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Tang Dynasty: Foods and Food Behaviors

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Summer Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(2) page(s): 13, 14, and 15

China’s physical empire during the almost three hundred years of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) was extensive. It encompassed areas from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia to the northern border with Vietnam. And, it went from the seacoasts of the Pacific Ocean to the Tibetan border. This exceptionally large country had the greatest number of edible items of any country in Asia at that time.

This dynasty, its character illustrated above, began after centuries of division followed by the Sui Dynasty that unified China (581 - 618 CE). When the Tang began, its rulers needed to solve some serious problems such as repatriating thousands of its people held by the Turks. They also needed to restore fiscal solvency, and fill their empty granaries.

During this long dynasty there were two dozen Emperors. One particularly fascinating one, an Empress, was Wu Zetian. She officially ruled from 690 to 705 CE, but in actuality was in power longer because she aided her husband when he was ill. Then after he died she helped install and then depose her eldest son. After his rule, she served for six years as her second son’s regent, and she then deposed him. Only then did this politically astute lady rise to power in her own name.

At the time of her reign and during the rest of the Tang, China had a large aristocracy. They lived comfortably in the worst of times and extravagantly in the best of them. Besides this ruling class, many other groups influenced this country’s eating patterns. Some influences came from a huge Buddhist clergy, others from their many artisans, merchants, peasants, and slaves. The latter groups labored hard and long and produced many different kinds of food. In addition to all of these groups, there were foreign merchants who were valued for their money, wisdom, expertise, and their introduction of new food.

The Tang Dynasty has been called China’s Golden Age. Charles Benn wrote about everyday life (Oxford University Press, 2001); and this independent scholar did what few others have, include a chapter just about their foods and feasts. He writes that it was a time when eating well meant, for those who could afford, eating lots including many kinds of exotica.

The Tang was a time when the dietary included the most diverse number of foods ever available, and they were made in very diverse ways. Virtually every food brought into the country before and during these times were now grown locally. This made them available often, both fresh and preserved. It was also an era when more imported foods than ever came into the country.

During these times, both eating and drinking were important. They were discussed in many print venues, found in poetry, extant and available Food Canons, and in many types of literature. Some recorded or reported about activities such as banquets that had fifty-eight courses or lasted five days. These tomes spoke about tall dining tables and shorter ones, about individual foods including the importation of spinach which arrived from Russia between 627 and 649 CE.

Beverages were discussed, the most common among them, water. The current generation thinks they sport the largest variety, but do they? Recorded during the Tang, one item indicates twenty-eight varieties of plain water and many others of flavored ones. Among the plain was rain water, spring water, mineral water, brook water, water with bubbles, etc. In the flavored category was water made after boiling various fresh or dried fruits alone or in multiple varieties, waters with powdered fruits, waters cooked with minerals, etc. There was even a water, not to be tried any more, cooked with walnut meal and white lead. This item is now known to be poisonous; they said it cured baldness.

Other beverages consumed included milk. Yes, they did drink milk in the north of China. They liked it fresh and warm, and from cows, horses, goats, and water buffalo. They also liked fermented mare’s milk which then and now is known as kumiss, and they liked and consumed fermented and unfermented milks made from legumes and nuts.

Different types of wines were also popular beverages. Some were made from grapes, others from pears, plums, jujubes, and other fruits. They liked and indulged in lots of ale; one fermented with black pepper. Some tea was consumed, primarily made from tea bricks. Its main use was medicinal, prescribed alone or with herbs and/or spices.

Common grains and grasses were also popular foods. During the Tang, they made distinctions between cultivated and wild ones from millet, barley, wheat, or rice. These were eaten whole, slightly milled with some or all their exterior seed coats removed; and used whole or in various milled amounts from none to very fine flour. Sago from palm, chestnut, water chestnut, lotus root, yam, and other foods were made into coarse and fine flours

Vegetables were not limited to a few. They liked and ate varieties of turnip, taro, yam, lotus, water chestnut, ginger, and other roots and rhizomes. And they consumed all sorts of leafy vegetables and bamboo shoots, rhubarb, scallions, leeks, and others in the Allium family. They also ate many legumes, most notable were soy, peas, broad, and other beans. Soy beans were eaten boiled and made into a plethora of fermented sauces, as were other beans. Vegetables from the sea were part of their dietary. They used a lot of kelp, hair vegetable, black, purple, and green seaweeds, etc.

Fruits were also many and varied. These included pears, peaches, the mei plum, Chinese apples, and grapes, bananas, persimmons, litchis, loquats, longans, pomegranates, mangoes, tangerines, kumquats, citron, and others in the citrus family. Some were imported earlier; all now grown in appropriate climactic regions in China, and all transported throughout the country particularly to ruling class households. Nuts from these fruits and others were popular including hazel nuts, walnuts, pine nuts, and pistachio nuts.

Meats were fresh and domesticated, but not eaten in large quantities except at formal/feast meals. The common ones were pork and lamb, cow and ox, chicken, pheasant and partridge. They consumed marmots, reptiles, unusual mammals including the elephant and monkey, rodents such as unborn mice stuffed with honey, insects including hornets, ant eggs, etc.

