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China & Food: The Tao of Food
by Valerie Sartor
2008-01-10 10:17:15
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It's no secret that the Chinese have always cherished exquisitely prepared, thoughtfully presented and delicious food. In China business has long been conducted over banquet tables and every Chinese friend will tell foreigners that no meeting or social gathering is considered complete without a good meal. Food has been and remains a conduit to successful relationships between people at all levels, as well as a living metaphor that implies power and responsibility over others.

Less than a hundred years ago the Chinese government still designated the chief executive's work as "making adjustments to the tripods" because a tripod in Chinese refers to a cooking utensil. This term implies adjusting the flavors of the dishes being cooked in order to please diners' palates – and just like a capable diplomat the talented cook uses talent and technical skills to ply his trade.

Not surprisingly, clever cooks creating tasty food have had unusual access to power throughout Chinese history. One of the most renowned examples was Yi Yin, who is known as China's first prime minister. He ultimately assisted Emperor Tang, ruler of the Shang Dynasty, (1766 B.C. – 1760 B.C.) to destroy Jie, the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty (1818 B.C. – 1766 B.C.). Yi Yin had been a famous cook and a slave known as Ah Yeng before he became prime minister. This remarkable man actually won his ruler's trust through his skill at cooking great food. Tang became persuaded of Yi's diplomatic and social abilities after eating his dishes.

Throughout the centuries there have been other Chinese cooks who also took on political functions. Peng Zu, known as the founder of Chinese cooking, was chef to Emperor Yao around the beginning of the 21st century B.C. Another capable chef, Yi Ya, became very close to his leader during the Qi State in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 B.C. – 476 B.C.) - Prince Huan of Qi trusted him because he was good at cooking and identifying flavors. Shao Kang, the seventh emperor of the Xia Dynasty, had formerly been an official in charge of the kitchen service for Youyushi before the Xia Dynasty was founded.

But not all chefs used their power benignly; some had nefarious motives. Zhuan Zhu of the Wu State served as an assassin in the late years of the Spring and Autumn Period. In order to support Prince Guang's rise, he learned a special technique of "roasting fish " from a famous chef. Through his culinary deftness, he was able to meet Prince Liao of the Wu State, the enemy of Guang, and assassinate him.

China is still a patriarchal society but during one period of history only - the Song Dynasty - female chefs became extremely popular. Known as Chu Niang (厨娘) these women charged higher fees than their male counterparts while serving the imperial family, nobility, scholars and wealthy patrons. At one point female chefs were in such high demand that a school was established solely to graduate female culinary artists. The school taught manners, presentation, organizational tactics and conduct along with culinary skills.

Sometimes these women directed enormous banquets and thus acted as a conductor does while directing a symphony. One renowned female chef, Song San Niang (宋三娘), sat at a desk while she presided over a "Thousand Guest Banquet" for Premier Wang Zeng. With her staff of over eighty assistants this remarkable woman used little colored flags to give orders. She'd hoist blue, red, yellow, purple and white, to indicate to her staff in matching uniforms when to start steaming, boiling, frying or cooking something. Not only did she effectively and efficiently put out the food but also she put on a great dramatic display for the premier's guests.

Not just in China - anywhere in the world making food is much more than just a job for a man or a woman: it's a pursuit that is crucial for human survival. Sex is the only other vital activity that humans engage in with as much enthusiasm as cooking and eating. Kao Tzu, a Warring States-period philosopher, said that the urge for food equals the desire for sex in humans. Perhaps this literary excerpt explains why many famous Chinese writers and statesmen were good cooks:

Huangdi asks Sunu, "I am feeling a lack of energy and a disharmony in my body. I am sad and apprehensive. What shall I do about this?"

Sunu replies: "Men are likely to make a mistake during lovemaking. Women conquer men as water conquers fire. Those who know the art of lovemaking are like those who know how to mix the five flavors in a cooking pot to produce a good meal, and like those who know the way of yin and yang and enjoy the five pleasures. Those who are ignorant of this are die young, without enjoying the pleasures of life…. A man must know how to control his emissions and also take medicine. He cannot enjoy life if he is ignorant of the art of love. Men and women are like Heaven and Earth, whose eternal nature lies in their unity…those who understand the principle of yin and yang will experience immortality."

