Saturday, October 02, 2021

"The Emperor's Feast" or What Did Chinese People Eat

Chinese history overwhelms me! 

The Emperor's Feast, published 2021.
I've tried to learn about the archaeological finds, the invention and refinement of pottery, the territorial conquests and consolidations, the multi-ethnic courts, the political and military rivalries, and the alternating peaceful and chaotic eras throughout the thousands of years of Chinese history. I've tried to grasp the many food innovations and adoptions throughout these varying eras. 

Each time I read more, I think I understand and grasp a bit more of this history, but I never feel as if I have any real mastery of names, dates, places, and rulers. A new book, The Emperor's Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals by Jonathan Clements challenged me once again. 

The author's focus is broader than just twelve meals: in fact he summarizes food throughout Chinese history, beginning:

"Shennong, the legendary ‘Divine Farmer’, was one of the great pioneers of Chinese food, who fashioned the first plough and taught early mankind how to rear animals for food." (p. 17). 

The existence of food histories that were recorded very early in Chinese eras offers a starting point for the author's work, and I found it quite amazing that there are such written sources. For example, he writes:

"The most widespread dish in ancient China was a vegetable broth (geng), which combined seasonal legumes in boiling water. ‘Soup and boiled grain were used by all,’ says the Book of Rites, ‘from the princes down to the common people, without distinction of degree.’" (p. 19).

The idea that there were five tastes -- sweet, sour, bitter, acrid, and salty -- was a very early culinary theory in China, and seems to come up throughout each era of history. Clements explains much about the food ways and food inventions in each period, right through the colonization endeavors and Opium Wars of the 19th century and the revolutions of the early 20th century. We learn about the Communist era, Mao's great famine, and some of the international political eras seen through the lens of food, such as Nixon's visit to China and what they offered him to eat. There's a detour to the USA and the emergence of Chinese restaurants and their particular brand of Chinese food, as well as information about overseas Chinese influence in other countries. We even learn about protection rackets where Chinese gangs demanded payment from restaurant owners in Chinatowns. 

The author documents his own adventures during many years in China, where he seems to have tasted a wide variety of foods very mindfully. He also tried many fusion foods involving Chinese overseas restaurants:

"I found myself pursuing the strangest possible cul-de-sacs on menus all over the world, not least in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I felt obliged to order the Haggis Spring Rolls on the menu at Bertie’s Restaurant. Much like the cheeseburger spring rolls of Detroit, they seem to me like a pointless gilding of the lily, a clickbaity tricking out of a local food purely for Instagram shares and talking points. That’s the only explanation I can think of. I love haggis, and I certainly don’t mind cheeseburgers, but by what perverse contrariness would you want to wrap them in pastry and deep-fry them?" (p. 169).

The last chapter takes us up to the present moment. We go from Imperial and high-level Communist banquets to widespread misrepresentation of foodstuffs for the common people, including the memorable disaster with adulterated baby formula, and other instances of cynical, profit-seeking poisoning of foods, and ultimately, the question of how food and food markets played a role in the coronavirus pandemic As the coronavirus took hold, the author says, the Chinese tried to reduce the danger:

"The reaction, however, does not seem to have been heavy-handed enough in Wuhan in 2019, where the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market achieved global infamy as the alleged source of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, believed to have reached humans by passing and mutating through a snake, which had caught it from a bat, or possibly a pangolin. A blanket ban on the buying, selling and eating of wild animals, for real this time, was announced in February 2020, although pundits immediately warned that it would merely drive the multi-million-dollar bushmeat industry out of the public eye and back underground. Tellingly, by June 2020 the Beijing Health Commission was proposing severe penalties for anyone who dared to ‘defame and slander’ traditional Chinese medicine, suggesting that any anti-bushmeat legislation might soon be de-fanged by new laws that prevented anyone from complaining about the sale of ‘medical’ remedies." (p. 181). 

Finally, another international policy of the Chinese governrment:

"That food security is an essential element of China’s international outreach makes sense, as a way for Xi Jinping to keep his promise to his people to look after the fundamental building blocks of Chinese society. This has led to a bold and long-term overseas land grab, which has seen, for example, the wholesale purchase of multiple Australian dairy farms to provide milk for the Chinese market, and the cutting of production costs by shipping in 2,000 Chinese labourers to work on them.  ...

"China’s efforts to secure its food supply have led to some scaremongering and doomsday scenarios, but for the Chinese themselves might be considered in context, as the act of a smart leader who understands the true meaning of the phrase uttered to the founder of the Han dynasty: ‘For the people, food is Heaven.’" (p. 188 -189)

As I say, it's an overwhelming book, and I've hardly offered a sampling of the amazing history of food origins throughout Chinese history. Not everyone would find it readable, but it's remarkable in how much information is packed into less than 200 pages of text plus many pages of notes.

Review © 2021 mae sander. 


Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I was impressed by your review of this book, Mae. It spoke to me because I had some Chinese friends when I was younger. They eventually moved to San Francisco and started a restaurant out there. I'm sure they did well in the beginning, because the entire family cooked. Even the youngest of the five children cooked better than I will ever be able to. Thanks for reviewing and sharing this book with us. It sounds quite up to date, too.

Emma at Words And Peace / France Book Tours said...

OMG, sounds so so good. Adding it to my TBR. Thanks!

My name is Erika. said...

That sounds interesting. Especially since they have found 5 tastes, finally. The Chinese seem to have known about these for centuries. Happy weekend!

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Edinburgh is well known for deep-frying all sorts of things, especially chocolate bars. I'm not sure I would want to eat any strange meats from a Chinese market.

Breathtaking said...

Hello,:=) Thank you for your in depth review of the Emperors Feast. It really does cover generations of Chinese cooking, and Chinese culture, I enjoyed reading all about it.The vegetable broth which is so nutritious has been a staple food for both rich and poor here in Portugal also. I have enjoyed the Chinese food I have tasted, and don't even try to eat fried chocolate bars, in other countries, I love chocolate just the way it is, thank you very much

Divers and Sundry said...

This sounds like a fascinating to learn more about Chinese history. Thanks!

Nancy Chan said...

Thanks for the review of the book. So many things to learn about China, history and food.

DVArtist said...

Wow Mae this is a fantastic review. Thank you for sharing it all.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I think I will check and see if my library has this available. Thanks.