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Early Chinese Cookbooks

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Winter Volume: 2018 Issue: 25(4) pages: 23 to 24

Many early Chinese cookbooks, before the 6th century CE, have been lost to posterity. Some are known because they were mentioned in later books, but many of them do not have complete citations, exact quotes, or even their recipes. Therefore, there are limited references about them. An example is a fine book by Cui Hao, a prime minister at the beginning of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 CE).

But even with those kind words, from where we know not, very little is known about this volume other than the author was executed for treason. In Chinese, it is called Shi Jing and is said to have had recipes from the author’s mother who dictated them to him. What is known about this book includes that not a single recipe has been located. One source did say they include both banquet and every day dishes, but as the recipes have never been seen, even that can not be guaranteed.

Another very old item is called the Essential Skills for Daily Life. By Jai Sixie, the Prefect of the Shandong Province in Gaoyang written in 533 Ce, it has the Chinese title of Qi Min Yao Shu which in English is translated as the Essential Skills for People’s Daily Lives. Actually, it is not one book, but nine volumes, the last two include its recipes. The other seven show how advanced Chinese agriculture was in those days. The information in them is about making food; the first known source of instructions for making soy sauce. It says it needs choosing the best soy beans. First soak them, to steam them, then ferment them, in that order. Another recipe is for roasting a pig. Yet another is for making salted black beans. We have never seen any of its recipes translated into English; have you?

A later book that also survives is simply called The Book of Recipes. It includes fifty-eight of them. Some are for a special feast that includes six recipes of dishes with lamb. Archeoligists did find another early book titled Records of Home Cooking. It is by a Mrs Wu; her first name not known. Her book includes seventy-six recipes.

Yet another book published soon after this one is by a hermit whose name is Lin Hong. It is titled Simple Offerings of a Mountain Hermit. He lived in the Zhejiang Province. This volume is best remembered for its Lamb Hot Pot. That recipe some call ‘Rinsed Lamb’, and we know not why. I remember eating it years ago at a restaurant in Hangzhou that faced the lake. When doing so, I did wonder why popular other than for its original source; the taste was unimpressive.

A popular painter named Ni Zan, shortly thereafter, does write a fifty recipe cookbook called Food System of the Yulin House. This volume is written while he lives on a boat on Lake Taihu. The four wood cuts (one on the previous page and three on this one) are from this book. Ni Zan is a well-known landscape painter who did like to cook foods in wine or water, sometimes with broth. We remember he had a great influence on Yuan Mei. That chap was a gourmet who did have influence on Chinese food. You may recall that this magazine did publish Yuan Mei’s Iced Bean Curd recipe, and it was well-received. Look for it in the recipe list found at this magazine’s website that lists all articles, recipes, etc. at: www.flavorandfortune.com. To date, that web site lists the more than two thousand recipes this magazine published since its first issue in 1994, the more than one thousand articles, the many book and restaurant reviews, etc.

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