resident in Hawaii, concludes that, in Hawaii, “[i]t is very difficult at this time to identify any Chinese restaurants that provide a fine dining and exquisite culinary experience” (Wu 2008:23). Fortunately, this is not true of the Pacific Coast mainland.
Chinese overseas continue to celebrate with traditional foods—long-life noodles for birthdays, cakes and sweets for life-passsage rites and at New Year, buns, dumplings, roast meat (Newman et al. 1988). In general, as Chinese immigrants acculturate to receiver societies, drinks and snacks change first; traditional festive dishes change last.
One of the oddest creations of the Chinese diaspora was the fortune cookie—an ordinary American sugar cookie wrapped around a slip of paper with an oracular line on it. This strange food was invented in California, either San Francisco or Los Angeles (McDermott 2000). San Franciscans tend to blame it on Los Angeles and vice versa. One Anglo-American man in San Francisco made a career of writing the fortunes for the restaurants there. The fortune cookie found a chronicler in Terry McDermott (2000), who researched it thoroughly for an article (a very humorous one) in the Los Angeles Times. Many of the fortunes are recycled bits of Western wisdom literature, and many of the fortune-writers are not Chinese. A counter-theory has it invented in Japan (Andrew Coe, pers. comm., Feb. 2010). This is unlikely; the sugar cookie is as alien to Japan as it is to China.
I have developed an interest in cultural ways that “swim upstream,” i.e. that not only survive in the face of Americanization but actually invade America itself. Chinese food and Italian food are the clear winners in this sweepstakes, though Andean and Celtic music, Australian Aboriginal art, French and Australian wines, and various other cultural entities are noteworthy as well.
In general, things that “swim upstream” have to be really good, and they have to be actively merchandised. It helps if they are purveyed by prestigious urban communities, but this is obviously not necessary, given the success of Australian Aboriginal art and Andean indigenous music. Some things fail simply because they come from cultures that do not like high-pressure salesmanship. A comparison I did between Finnish food and Chinese food in America revealed that Finnish restaurants failed not because the food was bad but because traditional Finnish hospitality requires that guests be fed without charge!
Other immigrant communities (the Ethiopian, for instance) were less charitable and did well, but kept restaurants going just long enough to put their children through college, whereupon the children became engineers, lawyers and other white-collar workers. A brief burst of Ethiopian restaurants has narrowed to a small number of dedicated survivors.
The Chinese, even when college educated, love to start restaurants. The distinguished Sinologist and anthropologist Vivienne Lo, for instance, continues to carry on the family tradition (her father was the famous chef and restauranteur Kenneth Lo) by helping her sister Jenny Lo with professional cooking and cookbook writing (Lo and Lo 2003). Chinese food is taking over the world more surely than American fast food is. One reason is the dedication of Chinese in all walks of life to good eating. Another is the popularity of Chinese food with virtually everybody.
Meanwhile, American food, inevitably at its worst, has invaded East Asia. A superb collection of studies edited by James Watson (1997) records the progress of McDonald’s Hamburgers in Asia. Yan Yunxiang (1997), writing in Watson’s book, records how McDonald’s in China became the “in” place for sophisticated, worldly young people to be seen—a far cry from its identification in its homeland with more humble social realms. I have seen the same thing in Hong Kong. It always amazed me to see Hong Kong citizens, arguably the most food-conscious gourmets that have ever existed on this planet, flocking to a restaurant of this nature. (Incidentally, McDonald’s started just down the street from where I used to live, in the hardscrabble city of San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers first opened a roadhouse a few miles to the west of the town, then settled in San Bernardino and began to branch out. The real spread of the chain, however, took place after they retired and sold out to Roy Kroc, who internationalized the chain. See Schlosser 2002.)
There is, as of 2012, a vast potato chip boom. Lay’s has the largest market share, but there are local imitations. Growers are displacing grassland and herders in Inner Mongolia to grow the potatoes. Quality control is the main problem—only 1 out of 3 big potatoes usually makes the cut (!). The sustainable grassland-herding economy is giving way to a probably unsustainable potato boom (K. D. Anderson and Isenhour 2012).
With globalization, international influences have also influenced Chinese food in its homeland. First, the worldwide mid-20th-century fondness for meat, oil and sugar influenced Chinese food, which became far less healthy than it had formerly been. This process ran from about the middle 1960’s to the 1990’s. By the 1980s, a reaction was beginning, again tracking trends elsewhere. The emphasis returned to healthier fare, with smaller portions, more vegetables, more delicate cooking, more attention to fresh high-quality ingredients, and above all less fat and sugar.
This may have been “nouvelle” cuisine in France and America, but it was, for China, a return to the status quo ante. It has certainly led to what almost anyone would describe as a marked improvement, if one compares a good Chinese restaurant today with one 20 years ago. But the great restaurants of 40 and more years ago remain, in my opinion, unequalled today. The biggest difference is in the ingredients. Few if any restauranteurs today will raise their own chickens and feed them entirely on sesame seeds, for instance. And, more tragically, the superb sea foods of the old days simply do not exist any more. They have been fished to extinction.
On the other hand, nouvelle cuisine is alive and well in China’s newly opulent cities with their nouveaux riches desperate for status consumption (see e.g. Farquhar 2002). Cantonese cuisine has benefited, or suffered, depending on one’s taste, and the resulting challenge to Cantonese tradition has been the subject of a stunningly good and thorough review by Jakob Klein (2007). Klein documents the rise of expensive nouvelle Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong and Guangzhou; meanwhile the traditional food suffers some eclipse, partly because of the difficulty of getting good ingredients in these environmentally-sad times. Klein’s investigation of the sociological and personal experiences that result defies summary and needs serious reading. Klein has also given wonderful accounts of the revival of traditional Cantonese food in Guangzhou; some old-timers are not satisfied, but at least they have something of the good old days back (Klein 2006, 2007). Klein tells of Old Uncle Lu, who complains of sloppy cooking but still eats at the venerable teashop in the center of town.
“Fusion cuisine” has become a fad in California and some other multicultural environs. Chinese food is often blended with French, Japanese, Italian, and other “great” cuisines (D. Wu 2012). The results are always striking and sometimes (!) successful…. One remembers that this is no new phenomenon; fusion cuisine at its most fused (so to speak) is documented in the Yinshan Zhengyao and many similar medieval works.
All this raises the question of “authenticity.” Obviously, by now, “authentic” Chinese food is a very slippery concept. Hamburgers are not authentic Chinese food, but what do you say about the split bao buns stuffed with flattened Chinese meatballs that were popular a few years ago in teashops? They were thoroughly traditional in taste, but made to look like the prestigious hamburger. And what of the thousands of species of fish and shellfish now used in Chinese restaurants round the world? Most were unknown in old China, but they are now cooked in thoroughly Chinese ways, and they taste just fine. And it always makes me feel a bit weird to eat hot-and-sour soup (suanlatang) that doesn’t have dried daylily buds or coagulated blood in it. But, in much of the world, you can’t get daylily buds, and people won’t eat blood. So, hot-and-sour soup adapts. Some westernization is a total disaster, such as using sherry instead of Chinese “wine” in cooking, or thickening sauces with flour. Other westernization works fine, such as adopting asparagus and other newly-Asianized western vegetables. One has to look case by case. (Lo and Lo 2003 provide a cookbook that talks thoughtfully about such matters.)
