11 SEPTEMBER 2018 | KAREN KAO
When I think about Chinese food, I think about rice and noodles, soy sauce and tofu. I’ve never thought much about where they came from. Slippery Noodles by Hsiang Ju Lin is a culinary history of China. Starting with a 6th century farming guide and bringing us up to the introduction of Western foods to the Chinese diet, Hsiang explodes assumptions I always had about the food I call home.
Living as I do in Amsterdam, I’ve learned how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius and pounds into kilograms. But imagine trying to measure time in sixth century China.
The animals are back in their pens.
The girls have left the looms for the day.
Yet the moon pauses, unsure that it is evening.
I have to decline your invitation to dinner,
For I shall be here tinkering all night,
Watching incense burn as the water clock drips,
Checking scored candles against the drum tower’s beats.
For centuries, water clocks were the Chinese gold standard for measuring time. But a farmer in the countryside wouldn’t have a water clock at his disposal. Drum towers were in the cities and candles and incense sticks were luxuries beyond the means of the common man.
Measurements were defined by reference to some common experience. To make butter by churning sour milk for the duration of a meal. Or to mix yeast with water until it forms bubbles the size of fish eyes.
If you want to ferment black beans, you need a straw-roofed hut in a shady place. Then you dig a pit inside and fill it with beans. If you’re stingy, the beans won’t generate enough heat to ferment. How much is enough?
If it felt as warm as his armpit.
Cooks, then as now, operate on a trial by error basis. How else do you learn that cow dung fuel produces a steady low heat? Or that the meat of certain animals must never be eaten?
[The chef] must reject the ox that cries in the night, its flavour will be off; the lamb whose coat is cold and odorous; the dog whose legs are reddish; it will taste rank. The fowl that does not chirp; the pig that has gone blind, the horse whose back has darkened — their flesh is inedible.
food as spectacle
Food has always been important to the Chinese. For some gentlemen scholars it was a pleasant past-time as well, both the actual cooking and the record of that meal. Even Confucius is said to have edited a few books on food and cooking in the 5th century BC. He also shared his views on setting a table and dining etiquette. He cautioned dinner guests not to wad their rice in a ball, to slurp or smack their lips. They shouldn’t crunch bones or sneak uneaten food back into the common dish. Above all,
Do not feed the bones to the dogs.
In Confucian times, the kitchen staff at the imperial court was the size of a decent army. There was a food administrator, an inner and outer court chef, cooks, farm managers, hunter-trappers, jerky makers, fishermen, turtle catchers, among many many others. Food was a serious matter for the Chinese emperor.
The philosopher Laozi once said
Govern a large country as you would cook small fish.
That is to say, with the lightest of touches.
the secret handshake
Slippery Noodles was recommended to me by an editor of The Cleaver Quarterly. She uses Hsiang’s book as a way to gauge interest in Chinese food. If you know and like Slippery Noodles, then you belong to her tribe.
To be honest, the text is sometimes hard to read. Slippery Noodles is high on facts and low on narrative arc. Yet despite all that, I got a lot out of this book:
- Hu was what 1st century Chinese called anything that came from the West. A Hu radish was a carrot and a Hu bed was a chair. Hu were the non-Chinese people north and west of China. And so I’ve named one of the characters in my novel Peace Court Hu.
- Jasmine root is a painkiller specifically for broken bones. In Peace Court, a character’s knees are shattered during an interrogation. He begs for some jasmine root to ease his pain.
- Slippery Noodles describes imperial banquets across the ages. I’ve used that information for a blog post on A Chinese Banquet.
Did you know that soy sauce wasn’t discovered until the Ming dynasty? Or that stir-fry originally meant to toast something in a dry pan. Stinky tofu originated in 17th century Fujian province where it was sold by street vendors, just as it is today in Taiwan. And I’ll never touch sea cucumber again, now that I know it’s a giant slug.
Slippery Noodles is history and cookbook combined, though the recipes included are not for the fainthearted. You need to be a foodie and a China freak to enjoy this book.
Guilty on both counts.