But making food and making love are quite different from each other. Humans tend to be more bestial when it comes to sex; culinary pleasures have more variation and more refinement than simple procreation activities. Moreover, the types of food and how it is prepared defines a specific culture, going beyond the parameters of simple survival.

The way food is categorized, preserved, prepared, displayed, as well as the amounts eaten, the way it is eaten, who eats it and when – all vary among civilizations. Furthermore, inside each culture are sub-categories for food: eating differences covering economics, religious, age, time and seasons, even occupations and physical health. Most anthropologists and culinary historians assert that China undoubtedly has the widest range of all these categories regarding the production and consumption of foodstuffs.

Chinese cooks and chefs throughout history, despite how they cook, or who they cook for, or what kind of cuisine they prepare, or the season they prepare a dish, always adhere to the one overriding concept: food as medicine. This ancient theory best highlights Chinese culture and its cuisine in view of other culinary dynamics, modern and ancient.

While Confucianism was concerned with the social and aesthetic aspects of food and dining, texture and appearance, the Taoists, seeking longevity and health, were developing hygienic rituals for food and cooking. The principle objectives of this philosophy carried a wish for longevity and a desire to promote health.

For centuries the Chinese have cultivated food as medicine and used coking as a conduit to bring out the medicinal vales of various foodstuffs. Western thought uses food to provide energy and nutrition, with medicine as a separate category to treat illness. But Chinese feel that all food has a unique capacity to aid in promoting and retaining health. The way food is cooked and combined, along with the amount, the time of year and the person eating it – all combine in a positive way to support health. It can be suggested that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) originated in the kitchen and has never really left. Ancient chefs, such as the aforementioned Yi Yin, preached the value of a diverse diet and devised specific preferences that each internal organ needed to remain healthy (heart & mind -- bitter taste; the liver--sour; the lung--pungent; the 'spleen' -sweat; and the kidneys, reproductive and adrenal functions—salty). He and others were regarded as more than purveyors of food; rather they resembled a combined sort of physician/magician, making chefs greatly revered.

Using food and herbs as medicine is a very ancient idea. Emperor Shen Nong, known as the legendary father of agriculture, lived sometime around 3000 BC. He studied the healing properties of plants and first established the theory of yin and yang. This model was later adopted by the Taoists, who made it part of the basic foundation of Chinese culture, philosophy, medicine and culinary arts.

Yin and yang are opposing, yet complimentary forces of the universe that balance each other out to create universal harmony. Everything is classified as either yin or yang, and everything is influenced by their constant ebb and flow. This vital tenet evolved into fundamental Taoist principals that classified food as either 'hot' or 'cold' with reference to the influence each food has on body function rather than simply relying on taste. The Taoist view became firmly ingrained centuries ago when Tao Hong Jing (456-536 A.D.), among others, advocated using hot food to warm up a cold body and vice versa.

It is still respected highly today. Ordinary Chinese will assert that imbalances in the body and food intake can cause disease just as westerners count calories, fat grams and carbs to remain healthy and fit. For Chinese, to maintain equilibrium foods, classified as yin, yang, or neutral depending on their effect on the body, are ingested accordingly. Yin foods calm, yang foods provoke hyperactivity. Yang foods include eggs, fatty meats and pungent spices; they are strong, rich and spicy. Yin foods: raw fruits and vegetables and seafood, are bitter, salty and light.

The Chinese also have another set of categories for foodstuffs: sweet (earth), bitter (fire), sour (wood), pungent (metal), and salty (water). Each type has influence over human organs and each also corresponds to a different season of the year. Salty foods are best in winter; they help the kidneys and bladder work well. Sweet, earth foods, for summer's end, get rid of inertia and calm the stomach while bitter foods, eaten in early summer influence the small intestine and heart. Sour, wood foods, meant for springtime, impact upon the liver and gallbladder and contrast with aromatic, metal foods that are eaten in the fall and have power over the large intestine and lungs.