So I prefer to talk about what is traditional—what has been around for generations—and what is new. Then I care about whether the result tastes good. I let someone else worry about “authenticity.” (See David Wu’s cited books.)
Current Foodways around China
A great deal more about Chinese food and caixi—“systems of dishes,” i.e. regional and local cuisines—has come out since 1988. H. T. Huang’s huge book—the labor of a lifetime—goes into much more detail on wheat products (including alum-raised ones, such as yutiao and some bao) and on flavoring pastes than I can possibly summarize. There are also many cookbooks with ethnographic detail going far beyond simple recipes. (A few examples from a large, good literature are Lo and Lo 2003, see previous section; Yee 1975; Young and Richardson 2004).
Local foodways are covered in a major collection of papers, edited by David Holm (2009).
Sticky rice, miscalled “glutinous,” is sticky because it has almost no amylose; the starch it does have, amylopectin, cooks up stickier. It also brews better, and is thus the usual feedstock for rice “wines” and sakes. Rice varieties have varying proportions of amylose and amlopectin, and are thus sticky to varying degrees. The textbook separation of indica, japonica, and glutinous rices does not survive well; there are too many subvarieties, intermediates, and dubiously related sticky forms.
Eggplants, domesticated in India, were apparently independently domesticated in what is now southern Yunnan (Meyer et al. 2012; the domestic plant Solanum melongena and its purported wild ancestors, S. incanum and S. undatum, turn out to be genetically pretty much the same—all one species). They go back about as far as any plant records are found, in both China and India. The garden egg—the variety whose fruit really looks like an egg, oval and white—is apparently yet a third domestication, from southern Southeast Asia.
Noodles are made in several ways. Low-gluten grains like corn and buckwheat are made into a rather wet dough and forced through holes in a colander, directly into boiling water. This is probably how those 4000-year-old noodles were made. Bean starch and some wheat/egg noodles are made into lumps or flat sheets and hand-cut. High-gluten wheat noodles are made in many ways, the most dramatic of which are “pulled” or “swung noodles” (la mian). For these, the dough is stretched and then swung like a jump-rope, then doubled and re-swung, then doubled again, and so on. This develops the gluten so much that it produces an extremely chewy noodle. Swinging the dough without having it neck down and break requires extreme skill. (Not long ago, the one expert at this in Los Angeles was a Mexican chef working in a Korean restaurant. Globalization is real.)
Salt in Chinese culture has been the subject of a major monograph by Hans Ulrich Vogel (2009); he reviews every aspect of its production and consumption in late Imperial times, and compares these with the contemporary European world. Vogel notes, sympathetically, that Chinese add deep-drilling—perfected for salt wells—to the list of the greatest inventions China has given the world, along with paper, printing, the compass, and gunpowder (Vogel 2009:185).
Boiling and steaming remain the commonest ways of cooking in China, but stir-frying and especially deep-frying and roasting/baking have become much more common in recent decades. The result is not always good for health; fat consumption has soared. Complex cooking involving several processes has become common in restaurants. Vegetables are more and more often parboiled before being stir-fried, instead of cut up, stir-fried, and then finished in added liquid. (The latter was the traditional method, at least in the households I knew; but the newer one works fine).
Seafood gourmetship gets ever more arcane, and ever more fatal to the world oceans (Fabinyi 2012; Fabinyi et al. 2012). The fisheries of China and the seas around it are depleted, and a zone of extreme overfishing is expanding rapidly through the Philippines and Indonesia and out into the Pacific. Even American coasts are depleted, by overfishing of things like sea cucumbers and sea urchins.
Vegetarianism has received some attention lately. Chinese Buddhists are supposed to be vegetarian, and some non-Buddhists are too; this has led to the development of a vegetarian cuisine. Buddhist vegetarianism and avoidance of alcohol have received noteworthy attention and excellent review in two articles (Benn 2005; Kieschnick 2005; both in Sterckx 2005).
Ducks may not be raised from the egg with loving care any more (though some probably still are), but the Quan Jude restaurant—Beijing’s classic “Peking duck” place—has flourished and even franchised out. The owners were sent down to the countryside for being bourgeois, during the Great Cultural Revolution, but they returned (Ni 2004).
Preserving eggs has received brief but thorough monographic treatment from Fuchsia Dunlop (2006), who points out that it was westerners who started calling pi dan “hundred-year” or “thousand-year-old” eggs. They are aged a few days or weeks.
Milk and milk products used in the past include butter in offerings and milk products consumed by Buddhist monks, among other things (Newman 2011a).
Insects, rarely mentioned at length in Chinese food books, have been treated along with various annelid and other worms by M. Leung (2000). Cicadas, waterbugs, silkworms, and others are eaten. Caterpillars and grasshoppers, in particular, saved countless people from starvation in earlier times. Locusts were so popular they inspired a religious cult (Hsu 1969). Insects are a major component of southeast Asian fare, occupying e.g. much of the space in the public markets of Cambodia, where deepfried tarantulas are also a delicacy. Pond snails are popular, and Chinese introduced at least one genus, Viviparus, to the United States, via markets; it still is found therein, but has escaped and gone wild as well (Paul Chace, personal communication, 1987; see also Hanna 1966:37 on V. stelmaphorus). More exotic is “winter frog”—the fat, with part of the reproductive system, derived from one species of frog in north China (Newman 2000). One suspects that other frogs are used, because this and other frog dishes are available even in far Los Angeles. This is contributing to the worldwide disappearance of amphibia. Turtles are not only popular food, but medicinal, and their fabled longevity makes them a possible candidate for a long-life food (Newman 2004b). Unfortunately, turtles, like many other animals, are threatened with extinction in China because of their popularity as food and because the Communist government destroyed the traditions of conservation and resource management that had protected China’s and southeast Asia’s environment for centuries.
Among the saddest cases of failure of conservation is the supply of edible birds’ nests. These are the nests of a swiftlet, Collocalia esculenta, which makes “white” nests of protein secreted from glands in its mouth. (Related species produce “black bird’s nests,” not purely mouth secretions, therefore inferior and in need of considerable cleaning.) The nests are highly regarded as food and medicine, strengthening yin and lungs, good for digestion, and generally tonic. They actually are made primarily of indigestible long-chain proteins, but include growth stimulants and a unique glycoprotein with immunomodulating value (Kong et al 1990; Langham 1980). The supply is, however, endangered by overcollecting; increasing demand and breakdown of local social rules on harvesting have led to wiping out the swiftlet in China and making it rarer and rarer throughout its range in southeast Asia (Chiang 2011).
Mushrooms of many species are important foods in China (Newman 2010b, 2011c) and especially among minorities. Many are also exported to Japan. A huge trade has developed in the Tibetan frontier lands. Daniel Winkler has chronicled this, and could not resist the temptation to refer to “mushrooming trade” (Winkler 2008, 2009).
Our knowledge of cooking in the various provinces of China has been enormously advanced by many culinary ethnographies.
