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Chinese Food Symbolism: Vegetables (Part III)

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Foods and Symbolism

Fall Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(3) page(s): 19

Many items have symbolism and vegetables, the third in this series, are no exception. Some of the associated meanings come from legends handed down from generation to generation, others from influences known or unknown. In this issue, I will explore a few foods from the vegetable kingdom. And as was done in the last issue when meats were highlighted, they will be introduced in alphabetical order. Space in this issue is at a premium, so only the first half of the alphabetic list will be in this issue, others will be in subsequent ones. Bamboo, one of the most significant, and certainly a part of many recipes, bamboo can be either the winter or the summer variety. This plant can be used in many ways and has many meanings, some the antithesis of others. Bamboo is one of four noble plants (chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum-blossom are the others) and as such can bear meanings associated with honor and need. From the visual perspective, the young plants resemble a slender woman but can mean youth of either sex. Because this plant lives long, is evergreen and thin--even gaunt, it can symbolize old age, as well. And, because the inside of the bamboo is hollow, use of bamboo can infer an empty heart or mean a modest person.

Beans, particularly soy beans, are the most important of Chinese foods. The soy bean has been a necessity of life as a source of needed protein. So when you hear about or see someone eating bean curd, it can be a metaphor for sexual relations and the continuance of society. In some regions, at a wedding you will see the mother-in-law give the bride a cake made from dried bean-curd. Here the meaning is hope for grandsons that live long enough to become important people--such as high officials.

Chrysanthemum, another of the noble plants, can be eaten as a vegetable. The Chinese believe it symbolizes long life, perhaps because the sound for it is very close to the word that means 'to remain.' In pictures, this flower-cum-vegetable often appears with a plum blossom, and as such means summer and winter. In prepared dishes it appears alone, only the white ones are used, and its many petals bless all with wishes for many progeny.

Eggplant is, in some cultures, considered a lowly vegetable. Not so to the Chinese who see it resembling a man wearing a hat. Perhaps that is the origin of its historic symbolism as an official wearing his cap of office. Sending or receiving an eggplant, one might telling or learning that a promotion or an official post may be on the horizon. Taoists do not believe this, perhaps because they prohibit use of any food in the nightshade family.

Garlic is considered a lucky plant because in legend and history it has been used as an antidote to poisons of all sorts. It has other prolific uses such as when it symbolizes luck, health, or rich progeny in numbers or economics. Garlic and five are partners in the fifth day of the fifth month festival and in many dishes that use at least five ingredients. Emperors knew that garlic was good for the blood, they wanted it served in many of the foods presented to them. Some Chinese rulers prized it as a sexual tonic; that is why monastic kitchens in their country forbade its use.

Ginger has always been noted for its digestive properties; Confucius would never eat a meal without it. It has been noted for other medicinal uses, as well. To some, looks like a finger and thus women do not like to eat it when pregnant lest they bear a child with more than five fingers. After the child's birth, a piece of raw ginger was hung on the front door to ward off evil spirits.

Ginseng, is tonic, curative, restorative, and beloved because its roots can resemble a human being. Of course, not all ginseng roots resemble man, though many are trimmed before drying to look human-like. Second only to tea, this root is the most highly prized of all plants. Some people call this root the elixir of life, its magic potency calling for the extension of life because one of the Eight Immortals in their mythology ate a root two feet long. Soups made with ginseng are the most popular culinary form and though not popular for all (youth finds itself invincible), they certainly are an elder's treat. Should you care to purchase any, those found wild are preferred over the more common and affordable cultivated varieties.

Melons (or gourds) are important foods with interesting symbolisms such as wearing one can be a chard for longevity and it has the power to ward off demons. Watermelon, called a western melon in Chinese, is one of many melons beloved by all. In picture and real life, bending down in a field to admire one or any melon, may mean suspicion of stealing. Women, on their feast day (the seventh day in the seventh month), make offerings of melons, and on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, they make melon cakes. This, they believe, will bless them with sons. What with girls so interested in this vegetable (or what some believe is a fruit), the term melon seed is a poetic expression for a smiling young girl. Did you ever wonder why such a popular women's item never appears in gifts of food given to them (or men)? The reason is that in some dialects, the word for melon sounds similar to the word for death.

Mushrooms are often mentioned in Chinese literature and legend. Some researchers say that this is because the Chinese knew their hallucinogenic properties. Others say that they are a symbol of longevity or even of immortality.

All of the above have more symbolic meaning in pictures and poetry that they do on the table--but should you invite your boss to dinner, bring on the eggplant; and when entertaining an elderly aunt, a soup of ginseng is in order. For other vegetable and other symbolisms, read future issues of Flavor and Fortune.

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