Chinese chefs have through history used their ancient esoteric philosophy to choose between insufficiency and excess. Matching taste with an organ is an application of the 'five elements' concept in Chinese culture; it was incorporated with medicine and cooking simultaneously, along with taste, color, weather, and temperament.

Color also holds great import regarding the ingestion of food and/or medicine: red colored organic matter affects the heart, green the liver, yellow--the 'spleen,' white--the lung, and black--the kidney. Even today Chinese people prefer to eat a porridge of many colors and many pulses "for good luck" during the holidays because a) the colors are varied and so a better choice for overall health and b) the grains together act as a tonic to promote longevity.

Traditional Chinese Medicine purports that diet and exercise play a significant role in maintaining good health by contributing to an optimum balance of vital life energy, or Qi. With diet, heredity and environment as the three sources of Qi traditional Chinese medicine states that foods we eat directly influence physical excesses and deficiencies. In order to be accomplished as a cook Chinese people educate themselves along these guiding principles; TCM doctors are experts in foods, tonics and herbal remedies, among their other skills.

To be a chef anywhere in the world today is an unusual, exciting occupation. Those that rise high now carry the status of celebrities; a few may even have the ear of their national leaders. Chinese chefs, viewed through the lens of Chinese history and Chinese philosophy, clearly take the prize for their historical influence, power, creativity and knowledge.

To be a Chinese cook one must be diplomat, an artist, a philosopher and a chemist, blending flavors, nutritional potentials and beauty into a series of elegant dishes that delight and nourish their guests. Using food to promote good relationships, using food as a diplomatic art form, along with traditional means of communication, is crucial more than ever to preserve world stability.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-01-10 16:34:10
Indeed, one must be a philosopher and I would add a poet too. As John Keats aptly put in his Ode to a Grecian Urn: Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty and that is all ye need to know on earth.

Sand2008-01-10 21:20:22
Anyone who is even slightly conscious of the horrible truths occurring in the world today and throughout history is fully aware of how fatuous Keats oft quoted remark is.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-10 22:49:18
So much for Keats. Keats to the bonfire you go! What we need to be most aware of is "the barbarism of the intellect" which will eventually bring down civilization as we know it. May 10, 1942 may have been a mere warning sign.

Sand2008-01-11 05:50:44
Anyone who accepts so-called "accepted wisdom" without examining it thoroughly and comparing it with obvious experience is doubtless a simpleton not worthy of serious attention.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-11 09:19:35
Here is the other side of the coin: he who puts himself beyond the pale of common sense and the wisdom of the people and the ages which he consigns to the bonfire is a fool and a cultural Philistine not worthy of any attention.

Sand2008-01-11 09:53:45
Okay, let’s put aside the foolish proclamations that mask an obvious stupidity. Paparella you are absolutely prone to swallow all sorts of nonsense if it is associated with an acclaimed historical authority ignoring as to whether it has any truth in it. It is, of course, due to your strict Catholic upbringing where dogma and authority takes precedence over simple common sense.

Keats’ statement of the equivalence of beauty and truth has so many outrageous violations of daily observed occurrence that the concept is obviously nonsense.
I have had the horrible experiences of watching several close relations die horrible deaths with no way to help them. There is no denying there was terrible truth about the process. Anyone detecting beauty in those incidents is either perverted or immensely callous and stupid. Most of us will die badly as it is not a nice process and to contemplate that inevitability as beautiful has no relationship to sensible values.

On the other side of the coin (since we seem to be flipping coins) I go along with Picasso who said “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand.” And also “I have a horror of people who speak about the beautiful. What is the beautiful? One must speak of problems in painting!”

And I respect him, not because he is Picasso, but because, as a fellow artist I have had like experiences and appreciate how well he describes my own attempts to wrestle with the world.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-11 10:07:39
Ever seen Gericault's The Draft of the Medusa?