Particular distinguished mention goes to Fuchsia Dunlop for her stunning work on Sichuan food, Land of Plenty (2001). This book not only includes recipes for almost all the Sichuan specialties, but a set of glossaries that give the characters, transliteration, and definition for just about every common Chinese cooking and culinary term, as well as Sichuan localisms, including very obscure ones. The recipes are, as she says, authentic: they are the way the better Sichuan chefs actually prepared them when she was there in the 1990s. They are properly rich in garlic, Sichuan brown pepper, and chile, just as I remember real Sichuan food in the old-time cafes in Taiwan that catered to Sichuanese. A later personal memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper (2008), adds more terms and recipes, as well as lively accounts of eating. These and other works have established Dunlop as perhaps the leading ethnographer of actual Chinese food. (A later book by Dunlop, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, 2012, goes over relatively familiar ground, but has some very unusual but simple recipes; it is, however, a photograph book, not an in-depth study.)
Henan, previously a rather blank spot on the culinary map, has had its food chronicled by (once again) Jacqueline Newman (2011d—with recipes). It is noted for fairly plain, straightforward cooking, running heavily to pork, onions, and noodle dishes.
In Shanxi, jujubes are made into a true wine—they are mashed and fermented. Buckwheat is important there, and is made into noodles, as in Korea and Japan.
In Fujian, dumplings stuffed with meat and flattened are called bian shi, “flattened eats.”
In Guangxi, barnyard millet (Echinochloa) is an important grain; its name has spread to maize. The foods of Guangxi have been described by David Holm (1999).
In Yunnan and elsewhere, a bitter tuber of a water plant, sa pi, comes from a Homocharis sedge. Pteridium and Osmunda fern shoots are also eaten. Mallows, chayotes from Mexico, and mushrooms abound. Yogurt is still widespread. Lima beans have become very common in Yunnan, and known locally elsewhere.
Yunnan cooking still includes dairy products, including thin sheets of goat cheese (ru pi “milk skin”), said to be from the Bai people. Related is deep-fried soft goat cheese cubes. Yogurt survives among Tibetan and related minorities. The extension of milk products to southeast Asia, and their subsequent contraction from much of the region, was chronicled by Paul Wheatley (1965). He pointed out that they spread with Hinduism and Buddhism, which use milk products ritually, and contracted with the spread of Islam. An excellent water-buffalo yogurt survives among the Toba Batak of Sumatera, as a local but important food (personal observation; Richard Lando, personal communication over many years).
Basella esculenta, a green vegetable oddly known as “bean curd vegetable,” is eaten in southwest China.
One of the large smoky-flavored cardamoms, Amomum villosum, is distinguished (and long has been) as sha ren, not tsaoko.
Many books and articles on tea have appeared, e.g. Chow and Kramer (1990).
The indefatigable Naomichi Ishige, now probably the foremost ethnographer of Chinese food, has produced a fine review article on dining behavior around East Asia (Ishige 2006).
Finally, on a literary note, a humorous short performance by storyteller An Zhongwen of Hangzhou has been translated (Simmons 2011:476-477). It is a marketplace dialogue between a dried ribbon fish and a winter melon. They slang each other in dialect like a couple of peasants. The ribbon fish boasts not only of his taste but of “containin’ phosphorus, protein, and fat”—An Zhongwen was having some fun with modern nutritional advice. The winter melon answers that it is “thrifty and practical, moreover easy to cook.” As well as available for candying and soup. Also, it could roll over and squash the fish with its sixty-eight catties—88 pounds, a most unusual weight indeed for a winter melon.
Good descriptions of local Chinese cuisines have finally begun to emerge in English.
Mark Swislocki (2009) has provided a fine study of Shanghai food and its local meanings—heavily nostalgic, of course.
Fujian food involves, besides the famous red ferment on rice, a flavoring mix often lacking ginger—odd in China (see below). Raw sea food in wine lees or red ferment is not to the outsiders’ taste, especially since the sound and feel of crunching the shell is part of the pleasure. Pitahaya, a Mexican cactus fruit, has come to Fujian and elsewhere in southeast China, under the name of “fire dragon fruit” (huo long guo)—a creative name for a scaly fruit of shocking pink and electric green. New world foods often came first to Fujian, and some odd ones occur, such as a purple field corn similar to rare Mexican varieties—and very good (I met with it in remote rural Fujian in 1999). Green tea powder is used there, as in Japan. Fukien “water liquor”—made with yeast, often including the red ferment so beloved there (Huang 2000), and water—is mixed with highly distilled raw alcohol to produce a drink significantly called “tiger piss” (lao hu miao). Hakka people of the area sometimes skin and smoke-dry field mice for food.
In Quanzhou, tea was once common, became rare, and is now common again, thanks to the boom in the Chinese tea industry; this is a case of “re-invented tradition” (Tan and Ding 2010).
Wuhan food, judging from a very inadequate sample in a restaurant in San Gabriel, involves very chile-rich chopped meat dishes cooked in a pan over the stove; I have seen this in Hunanese restaurants elsewhere. In my experience, there is not much taste except the basic ingredient and the chile. The Tasty Dining Restaurant also offers sweet glutinous rice-squash cakes with sesame seeds on top; good, and supposedly loved by Mao Zedong. Noodles with sesame and soy sauces, dumplings with rice and mushrooms as well as pork, and other small items are major parts of the cuisine.
Guizhou’s cuisine, previously almost unknown to the outside world, has finally received a short monograph. The indefatigable Jacqueline Newman (2010b) reports both regular and glutinous rice, the usual vegetables, nuts including walnuts, wild sour fruit, and game. Pickled vegetables are popular, and Newman gives an elaborate recipe (2010b:10). Dog meat is eaten for strengthening (see also Newman 2011a). Recipes include a marvelous one for fish in sour soup. Many snacks and fish dishes occur. I remember once seeing in a Chinese cookbook a Guizhou recipe for pangolin—an animal eaten because its weird appearance makes it suspect of having powerful qi. The recipe involved stewing it with every strong-flavored thing in Chinese cuisine, obviously to kill the taste; the animal lives on ants. (I was reminded of the classic American folk recipe for cooking a coot: Put the coot in water with a brick; boil till brick is tender; throw away the coot and eat the brick. I am told that Australians use the same recipe for the cockatoo.)
In Hubei, the mountainous southern district of Enshi is an outlier of minority groups; people of Tujia, Miao and Dong ancestry live there, though they have now Sinicized and blended into the local Chinese population. A distinctive cuisine of uncertain origin is locally called “Tujia,” but is really a general local cuisine, eaten by all groups in Enshi. The local anthropologist Xu Wu (2011) has devoted an entire book to this cuisine—the first scholarly book in English on a Chinese local folk cuisine. Apparently it is a development of the whole mixed-origin population, since it is based on introduced New World crops and is thus clearly a relatively recent development. Early account mention millets (including eleusine—now forgotten in the area), barley, buckwheat and bracken fern rhizome starch instead of the New World foods. A watershed for the area was 1735, when the Qing Dynasty worked to open up the area for farming; settlers including minority peoples moved in, land was cultivated, game was hunted out, and the New World crops began to take over.
The distinctive Enshi cuisine is based on maize flour. Maize is now thought to have been there since ancient times, and the locals refer to themselves as maize-eaters in contrast with the people of the plains, who are rice-eaters; by humorous analogy, jeeps are “maize-eaters” and autos are “rice-eaters” (Wu 2011:93; page numbers refer to the ms., since the book is in print as of this writing). Rice is, however, important, and all the ritual grain dishes are made of it. As elsewhere in China, maize has remained very much an outsider in this regard.
