Adapted from K.C. Chang, Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977. Reprinted with permission from Yale University Press.
To say that the consumption of food is a vital part of the chemical process of life is to state the obvious, but sometimes we fail to realize that food is more than just vital. The only other activity that we engage in that is of comparable importance to our lives and to the life of our species is sex. As Kao Tzu, a Warring States-period philosopher and keen observer of human nature, said, “Appetite for food and sex is nature.”1 But these two activities are quite different. We are, I believe, much closer to our animal base in our sexual endeavors than we are in our eating habits. Too, the range of variations is infinitely wider in food than in sex. In fact, the importance of food in understanding human culture lies precisely in its infinite variability -variability that is not essential for species survival. For survival needs, all men everywhere could eat the same food, to be measured only in calories, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins. But no, people of different backgrounds eat very differently. The basic stuffs from which food is prepared; the ways in which it is preserved, cut up, cooked (if at all); the amount and variety at each meal; the tastes that are liked and disliked; the customs of serving food; the utensils; the beliefs about the food’s properties -these all vary. The number of such “food variables” is great.
An anthropological approach to the study of food would be to isolate and identify the food variables, arrange these variables systematically, and explain why some of these variables go together or do not go together.
For convenience, we may use culture as a divider in relating food variables’ hierarchically. I am using the word culturehere in a classificatory sense implying the pattern or style of behavior of a group of people who share it. Food habits may be used as an important, or even determining, criterion in this connection. People who have the same culture share the same food habits, that is, they share the same assemblage of food variables. Peoples of different cultures share different assemblages of food variables. We might say that different cultures have different food choices. (The word choices is used here not necessarily in an active sense, granting the possibility that some choices could be imposed rather than selected.) Why these choices? What determines them? These are among the first questions in any study of food habits.
Within the same culture, the food habits are not at all necessarily homogeneous. In fact, as a rule they are not. Within the same general food style, there are different manifestations of food variables of a smaller range, for different social situations. People of different social classes or occupations eat differently. People on festive occasions, in mourning, or on a daily routine eat again differently. Different religious sects have different eating codes. Men and women, in various stages of their lives, eat differently. Different individuals have different tastes. Some of these differences are ones of preference, but others may be downright prescribed. Identifying these differences, explaining them, and relating them to other facets of social life are again among the tasks of a serious scholar of food.
Finally, systematically articulated food variables can be laid out in a time perspective, as in historical periods of varying lengths. We see how food habits change and seek to explore the reasons and consequences. . .
My own generalizations pertain above all to the question: What characterizes Chinese food? . . . I see the following common themes:
Starch Staples: millet, rice, kao-liang, wheat, maize, buckwheat, yam, sweet potato.
Legumes: soybean, broad bean, pea- nut, mung bean.
Vegetables: malva, amaranth, Chi- nese cabbage, mustard green, turnip, radish, mushroom.
Fruits: peach, apricot, plum, apple, jujube date, pear, crab apple, mountain haw, longan, litchi, orange.
Meats: pork, dog, beef, mutton, venison, chicken, duck, goose, pheasant, many fishes.
Spices: red pepper, ginger, garlic, spring onion, cinnamon.
Chinese cooking is, in this sense, the manipulation of these foodstuffs as basic ingredients. Since ingredients are not the same everywhere, Chinese food begins to assume a local character simply by virtue of the ingredients it uses. Obviously ingredients are not sufficient for characterization, but they are a good beginning. Compare, for example, the above list with one in which dairy products occupy a prominent place, and one immediately comes upon a significant contrast between the two food traditions.
One important point about the distinctive assemblage of ingredients is its change through history. Concerning food, the Chinese are not nationalistic to the point of resisting imports. In fact, foreign foodstuffs have been readily adopted since the dawn of history. Wheat and sheep and goats were possibly introduced from western Asia in prehistoric times, many fruits and vegetables came in from central Asia during the Han and the T’ang periods, and peanuts and sweet potatoes from coastal traders during the Ming period. These all became integral ingredients of Chinese food. At the same time,. . . milk and dairy products, to this date, have not taken a prominent place in Chinese cuisine. . . .
For the preparation of ts’ai, the use of multiple ingredients and the mixing of flavors are the rules, which above all means that ingredients are usually cut up and not done whole, and that they are variously combined into individual dishes of vastly differing flavors. Pork for example, may be diced, slice shredded, or ground, and when combined with other meats and with various vegetable ingredients and spice produces dishes of utterly diverge, shapes, flavors, colors, tastes, and aromas.
