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Cold Food and Ice in the Chinese Culinary

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(1) page(s): 12 and 18

Modern day perceptions are that the Chinese only consumed hot or tepid foods. No one really believes that they ate cold or frozen ones. “Chinese eat cold foods” said a colleague, “well maybe today and maybe only teenagers.” Another Chinese friend remarked, “We adults know better” and then she went on saying, “there is no place in the Chinese culinary, that is until today, for ice cubes or frozen foods in my culture.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

We wondered why should China be different, at least in the sweets category, when virtually every country in Asia boasts and has boasted an iced dessert. It is true that tales erroneously tell of Marco Polo seeing frozen milk in what is now called Beijing. We could not locate that in his writings, though he did find milk there. Nary could we find a mention of anything iced, even in a third read-through of those travels. Wonder if those folk knew a different Marco, We went to Taipei recently, and in an igloo-shaped shop, for one, lines formed to buy an iced concoction topped with mango puree, condensed milk, and pieces of mango. That is but one of today’s features that Marco never saw.

However, the ancient Chinese did detail information about frozen water and its uses. They said that if ice was not stored according to the natural or correct way, then yin breath would escape in the form of hailstones. They knew about ice, and how to use it. They made and stored lots of it, had clever ways to use it for refrigeration, and that was a few thousand years ago.

In pre-Imperial times, there were special keepers of ice. The Grand Commandant of the Imperial Palace had a directorate of Foodstuffs under whose command was the task of making ice, harvesting it, storing it, and using it. One task his men supervised, was transporting this frozen commodity when they transported foods. His, and other ancient records indicate that plums, loquats, fish, and other foods were transported either in or on ice.

Not only that, but a couple of thousand years ago there was a 'Cold Food Festival.' Disagreement exists as to if it was a very early general festival, one pagan in origin, or a later or Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) festival celebrating the rebirth of the strong sun. This was a festival held in early spring also known as 'Eating Cold Food' or Han shih in Chinese. Thoughts are that it came into existence considerably before the dawn of the Common Era (CE).

What is known is, that as time went on, this festival grew in importance. The earliest written documentation can be found in the Hsin Lun, written by the philosopher Huan Tan. His birth date was not reported but his date of death is pegged in the fourth decade of the Common Era. What Hsin Lun wrote about, and others have been said since, is that people put out their fires for one, three, or five days. And when they did, they ate only cold food. Hence the name of the holiday: The Cold Food Festival.

Later, this celebration was expanded and/or given another reason to celebrate, that was to honor Chieh Tzu-tui, a famous Chinese hero who followed the Marquis of Chin into exile. The tale told is that Chieh returned with Marquis Chin, when he was restored to power. This ruler offered honors, more as a reward, to the small group of followers who remained loyal and stayed with him. Most accepted some tangible reward but Chieh Tzu-tui did not. He said something to the effect that he was just doing his duty. Most historians attach this time of no fires to the celebration honoring this selfless man. They say it is the second reason for this festival, others who know not of the earlier one, say it the only reason.

Those that believe the former, advise that abstinence from fire-lighting began much earlier than during the lifetime of Chien. They say the holiday was based upon the stars and that it might even have been a month-long time not to light fires. In any case, the Cold Food Festival fell into disuse. But when it had been popular, it was held one hundred and five days after the Winter Solstice. This, according to western calendars, puts the celebration in early April.

During this festival, everyone not only put out their fires, everyone ate cold food. Whether or not the festival celebrated stars in the heavens or Mr. Chieh is still hotly debated. However, what is known for sure is that in the sixth century of this era, there were two royal edicts that assured its continuance. They advised that all should maintain this holiday, from the highest levels to the lowest man.

A few detailed descriptions of foods made for this holiday do exist. One is called li lao, which is a special kind of rice congee. It is cooked in water flavored with apricot pits and just before serving, one needs to add some malt sugar. Another, also a congee, is made with sugar and barley. We now know that because of their high sugar content, both would not spoil easily if left at room temperature, and certainly not spoil if kept even cooler. We surmise that these and other foods were prepared before the fires were put out, and the foods probably kept on ice. That supposition must have been so, when the festival was celebrated for a month. After the festival, the fires were relit in preparation for the Ching Ming Festival.