Local vegetables are staples, including wild greens. The “fish flavor vegetable,” Houttuynia cordata, is popular; the root is eaten with the inevitable chiles. Wormwood (Artemisia sp.) is another. The people also eat what the Japanese call konnyaku: cakes of the root starch from Amorphophallus riveri. One dish is made of smoked pork, smoked sausage casing, sticky rice, regular rice, wild wormwood, and wild garlic.” (Wu 2011:40). It is eaten at the Spring Sacrifice in the second month. Another green is Camellia oleifera, traditionally used not only for soup but also for tea in place of C. sinensis. There are said to be 2000 kinds of medicinal plants (Wu 2011:71). Famine in the Great Leap Forward led to reliance on sweet potato, fern starch, and even loquat tree bark, which is somewhat poisonous (Wu 2011:151).
Pork and bean curd are as popular as elsewhere. The rivers have fish, once abundant but now depleted. Game was once important; old accounts even mention smoked tiger meat (Wu 2011:71) as well as hunting with hawks and hounds (p. 83). Even today, meat (now pork) is often smoked, harking back to the days when preserving game was a regular activity.
This cuisine, at least the folk form of it, is called “hezha.” It was once considered low, but is now popular, with its own specialty restaurants. Hezha refers specifically to soybeans ground with water as for making tofu, but it is used as a drink or soup in Enshi instead of being processed into tofu. It is usually cooked with chopped vegetable leaves for soup. Sometimes red peppers, garlic, and other hot spices are added, or meat is ground with the soybeans to make a very rich hezha. Its name has come to be the term for the whole cuisine. Rice is sometimes cooked with white potato cubes as a starch staple. This is washed down with the local white lightning, made of maize. Potatoes—often a staple—are also sliced and stir-fried, then eaten with vinegar-chile sauce. Sweet potato too can be a staple, sometimes made into a ball of mash.
The people love sour flavors including pickled vegetables (Wu 2011:50). They especially love sour-and-hot foods (“hot” with chile—la—not necessarily hot in temperature). They make chile sauces, both with chiles alone and with chopped chile mixed with maize flour. The latter can be stir-fried with smoked pork or cooked into mush. Chile is used in everything and is wildly popular, and is pieced out with spicebush (Lindera glauca), a spicy-flavored wild plant; it is said to regulate qi (Wu 2011:48). Sweetening came from glutinous rice, sweet potatoes, maize stems, and other natural sources, including honey. The local variant of “five spice” involves brown pepper, star anise, cinnamon, clove, and fennel (Wu 2011:48). The methods of cooking are the usual ones, but they add “dressing raw vegetables with sauce (liangban) (Wu 2011:51). A banquet is known as “eating wine” (chi jiu; Wu 2011:52). Another unique trait (so far as I know) is their category of “rising” (fa) foods, those like konnyaku, egg, sticky rice, and kelp, that stimulate and can exacerbate skin outbreaks (allergy rashes)—more or less a blend of the wider Chinese concepts of supplementing and hot-wet foods (Wu 2011:53).
New Year is celebrated as usual, but many families eat the banquet a day or two before the actual new year. This is said to be a Tujia custom, but is in fact rather widely distributed. Many different explanations are given, showing how many “origin myths” for a common custom can coexist in even a small community. Often the meal involves a pig head and tail, so the year will have “a good beginning and a good end.”
A large number of taboos and avoidances for pregnant women are known, and the usual high-nutrient postpartum foods are recommended (Wu 2011:193).
From Hunan, we have “the strange tale of General Tso’s chicken” (Dunlop 2005). General Tso’s Chicken is a common Hunanese dish today, but does not fit the usual Hunanese cooking style, and is not known in Hunan itself outside the capital. Fuchsia Dunlop tracked it down to an innovative Hunanese chef who invented it in Taiwan (after the Nationalists took refuge there) and then moved to New York, where he Americanized the recipe. It now bears more resemblance to American Chinese restaurant fare than to anything native to Hunan. Dunlop points out that it fits a common pattern of naming a dish after a general or other famous individual who might have enjoyed it (except that, in this case as in some others, it was invented long after he passed on).
Fish are still raised in rural Hong Kong—an unchanged landscape contrasting strangely with the high-rises of Yun Long. The fish bring 12-15 HK dollars per catty but cost 12 per catty to raise, so it isn’t very profiatable and children are not picking it up as a profession.
Cantonese food is more elaborate than ever, but the simplest of its dishes, “yat ka mien,” remains with us on American menus. The name simply means “one (order of) noodles” (Gray 2011). Another simple food that persists is pun choi, “basin dish,” a large stew-up of meats, traditionally prepared by men, in quantity, for ancestral feasts and commemorative rites and for weddings. James Watson (1987, 2011) provided a classic study of its important role in village life; it was a core of the festivals that brought village people together and created solidarity. It has more recently caught on as a restaurant dish (Cheung 2012) and tourist attraction (Watson 2011). It involves once-inexpensive village foods: “dried pig skin, dried eel, dried squid, radish, tofu skin, mushroom and pork stewed in soybean paste” (Cheung 2012:4). Fancier ingredients are now added.
Simpler yet is rice, but its role in Cantonese life is important enough to inspire a major book, Gourmets in the Land of Famine by Seung-joon Lee (2011).
Shun De (my Sun Tak) has a distinctive cuisine, very rich, with mild and subtle flavors; many fish dishes. It is very popular now (2013) in Guangjou. Delicacies include sandworms, snake belly meat (various species of rat snake are on the menu), turtles, chestnut cake (stuffed pancake), all sorts of fish. Pork hocks are cooked in a sweet sauce much like an American ham sauce.
Chen Village fen is rice paper with pork bits and soy and other saucing; simple nbut sgreat. A really good sweet is glutinous rice cake with jujube mashed with some brown sugar.
In a market in Guangjou I noted several new items to me in January of 2013. One was cow milk jujubes, huge jujubes as big as apples and green in color. Another was gobo root, huai shan (water radical, huai phon; mountain). Passion fruit was sold as hundred-fragrance fruit, and enoki as golden-needle mushroom. Snow lotus was a crisp root, somewhere between a yam and a radish. A real yam was called fen ge. Tiger head chile is California chile. A new fruit is jitan guo (chicken egg fruit)—much like a yellow sapote. It isn’t in Hu. It may indeed be a kind of yellow sapote. Concholepas from Mexico has now come to Hong Kong as an abalone substitute.
Rosemary is now available in Guangjou herb shops. So are all too many dyed gouji berries and Cordyceps; phony or low-quality cordyceps, dyed orange, is a staple. The real thing is worth more than gold, and rather hard to find there. Live scorpions, however, abound. Crocodile meat may be found, and soup of it is taken for asthma (xiao chuan bing). A new herb is snow chrysanthemum, a bright orange dried daisy flower. It makes the best herbal tea I have ever had. It is in Hong Kong too, as are huge thick slabs of Vietnamese cinnamon bark, used to treat allergy to meat, among other things.
On a different note, there are now maotais costing over $150 per bottle. And yak meat may now be had in Guangjou; it tastes like good beef.
Some new Shanghainese items to me in 2013 were salted duck eggs (mild, with slightly runny yolks; very good); small river shrimp with Chen kong vinegar; finely slivered baby bok vchoy with mushrooms and meat threads. Extremely small baby bok choy is “chicken feather” bok choy.
