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.
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
culture here 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.
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. . .
generalizations pertain above all to the question:
What characterizes Chinese food? . . . I see the
following common themes:
food style of a culture is certainly first of all
determined by the natural resources that are
available for its use. . . . It is thus not
surprising that Chinese food is above all
characterized by an assemblage of plants and
animals that grew prosperously in the Chinese land
for a long time. A detailed list would be out of
place here, and quantitative data are not
available. The following enumeration is highly
Staples: millet, rice, kao-liang,
wheat, maize, buckwheat, yam, sweet potato.
Legumes: soybean, broad bean, pea- nut, mung
Vegetables: malva, amaranth, Chi- nese
cabbage, mustard green, turnip, radish, mushroom.
Fruits: peach, apricot, plum, apple, jujube
date, pear, crab apple, mountain haw, longan,
Meats: pork, dog, beef, mutton, venison,
chicken, duck, goose, pheasant, many fishes.
Spices: red pepper,
garlic, spring onion, cinnamon.
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.
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. . . .
2. In the
Chinese culture, the whole process of preparing
food from raw ingredients to morsels ready for the
mouth involves a complex of interrelated variables
that is highly distinctive when compared with
other food traditions of major magnitude. At the
base of this complex is the division between
fan, grains and other starch foods, and
ts'ai, vegetable and meat dishes. To prepare a
balanced meal, it must have an appropriate amount
of both fan and ts'ai, and ingredients are readied
along both tracks. Grains are cooked whole or as
flour, making up the fan half of the meal in
various forms: fan (in the narrow sense, "cooked
rice"), steamed wheat-, millet-, or corn-flour
bread, ping ("pancakes"), and noodles.
Vegetables and meats are cut up and mixed in
various ways into individual dishes to constitute
the ts'ai half. Even in meals in which the staple
starch portion and the meat-and-vegetable portion
are apparently joined together, such as in . . .
"wonton" . . . they are in fact put together but
not mixed up, and each still retains its due
proportion and own distinction. . . .
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,
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).
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.
3. The above example shows
that the Chinese way of eating is characterized by a
notable flexibility and adaptability. Since a ts'ai
dish is made of a mixture of ingredients, its
distinctive appearance, taste, and flavor do not
depend on the exact number of ingredients, nor, in
most cases, on any single item. The same is true for
a meal, made up of a combination of dishes. In times
of affluence, a few more expensive items may be
added, but if the times are hard they may be omitted
without doing irreparable damage. If the season is
not quite right, substitutes may be used. With the
basic principles, a Chinese cook can prepare
"Chinese" dishes for the poor as well as the rich,
in times of scarcity as well as abundance, and even
in a foreign country without many familiar
ingredients. The Chinese way of cooking must have
helped the Chinese people through some hard times
throughout their history. And, of course, one may
also say that the Chinese cook the way they do
because of their need and desire for adaptability.
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.
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.
Chinese way of eating is further characterized by
the ideas and beliefs about food, which actively
affect the ways . . . in which food is prepared
and taken. The overriding idea about food in China
-in all likelihood an idea with solid, but as yet
unrevealed, scientific backing-is that the kind
and the amount of food one takes is intimately
relevant to one's health. Food not only affects
health as a matter of general principle, the
selection of the right food at any particular time
must also be dependent upon one's health condition
at that time. Food, therefore, is also medicine.
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 yang forces 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. . . .
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.
Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of the
Chinese food culture is the importance of food
itself in Chinese culture. That Chinese cuisine is
the greatest in the world is highly debatable and
is essentially irrelevant. But few can take
exception to the statement that few other cultures
are as food oriented as the Chinese. And this
orientation appears to be as ancient as Chinese
culture itself. According to Lun yu (Confucian
Analects, chap. "Wei Ling Kung"), when the
duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius (551-479 B.C.)
about military tactics, Confucius replied, "I have
indeed heard about matters pertaining to tsu
(meat stand) and tou (meat platter),
but I have not learned military matters." Indeed,
perhaps one of the most important qualifications
of a Chinese gentleman was his knowledge and skill
pertaining to food and drink. . . .
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.
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
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.
to Chinese Cuisine Index]
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