Stories from China’s Ancient Kitchens
Historical figures and traditional values behind Chinese cuisine
Already by the Spring and Autumn of Chinese history—between 8 and 4 B.C.—the eating habits of the Chinese people were deeply influenced by terminology and etiquette from Confucianism.
K’ung Fu Tzu
In a classic book from the Confucian school, “Book of Rites,” it states that: “During meals, wine and soup should be placed to the right of the guests, while main dishes should be placed to the left. Food should not be eaten in one bite, but should be consumed in small portions and be well chewed before swallowing. In addition, while consuming soup or food, there should be no noise made. “
Confucius (K’ung Fu Tzu) also believed that the way a chef cuts food affects ingredients, while the freshness of food affects the taste. Not fulfilling both is considered an act of disrespect toward guests.
In China, such etiquette was recommended nearly two thousand years earlier than in the West. Over time, as cooking methods further developed, people also began to pay attention to the taste of food.
It was scholars who redefined the kitchen into two main categories: the mastery of fire control, and the ability to mix and match different flavors. Even they, themselves participated in cooking and created many wonderful dishes.
Sun Simiao, a renowned and famous herbalist and doctor from the Great Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907), is recognized as the King of Medicine in Chinese medical history. But aside from being a great physician, he also excelled in the art of cooking.
One day he came to Chang’an—a city of ancient China that is now known as Xi’an—and he had decided to eat at a restaurant that sold cooked pig intestines. When the dish was served, the smell of the intestines was too strong to bear, let alone eat.
Sun Simiao thought for a moment, and took out a gourd bottle with medicine that had herbs like Chinese pepper, fennel, and cinnamon, and he told the restaurant owner to cook the intestines with the herbs. What resulted was a dish that was not oily or smelly, and in fact very pleasing to the palate.
The owner insisted Sun Simiao not be charged for the food. In return for the owner’s kindness, on his next visit, Sun Simiao gave the owner a gourd filled with the herbs. After that, the restaurant was very successful, and the townspeople offered high praise to the intestines dish.
When asked the name of the dish, the owner was stumped. He then spotted the gourd that was given to him and replied without a second thought: “Gourd head.” Later, he hung the gourd directly over the entrance to his establishment. Over time, the dish increased in popularity and is now a famous Xi’an appetizer.
Prime Minister Wei Zheng, also from the Great Tang Dynasty, was famous for giving sincere and stern advice to Emperor Taizong.
One day, Emperor Taizong had heard that Wei Zheng loved pickled celery in vinegar, so he invited Wei Zheng to a banquet and included pickled celery as one of the dishes to test this out.
Indeed, the rumor was true. Wei’s eyes shined when he saw the pickled celery and he finished it right away. Emperor Taizong then said to Wei, “You once told me you didn’t have any indulgences. Have I not seen one today?”
Wei replied, “If the Emperor has nothing better to do than look into this kind of small matter, then as your subject, I have no choice but to develop such trivial attachments for your satisfaction, like eating picked celery.”
Wei spoke in a respectful and humble manner, but his harsh words had implied that he had much greater expectations of the Emperor, hoping he would look into bigger matters like taking care of subordinates and doing more good for the country.
After hearing those words, Emperor Taizong was silent for a long time, repeatedly looking up to the sky, sighing. He did so because he had heard the great expectations in Wei’s words and was very touched by Wei Zheng’s true loyalty and dedication to their country.
During the Yuan You period of the Song Dynasty, scholar Su Dongpo was an officer in Hangzhou. He led the people of Hangzhou to work on flooding issues at West Lake. He had a dam built, which not only solved the problem, but also added beauty to the lake. To show their gratitude, the villagers sent Su Dongpo pork so he could make his beloved braised pork.
Upon receiving a good amount of the pork meat, Dongpo shared it with the workers who had helped complete the project of the lake. He then told his family to cut the flesh into small squares and cook it using a method he’d developed: add a little water, simmer, and cook for a long time.
In cooking this way, the meat is more aromatic, finishing crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and not oily. The workers loved it and gave it the name Dongpo Pork. Later, the custom of cooking Dongpo pork on the eve of the Lunar New Year to express admiration and respect for Su Dongpo, had become a tradition.
There are many more dishes created by scholars from various periods. Some recipes have not been passed or written down, but their essence has been adapted by several chefs in history, who’ve created dishes according to different tastes that have been accepted by people from different regions and eras.
One exceptionally popular Chinese dish, which can be cooked easily and with all kinds of assorted vegetables and meats, is chao fan (fried rice).
6 cups cold, day-old cooked white rice,
1 chicken breast, skinless and boneless
1/3 pound bacon, chopped
1 pound ground pork meat
1 green onion, minced
1 red pepper, diced
1 ginger slice
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
With a mortar and pestle, grind the ginger and garlic, until it forms a paste.
Cut the chicken into small chunks.
Season the chicken pieces with salt, pepper, a couple dashes of soy sauce, the ground ginger and garlic paste, and green onion that is chopped finely; use only the green stalk end, not the head or thicker green part of the onion.
Season the pork with salt, pepper, soy sauce, and a little sugar.
Then fry the bacon, and diced red pepper in a tiny amount of oil. Add the seasoned pork. When the pork is nearly cooked, add the chicken pieces and continue cooking until just cooked near well-done.
Add the rice slowly, and add a few dashes of soy sauce until the rice is light brown in color.
Whisk the 3 eggs in a bowl. In a separate, empty pan, cook the eggs omelet-style, adding a dash of soy sauce while cooking. Cut cooked omelet into cubes and add to the cooked rice and meat. Stir until mixed well. Serve immediately.
By Tony Dai