Macau has its own cuisine, alas poorly known and poorly described; we need a cookbook (see Sales Lopes 2010).
Chinese names for dishes continue to delight. Thin noodles with ground meat and oil (and lots of chile) are “ants climbing on trees,” because the bits of meat stick to the noodles and look like ants on trees—if you have a lot of imagination. A Beijing sweet delicacy is “ass rolls about”—a sweet glutinous rice cylinder rolled in crushed bean meal. The rolling process reminds one of a donkey rolling on sand to scratch his back. “Across the bridge noodles” is a Yunnan dish in which noodles are poured from one pot into another to finish cooking; the name may come from that, but there is an origin myth involving an elite boy forced to study all the time, and isolated for the purpose on an island in his parents’ garden, food being brought “across the bridge” (Lo and Lo 2003; see ref. in preceding section). Such cute stories explaining the name of a dish are not to be taken on faith, since the Chinese love nothing better than to make up such tales.
A fascinating email exchange in August of 2011 between Andrew Coe, Fuchsia Dunlop, myself and several students and Chinese cooks revealed half a dozen unrelated and mutually incompatible origin myths for the name gu lou yuk, the Cantonese for sweet-sour pork. It literally means “murmuring and muttering meat,” probably with reference to the sound of cooking the dish. Some say this could come from a homonymous phrase meaning “ancient-old meat,” but this is unlikely, since there is nothing ancient or old about the dish. There is a persistent myth that it is a euphemistic way to say guai lou yuk Cantonese for “foreign devils’ meat,” because the dish was devised for westerners. (It is based on traditional recipes used for pork ribs and for yellow croaker fish, but was created in the 19th or early 20th century for foreigners, who love sweets and do not want to deal with bones.) Non-Chinese who are would-be sophisticates take delight in bashing this dish, but a team of leading Chinese chefs who visited Los Angeles in 2013 evaluated one high-line restaurant by its sweet-sour pork, and said this is a standard dish to test a cook’s skill (Gold 2013). It is not at all easy to make well; it can range from superb to inedible.
Moon cakes are evolving; heavy, sickly-sweet, and doughy, they are unpopular today, so low-calorie forms are evolving, as well as variants using new ingredients. They too have spread to the United States and become liberated from traditional contexts (Langlois 1972).
The tea house as ordinary people’s office, a social institution I described in the book, has finally received proper and deserved historical attention (Wang 2008).
Tea itself has caught on worldwide, of course, more than ever. A major art exhibit has chronicled its rise and spread over historic time and over the world (Hohenegger 2009). The latest fad, as of this writing, is for aged Puer tea from Yunnan; excellent ethnographic and historic research has revealed much about this delicacy (Yu 2010; Zhang 2010).
The Maya-domesticated pitahaya cactus is now universal in east Asia under the name “fire-dragon fruit” or just “dragon fruit” (long guo). The latest New World fruit (as of around 2010) to arrive in China is the passion fruit, bai xiang guo, “100 fragrances fruit.”
The classic meat dish “Buddha jumped over the wall” (it smells so tempting that a Buddha would break his vegetarian vows and leap for it) is made by very slowly braising sea cucumber, shark fin, deer sinew, fungus, abalone, dried scallops, snow fungus, fish swim-bladder, turtle, and medicinal herbs such as ginseng. Other, less exotic ingredients are often substituted for the rarer ones.
Finally, cannibalism, always fascinating to humanity, continues to receive attention. As noted in my book, famine drove people to eat human flesh on many occasions, but literature fantastically exaggerated the extent of this, and Yenna Wu has analyzed the issue (Wu 1996).
More on Cooking Strategies: Some Thoughts for “Slow Food” Devotees
Chinese food is the original fast food. Stir-frying takes seconds, or at most a very few minutes. Food was sliced very thinly and evenly, with maximum surface area exposed, to allow it to cook at maximum speed. Tender young ingredients are used, partly for taste, but partly—again—for quick cooking. “Small eats” (xiao shi, the collective term for snack dishes) are sometimes slow to make, but they are sold on the street for eating on the run. Even slower processes like steaming and soup-making are done fast in the Chinese kitchen. Baking was speeded up by making the baked items extremely small. Persian nan, typically about 30-50 cm long, shrank in China to become the shaobing, only about 10 cm. Baking was done at high heat in very efficient, fuel-sparing ovens or large pots (derived from the Indian/Central Asian tandur).
All this has everything to do with the incredible difficulty of obtaining fuel in the old days. I well remember the scarcity and high price of wood and other fuels, even after kerosene and bottled gas came in. All Chinese cooking is shaped by the need to cook everything with the absolute minimal amount of fuel. I have seen a full meal for a family cooked with a handful of grass. Stoves, dishes, and recipes are all exquisitely adapted to this. The Chinese traditional bucket stove has now spread worldwide into fuel-short areas; I have seen it sold widely in Madagascar, among other places. I have also seen an ancient Greek pottery stove that is almost identical; apparently it was an independent invention, but one wonders.
The only really slow cooking in Chinese tradition is the stewing and braising used for tough cuts of meat and fish. This could be very slow indeed—some restaurants kept pots of stock constantly simmering, and put into them anything that needed long cooking. According to legend, some of these stock pots had been simmering for centuries. Admittedly this is highly improbable, but certainly some stock pots had been there at the back of the stove for years.
Foods of Non-Han Peoples Living in or near China
Foodways of the Muslim ethnic groups of Xinjiang, largely Turkic-speaking, have been beautifully documented in an encyclopedia, Zhongguo Qingzhi Yinshi Wenhua (Chinese Islamic Drink and Food Culture), issued in Beijing in 2009. Many illustrations and recipes are provided. Interesting is the strong European cast of many of the groups, especially the Tatars (p. 202ff), who are quite East European-looking and sometimes brown-haired and blue-eyed.
China’s neighbors and ethnic minorities have very complex foodways of their own.
Korea’s national dish, kimchi, continues to propagate worldwide. Koreana magazine has glorified it as a perfect health food (Young 2008). Indeed, it has plenty of antiseptic garlic and chile, vitamin-rich cabbage, antioxidants in all the vegetables, and so on, but its high salt content is associated with Korea’s high stroke rate. Pickling destroys its vitamin C content. I was amazed to find in France, in the heights of the Auverne, a mixed winter pickle virtually identical to kimchi but apparently a purely local invention.
One important Korean food not known in China (as far as I can find) is acorn mush. Chinese do eat acorns, however—usually roasted—as well as a pecan-like nut called a “mountain walnut.” Hu Shiu-Ying (2005) identifies this as referring to both the Chinese hickory, Carya cathayensis, and the Manchurian walnut, Juglans mandschurica. For the Korean dish, acorns are ground, the tannic acid is soaked out of them, and the meal is then boiled while stirring until it forms a jellylike mush known as dotori muk (the meal is dotori muk karu). It is tasteless, but is sliced and eaten with seasonings or other foods. It is similar to the acorn mush of California’s Native American peoples, but more thoroughly leached. It was independent invented in California and Korea—there are no intermediate steps to connect the two. (No references here—I had to do all the field work myself on this; I have never seen a published description except a brief note, long ago, in Koreana; the reference did not add to my findings.)
Beware of ordering a sundae in Korea; it’s Korean for pork blood sausage.