I too have a favored fellow-artist. His name was Homer; 26 centuries ago he described a terrible war in the Iliad but his art transmuted that terrible event in a terrible beauty which surely you were made to read in High School. To have lost the grasp of what art is capable of doing with the terrible ugly events of everyday is to have become not only a cynic but a cultural Philistine to boot.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-11 10:14:18
P.S. Is that third line an unconscious revelation of what your real agenda is in this magazine? I told you not to listen to those terrible voices in your head.

Sand2008-01-11 10:15:13
Glad to know that you agree with Picasso that art is a lie.

Sand2008-01-11 10:50:21
Homer, of course, was that guy who spoke of heroism and valor on the field of war totally neglecting the frightful ugly truth of people slaughtering each other for idiotic reasons, something that is going on today in Iraq and is mentally and physically damaging its participants as it must have done equally then.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-11 10:53:01
The True, the Beautifu and the Good are more real than all your documented "true" facts. There is more truth in the Ilyad about war than in many prosaic jouranalists' reports and beauty is essential to the mix.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-11 10:55:27
Is that what they taught you in school about Homer and the Iliad? You must have had some pretty lousy teachers.

Homer to the bonfire you go!

Sand2008-01-11 15:56:39
Hitler, of course, was notorious in his admiration for the butchery of war.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-11 20:00:40
I wager he had no admiration for Homer and that in fact he consigned Homer to the bonfire too together with Dostoyevsky and Kafka.

Sand2008-01-11 20:39:41
You lost.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-12 10:10:30
Indeed I did, if it was you rather than Hitler that did the consigning to the bonfire.

Sand2008-01-12 12:13:35
Stop shifting the blame. I never consigned any literature to any fire. It is you who foams at the mouth and throws books to the flame when I request careful examination of any literature to see how it does not match up with common sense or basic decency.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-13 01:43:32
Common sense and basic decency? The voices told you that to slander and to defame is basic decency? They have it tupsy turvy, I am afraid.

Sand2008-01-13 05:05:42
Since it seems to boil down to your voices against my voices, I go with mine.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-13 08:07:10
But I am not the one who wrote that "I must admit that I do have silent conversations with somebody else or perhaps with several somebody elses."

Sand2008-01-13 08:44:33
But of course, anyone with normal mental capabilities (there's that wonderful word again)internally discusses and examines various possibilities to discover advantages and limits. If you cannot do that it well explains the obvious stupidities that you openly endorse. I had not suspected before how mentally crippled you were and I am sorry you suffer so.
Insofar as decency is concerned, anybody that glorifies the butchery of human conflict be it Homer, Hitler, Hussein, or anybody else whose name started with "H" does not rate particularly highly in my scale of human decency.

Sand2008-01-13 09:11:02
It is time, I guess, to congratulate you for your open admission of your lack of the internal voices which each normal human possesses to do what we call "thinking". This clearly explains why nine tenths of your submissions consist of quotes from various real and bogus authorities who have done your thinking for you. It is an admirable substitution for your lack of this basic ability but, unfortunately, even a modicum of thinking would have lead you to more substantial and sensible sources. So it goes.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-13 16:34:09
Ah, what does it mean to be a "normal" human. Was not that the question posed by the ancient Greeks some 2500 years ago? Reinventing the wheel?

Sand2008-01-13 17:14:48
Since you have neither displayed an understanding of internal dialog nor recognized that the average person who thinks mentally discusses with him/herself personal problems it seems I was right on in assuming this mode of cogitation has evaded you totally. I assure you that internal mental discussion is quite normal and since it is not available to you I can understand your distress.
Whether or not the Greeks re-invented the wheel or inherited the technology does not particularly concern me at the moment. I have no knowledge of what contemporary Greeks are discussing so it is unlikely I know what they discussed thousands of years ago. Since you seem to possess the magical ability to know what Greeks discuss anytime in history, perhaps, just for fun, you could inform me of what they were discussing in 1874 on June 12 at precisely three pm in the afternoon.

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