As to the use of ice and iced foods, these may or may not have been associated with the above mentioned festival. But, in a poem circa 1100 BCE, and in the Food Canons or Shih Ching, there is mention that when ice houses were opened for summer use, a festival was held. Was that the very same celebration, no one seems to know for sure. Translated, they are sure that the poem says: “In the days of the second month, they hand out ice...and...in the third month they convey it to the ice house when they open...in those of the fourth, early in the morning having offered a sacrifice of lamb with scallions.”

Other uses involve ice cooled homes in the Tang Dynasty (617 - 907 CE). That in the Imperial Court, crystalline or frozen mixtures of rice, cows milk, and dragon bone fragments were made. We spoke of fish and other perishables transported, but failed to mention that they were shipped eleven hundred miles preserved in ice.

Bean curd was frozen and then used in soups and stews and hot pots. Later, Yuan Mei (1716 - 1798 CE) who was an ardent lover of food and wine and a well-known poet was very fond of saying that iced bean curd was far superior to bird’s nest, if well flavored. He was not the first to recognize this. But before discussing Yuan Mei and his beloved Iced Bean Curd recipe, let us advise that the Cold Food Festival warrants an entire article in the 1986 Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies in Volume 46 on pages 51 through 79. Do read it to learn more about it. That and other readings advise that the Cold Food Festival had adherents well into the 1940's. It may have been snuffed out due to other factors in those times. We leave that for you to explore.

To put things in chronological perspective, Yuan Mei lived long after the origins of the cold food festival; but probably during times in which it was celebrated. He was a chap with a delicate stomach and a penchant for learning the recipes of any fine food he enjoyed at another’s home. He was creative enough to send a cook as an apprentice to establishments to learn and then his cook could serve him any dish he deemed worthy. He recorded these dishes and those his own cooks prepared for him that he loved, some three hundred of them. He compiled these recipes in a book called the Sui-yuan Shi-tan or the Sui-Yan Cook Book. It was completed in the late 18th century and is considered the very first comprehensive cookbook categorized by main ingredient, bean curd among them.

His book has a nine-recipe chapter on this delicate food he called ‘superior to bird’s nest.’ One such recipe, clearly acquired from a local dignitary, is called Prefect Wang’s Eight Treasure Bean Curd. Alas, it and all recipes do not have the amounts for any of the ingredients. However, Yan-kit So once gave a talk about Iced Bean Curd at an Oxford Symposium on Food in that city in the United Kingdom.

Yan-kit So discussed the recipe and how to use it with me and others there, and I wrote her thoughts on a pad. Since then, she has included a variation of that hand-me-down recipe in one of her books titled Classic Food of China published in London by Macmillan in 1992; it is on page 222. You can use her frozen bean curd in any hot pot dish, and I recommend that you do.

Below, is your editor’s version of So’s version of Yuan Mei’s version of the Prefect’s recipe. It is taken from original notes and is a variation of the Prefect’s beancurd, several times removed. This is a true hand-me-down that came to Yan-kit So, a London cookbook author, who handed it down to many of us, and now it is handed on to you. The truth is, it varies from the published version and from the one scribbled down at that Oxfords Symposium, but never-you-mind, just make it and enjoy!
Iced Bean Curd
3 cakes of soft or firm bean curd
1. Freeze the bean curd cakes on pieces of aluminum foil for at least twenty-four, preferably for forty-eight hours.
2. Defrost, then squeeze out as much water as you can. Next, drop them in boiling water for two minutes. remove, and drain. When cool squeeze out the water again, then use them in any recipe that cooks them for at least twenty minutes.
Iced Bean Curd (from Yuan Mei)
3 defrosted and blanched bean curd cakes
1 Tablespoon corn oil
6 black mushrooms, soaked for half an hour in warm water, stems removed, and diced into quarter-inch pieces
1/2 half cup fresh bamboo shoots, boiled for twenty minutes, then diced into quarter-inch pieces
1/2 cup mixed diced carrots and water chestnuts, diced as above
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
3 cups strained stock made with at least half cup each of shrimp shells, chicken bones, and pork bones
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Squeeze out as much water as you can from the bean curd and dice it into one-inch pieces.
2. Heat the oil, then fry the bean curd and the mushrooms for three minutes stirring constantly, then add the vegetables and the soy sauce and stir thoroughly before adding the stock.
3. Bring to just below the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered on low heat for forty minutes. Be sure to stir it during the last half of the cooking time so that it does not burn or stick to the pan.
4. Add sesame oil, then serve.

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