Korean ceremonies still use ancient Confucian sacrifice rites, involving offerings of foods adapted to the Korean context (Kim 1999). These include jujubes, pine nuts, walnuts, and ginkgo nuts, as well as the usual meats and fish, but also kimchi (Korean pickles) including things like Chinese bellflower and wild dropwort (these are medicinal herbs). Rice cakes and various wines are used, as well as meat minced with soy and other ingredients. Meat items include something rather mysteriously defined as “swine’s armpit” (Kim 1999:8; the Chinese characters supplied makes things even more mysterious—the character translated “armpit” means “to pat” in Chinese). Korea now proves to have a very long, complex prehistory (Nelson 1993, 1999). Millet cultivation began (probably introduced from China) around the 6th millennium BC (Nelson 1999:150). Rice was introduced, already domesticated, from China, by 2000 BC or earlier (Nelson 1999:150). Pigs and other animals came early, before rice, and pigs became major domesticates.
A complex agriculture evolved in Korea, spreading eventually to Japan with the Yayoi culture (intrusive from Korea to Japan around 200 BC). Japan had some agriculture earlier, but it stayed very simple and minor; only with Yayoi did Japan become truly agricultural.
Manchu food is more or less Chinese, in recent centuries, but traditions of venison and distinctive noodle dishes survive. Newman (2006) provides recipes.
A detailed account of foodways in Vietnam (Ngo 1994) notes that the heating/cooling system and the five-elements system flourish there. Cooling foods, including many vegetables and fruits, were favored, because of the hot climate. About 1500 medicinal plants make up the traditional herbal canon; some 150 are food plants (p. 77). An 18th-century physician, Hai Thuong Lan Ong, wrote a book, Culinary Art, with 152 recipes for healing foods, with recommendations of foodstuffs. “For instance: glutinous rice related to sweet and tepid, strengthened spleen, lung and kidney and cured urobilinury whereas ordinary rice related to sweet and healthy, kept up the body and regulated the temperament. Regarding beans, soya related to sweet and tepid, strengthend the bone, boosted the temperament and detoxicated whereas green beans related to sweet and cold, dissipated the heat, detoxicated and cured diabetes” (Ngo 1994:77). Lemon balm, ginger, and other plants were noted. “[W]omen in delivery should use glutinous rice wine, with hen-egg…” (Ngo 1994:77). Papaya promoted milk, as did soup of pork leg. The giant waterbug Lethocerus indicus is important in Vietnamese cuisine (Packard 2003; Smith 2003), as in northern Thailand, whence it has been imported into the United States (Pemberton 1988; also my own observations). The pheromonal gland produces a scent that is greatly relished. Insecticides have made the insect rare. It is traditionally made into sauce with chiles, lime, and sometimes dried fish or fish sauce.
Chan Yuk Wah (2011), in a brief but brilliant article, tells of investigating whether the Vietnamese rice roll known as banh cuon was derived from the Cantonese cheung fan roll. He realized that both are variants of a local food that seems to be one of the many regional things—foods, words, ideas—linking Cantonese and Vietnamese culture as opposed to north Chinese or (other) southeast Asian. He reasonably refers to this as Yueh culture—Yueh being the ancient Chinese state occupying what is now southeast China. “Vietnam,” which is “Yueh nan” in Mandarin, simply means “south of Yueh.” (Nam Viet, “southern Yueh,” was attested historically too.) It is definitely time to realize that Cantonese and Vietnamese cultures do comprise, in some ways, a unity over and against their neighbors; one can fold the Thai and Muong cultures of north Vietnam into it, too. Chan, again correctly, notes that “southeast Asia” is an awfully vague term—it links together a large group of countries that share nothing except their agricultural system (wet rice and tree crops) and some degree of Indian and Chinese influence. Southeast Asia is much less a cultural unity than, say, Europe, Latin America, or East Africa. One can easily deconstruct it and make the cultural links go in quite other directions. Chan’s article is a really wonderful example of starting with something deceptively minor, writing a deceptively short and simple article about it, and using this to establish conclusions that shake the received wisdom on a whole region!
Nir Avieli has described in detail the food of Hui An, a town in central Vietnam that formed around a core of Chinese merchant settlements and thus has a strongly Chinese-influenced cuisine with several distinctive local innovations (Avieli 2005, 2012). Among these are adding raw herbs—beloved of Vietnamese eaters—to Chinese dishes. These raw herbs can, however, carry diseases that Chinese cooking would prevent—as I learned to my cost in Hui and Hui An!
One of the common herbs there and elsewhere in southeast Asia is Tabasco parsley, not a parsley but a lettuce relative, Eryngium foetidum. It comes from Mexico (especially, of course, the Tabasco area) and how it got to southeast Asia is a real mystery. Around Hoi An it is known as ngo gai.
In Yunnan, dozens of local ethnic groups continue interesting foodways. Wild fruits are still very important (Chen et al. 1999). Slightly over the international border, Yunnan Chinese in northern Thailand have set up highly successful, stable, intensive farming systems, based on subsistence food cropping plus orchards of lychees, tangerines (with a juice processing factory), and other trees (Huang 2005). They also use an amazing and wondrous variety of wild plants for medicine, including for childbirth (Wang et al. 2003).
Yunnan food, and some other Chinese foodways, have migrated to Burma, where Chinese food in Mandalay has become inextricably mixed with Burmese food. A Burmese tamarind soup, typical of the sour soups of India, Burma and Thailand, is Yunnanized with chile and pronounced a “Yunnanese” food (Duan Ying 2011).
Tibetan food and medicine are still poorly known in the west (though see Dorje 1985). The Shuhi people, a Tibetan-related group in Yunnan, rely heavily on walnuts, for food and oil, and not surprisingly give them a major place in religion and ritual (Weckerle 2005). This links them with scattered long-resident ethnic groups around the Himalayan region; perhaps there are ancient relationships, though we cannot know. In any case, deteriorating rural and forest conditions in China bode ill for this adaptation.
The Tibetans of Yunnan now produce a rapidly increasing quantity and variety of medicinal herbs (D. Anderson et al. 2005; Glover 2005; Salick et al. 2005), which is greatly improving the local economy, and, one hopes, world health. However, it is clearly unsustainable; plants are getting smaller and rarer. The future can only be one of crashes of major species. Cultivation is occurring, but a belief that wild plants are more effective than domestic ones makes this a shaky proposition.
The Sani of central Yunnan have an ancient tradition of rice agriculture, both upland (slash-and-burn) and wet, but they have more recently adopted New World crops with enthusiasm. Their villages consist of adobe houses, on and around which are hanging maize, chile peppers in strings, green beans drying, and Mexican squashes. Even epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides) has made it there as a pot-herb, called ki chr kimi.. It all looked like a central Mexican village, even to the clusters of maize ears hanging in trees. This amazed the Mexican contingent at the International Congress of Ethnobotany held in Yunnan in 1990.
Sani dispenses with vowels in many words. Ng pan mo is “chile.” The odd small eggplant—a local species, Solanum khasianum—was a dz, a water buffalo an ng (cf. Chinese niu, Cantonese ngau). Dog is chrzh (the last three letters being used here to write something like the buzzed r in Czech). Simplest of all was “horse”: m. (The Chinese is ma.)
