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Woks, Fishing Nets, and Ceramic Jars
Chinese Food in Asia (but not China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan)
Spring Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(1) page(s): 7, 8, and 12
There are many legends and many more facts whose origins are of medieval Indian Ocean trade. This trade spanned an astonishing period of time and encompassed large regions and many population groups. The cultural diversity of the regions surrounding the Indian Ocean was deep-rooted in four different civilizations: Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, and Arabic. Yearly, voyages embarked from all of their ocean shores for age-old destinations.
The Chinese were accomplished and daring seafarers. Their early Yi populations lived along the south China coast, and some say they were the forefathers of Chinese seafaring. They were not alone. Maritime trade flourished in the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea long before the beginning of the Christian era.
Ports along the Malabar coast of southwestern India, especially the ancient port of Muziris, became important transshipment ports for Chinese and Roman traders. Initially, the transportation of commodities produced in Southeast Asia and China were mainly undertaken by Indian ships or those from the Red sea and Persian Gulf. However, by the first century of the Christian Era, Chinese trade with India, especially southwest India became extensive.
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161 CE - 180 CE) sent a mission to China and after that, Chinese junks began bringing large quantities of goods to the Malabar Coast. By the turn of the century, several Roman ships were arriving at Muziris to collect Indian and Chinese cargo. Some Roman merchants remained in that port to serve as middlemen between local and Chinese merchants and to assist their own countrymen who had cargo to trade.
Chinese documents, circa 500 CE, refer to trade with Rome and India and they discuss the dangers encountered crossing the western ocean. Despite civil wars, political disintegration and foreign invasions, the economic growth of the Celestial Empire was unparalleled from the 7th to the 15th centuries. It attracted a surge of overland caravans as well as many transoceanic traders.
The reign of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) was China’s golden age in foreign relations. Its advanced civilization made them the envy of countries throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa. Tang merchants were trading with more than seventy countries. Each of them sent envoys and merchants to China. In the 7th century, Xian-–then known as Chang’an--emerged as a thriving metropolis. Around its inner city, was an outer one for the traders. It had many temples and two big markets. The eastern one sold Chinese goods, the western one goods from India, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Persian Gulf countries. By 750 CE, there were settlements there of Indian merchants with their own temples.
By the 10th century, Chinese merchants and junk owners were conscious of financial gains to be made from direct participation in Indian Ocean trade. Their heavily planked and multi decked ships, called junks, started to sail towards southeast Asia. They reached commercial emporia on India’s Malabar coast before the Song dynasty.
The next burst of oceanic trading began during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE). This was a time when China had the world's most advanced economy. Early in the 13th century, China controlled the bulk of the Indian Ocean trade. Then, rulers from the Southern Song (1127 - 1279 CE) prohibited exchanging metals and coins, so trade continued bartering Chinese silks and ceramics. Between 1250 and 1350 CE, these trade networks were extended. Then, early in the 15th century, Ming Dynasty emperors undertook an ambitious series of Indian Ocean expeditions. However, in 1433, these were totally abandoned due to criticism from senior mandarins.
This trade had been founded on economic and social acceptance of four great products from eastern civilizations, namely: silk, porcelain, sandalwood, and black pepper. They were exchanged for gold, silver, other metal goods, and horses. Ming pottery, blue and white porcelain, and Chinese celadon were popular commodities. Many Asians believed this pale sea-green celadon ware of China could reveal poisons in food. That, and their demand for Chinese porcelains was due to an evolving appreciation of their fine shapes, and the colors and glazes used to make them.
The Chinese brought silk, ceramic pots, camphor, and metals to India. They took back black pepper, cardamom, ginger, coconut, and areca nuts to China. More than the other spices, there was a large demand, by the Chinese, for black pepper grown in and around the Malabar Coast. Then and today, many Chinese recipes use this black pepper.
The centuries-old trade with China left a firm imprint on the Malabar Coast, it lingers still today. At its height, substantial and lasting geographic changes took place. The great flood of 1341 CE totally destroyed the ancient port of Muziris and opened a large natural harbor at the nearby little fishing village of Kochi. One hundred and fifty years later, the port of Kochi gained strategic importance and commercial prosperity.
The fishermen of Kochi knew about fishing in their low lying lagoons. Then, when their little village emerged as a major port facing the Arabian Sea, the Chinese taught them to use huge nets and fish in the ocean, even during high tide. It is interesting to note that fishermen in this port still don conical hats, another Chinese contribution.
Ancient Chinese fishing nets can be seen at the entrance of Kochi harbor and all along the coastline, even today. These hanging fishing nets use an ancient Chinese mechanical method of catching fish. The large, flat nets are set up on teak wood and bamboo poles. They are lowered into the water by a crane-like structure during high tide. It takes three or four men, assisted by primitive counter weights, to accomplish this. The nets are pulled out after a few minutes, trapping fish within. This operation continues through the night, oil lights dangling on the nets to attract fish.