Among animals, they wasted nothing. They ate their organs, blood, skin, fat, etc. Foods of the sea were popular including a plethora of different fish with and without scales, shrimp, crab, clam, oyster, snail, and eel, jellyfish, squid, and turtle, to name but a few. Exotica was most desirable on their tables, often finding their way to every feast and festival meal.

All emperors had a large staff, more than two thousand folk dedicated and devoted to acquiring foods and preparing them. Aside from cooks and those caring for the edibles until consumption, there were dietitians and diet doctors to assure their health. Still others arranged and supervised banquets for specific holidays, birthdays, weddings, meals for special court visitors, military victories, and honoring promotions to higher posts.

Large or small events came with entertainment. Some were current circus acts, others sporting events, musical presentations, even board game competitions. Season was an important consideration as to the type of entertainment, if guest numbers were large, then they were held in courtyards, and any event could be staged. Smaller ones were enjoyed inside in regal halls, and their size determined their events.

During the Tang there was considerable knowledge about food preservation. Emperors had ice houses (see Volume 9(1) on pages 12 and 18) and their staff knew how to cool other places to preserve out-of-season fruits and vegetables. They knew to salt fish and meat, and to preserve items in vinegar, honey or oil. They knew about drying beef, fish, and other protein foods; many of these made into jerky. They understood keeping fruits and vegetables by drying them or putting them in sugars, vinegars, etc. Some they cooked a little or a lot before preserving. Others were dried and made into 'cakes' such as one called 'stone honey.' That was an interesting item made of honey and milk. Silver Cake, another interesting item, was dried and compacted with milk powder.

Most popular was to boil foods. Steaming, roasting in or on iron pans, broiling or frying in shallow or deep fat, baking, and stewing were commonplace. Foods were prepared alone or seasoned with others. The most common seasonings were garlic, scallions and other Allium items, ginger, tangerine peel, mustard seed, cinnamon, cardamon, fagara and other peppers, vinegar, sugar, honey or maltose or both, salt, preserved fruits, chestnut and other flours, ales and wines, and of course, any number of fermented bean sauces.

The common man did not have all exotica or nor all ordinary foods. As a matter of fact, going hungry and sometimes starving was commonplace. Major droughts and famines were reported every four or five years; they were of varying magnitudes. When things were exceptionally tough, tough measures were taken such as cannibalism forced by authorities or self-taken by necessity. Before resorting to that, people were known to eat horses, any bird flying by, rats and other rodents, and other animals considered unhealthy. They ate bark and tea leaves, even their own beasts of burden.

When food was plentiful, their dishes had plenty of ingredients. A recipe for turtle soup illustrates this. It included boiling this reptile then removing its meat. Into the pot was added mutton, chicken or partridge, one or two different ales, scallions, ginger, root vegetables, eggplant–which they called purple melon, leafy vegetables, and fresh and preserved fruits. A dish calling for bear paw was not too different. Only the main item of exotica and types and quantities of other ingredients were altered. They may have included in this dish, wild rabbit, Chinese olives, astringent fruits, flowers, winter melon, betel nuts, and more.

Deer tail or tongue, duck tongue, and dried unusual meat or fish were consumed and were common topics of conversation as were crab apples in honey. There are few recipes and many poems that discuss the dishes of the time. Beverages, particularly alcoholic ones, were consumed from porcelain goblets, some so thin that they were called eggshell vessels. To illustrate how thin, one very old cup we own is such that we can read the newspaper through it.

One old and common recipe was a soup/stew made with goose meat, lamb and pork with glutinous rice, salt, ginger, vinegar, soy paste, ginseng root, other fruits, and some vegetables. Less common, but no less popular, were foods that conferred hope for longevity–-even immortality--and others to cure illnesses.

Herbal doctors then and now classify all sorts of plants and animals for these purposes. Some are common foods, minerals, or mixtures. Some one might try today, others were items that realize/indicate their desperation. In the latter category are animal excreta including bile, sweat, and feces. Less problematic but nonetheless unusual are porcupine, centipede, bat, and praying mantis. While these are recommended for a cure, note that then and now there is no distinction made between food and medicine.

Overall, foods consumed during Tang times were elaborate. The recipe for goat blood with several relishes and wine could be one of these served in a wine shop, as might barbecued elephant trunk marinated then consumed with grape wine there or at home. At a Buddhist hostelry, similar regular and health foods were available. Though the monks did not eat anything with meat or onions, garlic and the like, they were and were not opposed to serving them to guests.

At fancy monasteries and homes of Mandarins, hors d’oeuvres before a meal might include fourteen to sixteen different choices. Dishes following them were colorful, flavorful, and fancy. For example, a citron might be carved into a flower or fruit, colored to look exactly like the original, and placed on a platter to grace it with beauty.

Would that there was even one complete recipe located with amounts and all ingredients listed. What is known is that it might take hours to shop, hours to prepare, and perhaps more hours to consume a meal. Eating an actual Tang dish could detail and expand what is known about aristocratic eating in those times. They were not for peasants and slaves, but certainly their masters and monarchs must have been outstanding indulgers.

Tang and later dynasties have many written details to ponder; some written and illustrated extensively. Much is known and more becomes available as food history in China and everywhere takes on added importance. No doubt, this was a giant culinary era. Would it possible to be a fly on their wall, a taste in their bowl, or a morsel in their chopsticks; then how much richer our knowledge would be.

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