The Akha, related linguistically (but much more fond of vowels), practice slash-and-burn cultivation and some wet-rice agriculture in southern Yunnan. They eat a typical southeast Asian diet of rice with greens, fish, fruit, peppers, and forest products. My student Ayoe Wang, an Akha from Yunnan, is carrying out detailed ethnobotanical researches on the Akha.
The Mian of southern China and neighboring southeast Asia traditionally ate bland, simple food, but used southeast Asian basil varieties, cilantro, mint, and lemon grass, at least in their southeast Asian villages. Minced beef with basil, eaten in a lettuce leaf, is a favorite dish, and resembles Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Sticky rice has also spread from the north Thai world. (Information from Jeff McDonald.)
The Yao have varied foodways, many of which are being lost. The Ao Yao of Guangxi used to salt down small birds with rice powder to dry them off; this is no longer done. They pickled many foods. Otherwise, their diet was, or at least now is, more or less the standard diet of impoverished mountain dwellers: sweet potatoes, maize, and such, with rice and pork the luxuries (Huang 2009). Huang gives a recipe for blood sausage—blood and rice in a pig’s intestine, with salt and flavorings.
China’s largest minority is the Thai-speaking (now often Han Chinese-speaking) Zhuang, who live in Guangxi Province and neighboring areas; there are perhaps 30,000,000 of them. Their food remained mysterious until recently, but now an article (Newman 2005), among other sources, opens them to the world. They eat both sticky and nonsticky rice; nonsticky seems to be usually (not always) the staple. They are fond of cassia and fennel, and flavor their tea with orange flowers. Black rice soup flavored with cassia and fennel is a typical dish. Eggplant is cooked with rice vinegar, white pepper, cinnamon, sugar, fermented sticky rice, and oil.
A restaurant in San Gabriel (near Los Angeles) serves Guangxi Zhuang food. A specialty is luosifen, snail noodle soup. The snails are boiled in the water but then taken out. They give a strange earthy or pond-like flavor. The soup is based on spaghetti-like rice noodles with tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, bamboo shoots, meat or fish of any kind, and flavorings. Other soups with sour vegetables exist. (The same restaurant—run by a couple from China’s northernmost and southernmost extremes—serves Harbin specialties from north Manchuria. These are largely dumplings stuffed with pork and fennel leaves or other meat-and-vegetable stuffings. Cumin is a common spicing, indicating Near Eastern antecedents. Lamb stir-fried with sour cabbage is also a delicacy there as elsewhere in the far north.)
The Dong and Dai speak closely related languages, and in fact essentially the same people can be called “Zhuang” in one place and “Dong” in another. Dai food has been chronicled by the indefatigable Jacqueline Newman, and is described as often being sour, with pickled vegetables important. They share a fondness for minced, highly spiced raw meat with other Thai-speaking groups (Newman 2012b). Water bugs continue popular (Pemberton n.d.).
Wang Si, an ethnologist in Yunnan, has described the Bai (Wang 2012), who are also fond of raw pork. She supplies details on pig butchering and raw meat preparation and use.
Dr. Newman, who is systematically chronicling the minority foodways of China, has gone on to describe the foods of the Dong (Tung), another Thai minority very close to the Zhuang (Newman 2007, 2012c). (In fact, “Dong” and “Zhuang” are routinely confused. The languages are very similar, and are close to Thai. Speakers are called “Dong” or “Zhuang” indifferently, depending on local history. Newman reports that some people of apparent Tibeto-Burman origin are also called Dong locally.) A characteristic Dong flavor is tea oil, from fruits of Camellia species including C. oleifera, C. sasanqua and C. kissi (but not from true tea, C. sinensis). This is often made into a sauce with mustard, vinegar, salt, and sugar. A raw-shrimp paste with chile, rice, ginger, cinnamon and salt is also made and stored; it would salt-cure (autodigest) in the jars. Sticky rice is common as a staple. It is also the staple food in northeast Thailand and neighboring areas. Vegetables are marinated in a mix of sugar, salt, Chinese hard liquor (technically a vodka or unaged whiskey), and rice wine. Newman has also contributed a brief account of the Bai of Yunnan, whose cuisine is not strikingly different from other Yunnan Plateau food (Newman 2012).
Yamamoto and Nawata have provided an extremely detailed and well-documented study of Taiwan aboriginal food, including Tabasco chile pepper use by these groups (Yamamoto and Nawata 2009). Names and genetics show varieties in the southern areas of Taiwan were introduced from the Philippines (and often to the Philippines from Indonesia). These small hot chiles are used not only for food, but for ornament, medicine, and ritual. Young leaves as well as fruits are eaten. This all indicates a long and interesting history. The plants must have been introduced soon after the Spanish occupied the Philippines in the 16th century.
Yang Zhuliang has chronicled mushrooms in Yunnan (Yang n.d.). Mushrooms also figure large in Tibet, where they are collected by Tibetans and minorities as food. Sale of them has made many people quite well off (Arora 2008). The caterpillar-parasitizing fungus Cordyceps sinensis complex is an extremely important medicine, sale of which actually is the biggest single moneymaker in rural Tibet (Winkler 2008, 2009). It is used for almost anything by Chinese and Tibetans, but is not known to have any empirically demonstrable benefits. Many other mss. on mushrooms, as well as taro, herbal medicine, edible insects, wild game animals, pine nuts, dogs, and other edibles have crossed my desk, but in preliminary or partial forms that cannot be cited here.
Southeast Asian food and its history has been reviewed in an excellent historical study by the Japanese scholar Akira Matsuyama (2003). This book is particularly good on fermented foods, and provides an opportunity for someone to do a really major study by comparing them with those documented in Huang (2000). Ties with China are very clear.
Food as Medicine
Since Pillsbury’s classic article (1978) there have been several studies of “doing the month”—recovering from childbirth. Women still stay warm and quiet and eat high-protein, high-iron foods; the custom, so valuable if restricting, has not changed as much as most traditions in this modern world. Pork liver is a favorite for this and for building blood—it works, being the richest in iron and vitamin B12 of any common food. Also useful are eggs and greens. Red foods such as red jujubes, peanuts (Chinese peanuts have red skins), and red wine are used for buillding blood, but with less excuse—they have some value, but their color is the main draw. By similar magical thinking, black foods—black jujubes, black chickens, black dog meat, Guinness Stout (called “black dog” in colloquial Chinese)—are used to build body. Their saturated color is thought to indicate their strength. Variants of “doing the month” occur widely in Eurasia, from Bangladesh to Spain and thence to the New World, so it may be a part of the Greek humoral medical tradition that shares that distribution.
Infant feeding methods in old times were studied by B. S. Platt and S. Y. Gin (undated separate from Archives of Disease in Childhood, ca. 1938). In the 1930s, Chinese (largely Yangzi Delta people) breastfeeding was almost universal. Thirty-six families had used a wet nurse; otherwise, mothers nursed their infants, though six mothers used powdered milk (having been apparently unable to nurse) and one claimed, unbelievably, to have used only rice powder. Rice powder was used as supplement from very early. From five or six months, soft rice supplemented the milk, and from about eight months, soup, eggs, and the like. Chinese jujubes often came in at this point to promote blood and body; the jujubes do have iron and vitamin C. Mothers ate pork, dry beans, cuttlefish, chicken, shrimp, sea cucumber, Chinese wine, wheat cakes, and millet to produce more milk. They were aware of the nutritional value of silkworms, which are indeed very rich in vitamins and minerals. Interestingly, soymilk was not used for feeding babies.