The parallelism of fan and ts’ai an the above-described principles of ts’ai’ preparation account for a number ( other features of the Chinese food culture, especially in the area of utensil To begin with, there are fan utensils and ts’ai utensils, both for cooking an for serving. In the modem kitchen, fan kuo (“rice cooker”) and Ts’ai kuo(“wok”) are very different and as a rule not interchangeable utensils. . . . To prepare the kind of ts’ai that we have characterized, the chopping knife or cleaver and the chopping anvil are standard equipment in every Chines kitchen, ancient and modem. To sweep the cooked grains into the mouth, and to serve the cut-up morsel of the meat-and-vegetable dishes chopsticks have proved more service able than hands or other instrument (such as spoons and forks, the former being used in China alongside the chopsticks).
This complex of interrelated features of Chinese food may be described, for the purpose of shorthand reference, as the Chinese fan-ts’ai principle. Send a Chinese cook into an American kitchen, given Chinese or American ingredients, and he or she will (a) prepare an adequate amount of fan, (b) cut up the ingredients and mix them up in various combinations, and (c) cook the ingredients into several dishes and, perhaps, a soup. Given the right ingredients, the “Chineseness” of the meal would increase, but even with entirely native American ingredients and cooked in American utensils, it is still a Chinese meal.
This adaptability is shown in at least two other features. The first is the amazing knowledge the Chinese have acquired about their wild plant resources. . . . The Chinese peasants apparently know every edible plant in their environment, and plants there are many. Most do not ordinarily belong on the dinner table, but they may be easily adapted for consumption in time of famine. . . . Here again is this flexibility: A smaller number of familiar foodstuffs are used ordinarily, but, if needed, a greater variety of wild plants would be made use of. The knowledge of these “famine plants” was carefully handed down as a living culture -apparently this knowledge was not placed in dead storage too long or too often.
Another feature of Chinese food habits that contributed to their notable adaptability is the large number and great variety of preserved foods. . . . Food is preserved by smoking, salting, sugaring, steeping, pickling, drying, soaking in many kinds of soy sauces, and so forth, and the whole range of foodstuffs is involved-grains, meat, fruit, eggs, vegetables, and everything else. Again, with preserved food, the Chinese people were ever ready in the event of hardship or scarcity.
The regulation of diet as a disease preventive or cure is certainly as Western as it is Chinese. Common Western examples are the diet for arthritics and the recent organic food craze. But the Chinese case is distinctive for its underlying principles. The bodily functions, in the Chinese view, follow the basic yin-yang principles. Many foods are also classifiable into those that possess the yin quality and those of the yang quality. When yin and yangforces in the body are not balanced, problems result. Proper amounts of food of one kind or the other may then be administered (i.e., eaten) to counterbalance the yin and yang disequilibrium. If the body is normal, overeating of one kind of food would result in an excess of that force in the body, causing diseases. . . .
At least two other concepts belong to the native Chinese food tradition. One is that, in consuming a meal, appropriate amounts of both fan and ts’ai should be taken. In fact, of the two, fan is the more fundamental and indispensable. . . . The other concept is frugality. Overindulgence in food and drink is a sin of such proportions that dynasties could fall on its account. . . . Although both the fants’ai and the frugality considerations are health based, at least in part they are related to China’s traditional poverty in food resources.
The importance of the kitchen in the king’s palace is amply shown in the personnel roster recorded in Chou li.Out of the almost four thousand persons who had the responsibility of running the king’s residential quarters, 2,271, or almost 60 percent, of them handled food and wine.
What these specialists tended to were not just the king’s palate pleasures: eating was also very serious business. In I li, the book that describes various ceremonies, food cannot be separated from ritual. . . . [In] Chou texts [12th century B.C.-221 B.C.] references were made of the use of the ting cauldron, a cooking vessel, as the prime symbol of the state. I cannot feel more confident to say that the ancient Chinese were among the peoples of the world who have been particularly preoccupied with food and eating. Furthermore, as Jacques Gernet has stated, “there is no doubt that in this sphere China has shown a greater inventiveness than any other civilization.”2
1 Lau, D.C., trans. Mencius (Harmondworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. 1970), p, 161.
2 Jacques Gernet, Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion 1250-76
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), p. 135.
2014 Asian-Recipe.com | Designed by Website-Redesign-Company.co