02- Food as Art: A Venerable Tradition

Serves: 5



Chinese culture is the oldest continuous civilization in the world. It goes back some four thousand years, and the art of Chinese cooking goes back with it. The Chinese people were early farmers who planted not only staple crops, but also such spices as anise and ginger, long before anyone else knew what these were. They were among the first discoverers of fire. Most likely, they cooked their food in a civilized way while the rest of mankind was still gulping it down raw.

Many forces shaped the character of Chinese cooking. There was always a leisure class: men with the wealth, curiosity and time to cultivate their palates and delight their senses. These men dreamed about and fussed over food. One thousand years before the birth of Christ, they were already experimenting with fancy cooking, recording their recipes on silk and bamboo. As early as 1115 B.C. the Imperial Court appointed a dietitian who held the rank of medical officer. His job was not only to supervise the cooking, but to study the effects (both psychic and physical) of the various dishes served. These men of leisure brought refinement to the Chinese cuisine and discovered its rarest and most exquisite delicacies.

Yet famine as well as feast was to influence Chinese cooking. Many times in the country's history flood and drought destroyed the crops and devastated the economy. The Chinese were forced by these disasters to become great domestic economists. Fuel, for example, was chronically scarce, but the Chinese soon discovered it took less wood or charcoal to steam rice than to bake bread. And to make their limited fuel supplies go even further, they evolved several techniques for cooking food very quickly.

In order to survive, the Chinese had to put their land to the best possible use. They found, for example, that raising cattle as work animals was more economical than raising them for food. (Draft animals need no special grazing areas. They can subsist on uncultivated grass and straw.) Thus the land was used for growing grain, which in turn directly fed larger numbers of people than the beef ever could. On the other hand, pigs and poultry could be raised without agricultural displacement and so became mainstays of the diet, but not for the very poorest Chinese the mainstays of their diet were rice and vegetables.

Adversity forced the Chinese always to seek new sources of food. They were gastronomically courageous, setting no limits as to where they would look. They explored rivers and oceans and found shrimp, crab, sea cucumber, lobster and squid. They put everything edible to use, finding wonderful ways to utilize strange plants and roots: lily buds, fungi, chrysanthemum petals. By the end of the first century A.D., the Chinese had formulated a list of 365 varieties of edible plants along with similar lists of edible seafood, fowl and animals. In addition, they evolved various salting and drying techniques to preserve many ingredients indefinitely.

In their long history, the Chinese had limitless opportunities to experiment with all kinds of foods in all kinds of ways. Their most successful experiments have become part of our culinary heritage. They represent the imaginative spirit of countless men and women, often forced by circumstance to make something of very little.

The imaginativeness of the Chinese was coupled with a strong sense of artistry. Inevitably, this artistry (beautifully demonstrated in jade, ivory, porcelain, bronze and calligraphy) was to find expression in Chinese cooking. Every aspect of food was analyzed, from palatability and texture to fragrance and color. Every dish was given proportion and balance, delicacy and harmony. In the hands of the Chinese, cooking was elevated from a menial and repetitive task to a satisfying art form.

The art was not in the cooking alone. It was in the eating as well. Sharing the pleasures of good food became part of the Chinese social tradition. Friendship and food were inseparably linked. Friends on a visit were always urged to stay for a meal. A gathering without food was considered incomplete and improper. The meal hour became the symbol of the good life, a time for relaxation and pleasantry, when the harsher realities could be forgotten-a ceremonial of friendship and sociability.

Twenty-five hundred years ago Confucius described the enjoyment of food as one of the beautiful and gentle things which contribute to the peace and harmony of society. Similar references to cooking as an art appeared in China's earliest literature, and continued to appear as a traditional theme. For thousands of years Chinese men of letters were gourmets. As a matter of fact, China is perhaps the only country in the world where scholars wrote learned treatises on food and poets wrote cookbooks.

Yet the primary way of passing Chinese cooking from one generation to the next was not by the written word but by demonstration and word of mouth-from mother to daughter, from master chef to youthful apprentice. Each in turn was to add his own ideas, to work out his own culinary variations on what had gone before.

Thus, over the centuries, out of a relatively small range of ingredients, the Chinese created vast numbers of dishes. They invented more than two hundred ways to cook pork and so many ways to cook chicken that one might eat it every day for a week, at every meal, without tiring of it. The Chinese cuisine, unsurpassed by any other in variety, is said to include some eighty thousand different dishes.

The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. ©1994 by Gloria Bley Miller.

This 02- Food as Art: A Venerable Tradition recipe is from the Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

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