The myths die hard. I heard in Taiwan in the 1970s that certain rich and powerful individuals abstained from rice noodles, humorally dry foods (such as peanuts), etc., eating instead a good deal of easily digested, nutritious food like chicken and vegetables and fruits. They drink honey and use little oil. This enables them to enjoy many lovers, which in turn built more vigor, since they could absorb yin energy from them. They even eat ground pearls to supplement yang force.
Of course, some plants really are nutritionally superior. In addition to the pine seeds noted above (and now threatened by overharvesting; Allen 1989), the berries and leaves of Chinese wolfthorn (Lycium chinense; go qi zi and go qi zai respectively) are so rich in vitamins and minerals that they have served as de facto vitamin pills for millennia.
The dietary combinations (shiwu xiangfan or shiwu xiangke—“food things that mutually dominate”) so feared in Chinese tradition have received some further attention since my coverage in The Food of China; see Lo (2005). Incompatibilities between medicine and food have a different name, fuyao shiji.
Tea is proving itself; green tea, in particular, turns out to be preventive of cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative conditions. This confirms the long-maligned enthusiasm of the famous Dutch “tea doctor,” Bontekoe, who was long ridiculed for insightfully making these claims in the 17th century. This is apparently because of the tannins and other bioflavinoids and polyphenols that tea contains. “White tea”—tea leaves steamed at picking and then dried, so that they retain more of their chemical compounds—is better still. It slows bacterial growth and kills fungi (Conis 2005).
Then there are other medicinal matters…. Cockroaches, boiled to treat colds and pimples, found a more subtle yet direct use in the Castle Peak Bay community where I lived for two years. When a child was “shamming sick” to get out of going to school, his or her mother would quickly brew up some cockroaches and say, “All right, here, take this.” The usual response was, “No, no, I’m fine, I’m going to school!”
Several hallucinogenic plants were known to Chinese traditional medicine, including henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), datura (Datura spp.), marijuana (Cannabis sativa), and toxic mushrooms including Amanita and a “laughing mushroom” that may have been a Panaeolus (Li 1977). These plants made people see ghosts or “devils.” Some plants that are toxic but not really hallucinogenic were classed with them; Phytolacca and Ranunculus, for instance.
Moving from historical research to China today (see e.g. Farquhar 1993, 1994; Kleinman et al. 1975): A brilliant new group of experts on Chinese medicine has arisen, many forming a network based around the Needham Institute at Cambridge. Their research has focused largely on clinical treatment practice (Hsu 1999, 2001), but food cannot be neglected in any study of Chinese medicine, and they do not neglect it (see esp. Engelhardt 2001; Engelhardt and Hempen 1997). Livia Kohn has reviewed much practice in a new book (Kohn 2005). The Newman and Halporn (2004) anthology noted above has several articles on food and medicine, including one by myself (Anderson 2004). Chinese traditionally focused on trying to maximize longevity—not a surprising concern in a country whose traditional life expectancy was in the 25-30 range. Equally unsurprising, given China’s history of famine, was the fact that they were most concerned with nutrition. Poetry reflected health beliefs; Taoist poetry is full of medical views (Cheng and Collet 1998).
Chinese food is indeed very healthy, or once was. Ironically, much of the health value comes not from the foods believed to be good for you, but from the humble, often-despised everyday grains and greens. Studies by Cornell University in the 1980s and 1990s showed that Chinese under traditional rural conditions had incredibly low levels of cholesterol (average 127—vs. over 200 in the contemporary USA), were lean and in good shape, and had very low rates of heart disease, many cancers, and other circulatory and degenerative ailments (Campbell and Campbell 2005; Campbell and Chen 1994; Chen et al 1990; Lang 1989). Some areas, at least, had rather high rates of cancer. Cancer incidence can increase from having too low a cholesterol level (Barbara Anderson, personal communication). But, in general, traditional Chinese food was healthful. Some “long-life villages” in south China—often Thai-speaking villages—have especially long life expectancies (as do villages in parts of southern Japan, notably Okinawa). The secret seems to be mountain air and water, mountain exercise, and a diet of whole or nearly-whole grains, vegetables, some fish, and little meat.
Chinese women traditionally breastfed for a long time, sometimes three years (but usually half of that). Frequent pregnancy and long lactation, and frequent spells of malnutrition, meant that women rather rarely menstruated, which may explain Chinese beliefs about menstruation as a rather strange and dangerous state (Harrell 1981). A large number of fascinating medical beliefs about breasts, breastfeeding, and breast health went—in general—to support breastfeeding in traditional China, but some were complex medical beliefs with obscure origins (see Wu 2011).
On the other hand, liver flukes abounded of old, thanks largely to eating raw or undercooked carp and similar fish. Opisthorchis viverrini is particularly common today. “Many still believe that the O. viverrini parasite can be killed through fermentation, preparation of raw fish with chilies or lime, or consumption with alcohol” (Ziegler et al 2011). No, and even freezing, salting and drying do not kill it. There is no solution except thorough cooking.
Today, the situation is changing, and not always for the better. Eating more meat, fat, and sugar, and less vegetables, bean curd, and unprocessed grain, has led to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes. Longevity increases with modern medicine, but heart attacks are commoner. Moreover, the Chinese government has turned away from its spectacular early successes in medical care, which more than doubled life expectancy from the 1940s to the 1980s. Health spending as a part of total government spending declined “from 28% to 14% between 1981 and 1993, allocation to the rural ‘cooperative medical-insurance system’ decreased from 20% to 2%,” while rampant corruption and price-gouging have denied care to the poor (Dong, Hoven and Rosenfeld 2005:573-574). Given the epidemics of SARS and AIDS as well as the drastic decline in healthy eating, China is in deep trouble. Problems for the future include not only obesity and diabetes, but specific deficiencies, such as anemia (chronic in China for millennia) and folic acid deficiency (an emergent danger with the decline in eating vegetables and whole grains). Folic acid deficiency is probably the major cause of birth defects round the world, and is probably increasing in China. (The double “probably” reflects the dismal state of knowledge of this terrible, insidious problem.)
On the other hand, life expectancy continues to increase (so far), and the Chinese live almost as long as Westerners. In Taiwan, and parts of south China, they live as long as do the inhabitants of many European nations. Food and medical care continue to be reasonably adequate, and the scale of differences from two generations ago are almost unparalleled in world history. However, public health care is declining seriously in rural areas (Arif Dirlik, talk of May 26, 2005, UCR), threatening the future.
Meanwhile, Chinese medicinal food has spread to the western world, not only via books but also via such restaurants as the TT Chinese Imperial Cuisine of San Gabriel, CA—a restaurant serving medicinal foods to the local Chinese community. In China itself, restaurants serving yaoshan—“medical dining,” traditional medicinal dishes—have been growing in number and elaborateness since their beginning around 1980 in Sichuan. They use variously-updated recipes from the medical-nutrition classics.
And the classic four tastes—salt, sweet, sour, and bitter—have been increased to five: the human tongue has receptors for glutamate, giving us the taste known in Japanese (and now in English) as umami. This gives the spark to MSG and many Asian ferments. And to end this ms with a correction: In 1988 I reported that MSG could cause flushing and discomfort, the “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” This seems to be a rare allergy, not a normal event; the syndrome was usually psychosomatic.
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