Other remnants of ancient Chinese trade still visible on these shores are Chinese woks and Chinese ceramic jars. In the local language these cooking utensils are still called Cheena chatti and Cheena bharani. These words literally translate to Chinese pot and Chinese ceramic jar. They might be manufactured in India or elsewhere, but are still known by these old names.
The traditional cheena chatti is made with iron. It is in the exact shape of a Chinese wok. This is an indispensable cooking utensil in every Indian home. It is used to sauté, stir fry, and deep fry foods. Chinese ceramic jars are used, too. They are preferred for storing homemade pickles and milk products such as yogurt and butter milk.
An interesting anecdote is told about these pickling jars. Legend has it that once a Chinese ship was ruined on the high seas. Some of the men escaped in small boats with whatever they could salvage. The owner of the ship arrived on the shores of Malabar Coast in one such small boat loaded with some of his merchandise. He called on a local house and told them about his misfortune and requested some food.
The homeowner was a poor man and was just sitting down with his family for a meager meal of conjee. He felt sorry for the merchant and invited him to share this meal with him. Hungry and exhausted, the Chinese merchant was happy to accept this invitation. After the meal he told the homeowner, “you have not just given me some food, you have saved my life. I will never forget the taste of this bowl of conjee. I am not able to repay you today, but if I am able to return to China and come back again, I promise to repay you for your kindness. God will bless you for your kindness towards a man in distress.”
He asked the homeowner for one more favor, if he would store ten Chinese ceramic jars until he came back from China to collect them. The homeowner asked, “I hope you do not have anything valuable in these jars. My house is not a very safe place.” To this the merchant answered that the jars were heavy because he had filled them with lentils. The homeowner sealed the jars in front of the merchant and put them away for safekeeping.
Weeks and months passed and the Chinese trader did not return. In the meantime, the homeowner was having a very difficult time financially. One day when the children were crying and very hungry his wife said, “Please let me take some lentils from one of the jars to feed the children. Who knows when the Chinese merchant will return?” The homeowner, an honest man, did not want to use someone else’s property. Ultimately, however, her tears won him over and he allowed her to open just one jar.
To their surprise, when they opened the jar there were only a handful of lentils there and it was filled to the rim with gold coins. The homeowner took some gold coins, sold them, and bought food for the family. He used the rest of the money to renovate his house. He began to cultivate his land and slowly his fortunes rose. He lived a happy life. When he had enough money he bought more gold coins in the market and put them into that original jar. When it was full, he sealed it and put it way along with the other nine.
Twelve years passed. One day the Chinese merchant returned. Seeing the big house he thought ‘Oh God, this man has cheated me and used my wealth.’ When he approached the front gate, the homeowner recognized him and welcomed him into his house. The merchant could not believe his eyes when he brought out all ten jars in their original form. Then came ten smaller jars similarly sealed. The merchant was impressed by his honesty, but confused about the new jars he said, “Why ten more?” The homeowner replied, “My friend I must apologize because I was not faithful. I used some of your money to feed my family and farm my land. I must pay you interest. Please accept these small jars filled with gold coins as that interest.”
Touched by his honesty, the Chinese merchant said “I was away for several years and you were safekeeping my jars all this time. You have earned your wealth through hard work. I cannot take that away from you. My money was just a vehicle for it. It is I who should pay you for all these years of safekeeping. Please accept one of these jars as a token of my appreciation.” He left the jar with a defective mouth for the homeowner and took back the other nine. When taking leave the merchant said, ”I am giving you a jar with defective mouth, but it is a blessed jar. There will be no poverty in the house where it is kept. Besides, if you use it for pickling, you will have the tastiest pickles ever.” They parted as good friends.
When it was mango season, the wife decided to use the jar the merchant left. She plucked tiny tender green mangoes from the mango tree, washed and salted them liberally, and put them in the jar. She stirred it twice daily, covered it tightly, and set it aside. She repeated the process for a week . A week later she opened the jar to taste the pickled mango. Her joy knew no bounds. It was the best mango pickle she had ever made. Legend has it that the descendants of this family still use this very jar to pickle their mangoes.
They and others know that during the early years of the 15th century, the Ming navy had more than three thousand ocean-going vessels. However, shortly after the last voyage, an imperial edict ordered the destruction of all of them and the arrest any of merchant who continued to sail. Japanese pirates were terrorizing China’s shores.
Many years have passed since the last Chinese trader stepped off his junk and on to the shores of Malabar. Nonetheless, one can still find a Chinese wok and a few ceramic jars in every kitchen in this southwestern state of India. Chinese blue and white pottery still fetches a hefty price at local antique stores. Dangling oil lamps from majestic Chinese style fishing nets along the shore line linger as a reminder of the flourishing ocean trade centuries past. And the legend of the jars, the gold coins in them, and the wonderful mango pickles linger, as well.
Should you want to make this simple condiment of tart green mangos preserved in salt, a recipe follows. It is a staple in our kitchens, and a permanent standby during monsoon seasons. For those wanting to cook in a cheena chatti, the second recipe uses this item whose origins are from early trade with the Chinese.
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