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Celebrated Cooks of China's Past

by Joanna Waley-Cohen

Food in History

Winter Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(4) page(s): 5, 6, 7, and 24

Food and the culinary arts played a central role in late imperial Chinese social and cultural life. All kinds of public eating establishments, ranging from tiny street stalls to huge and sophisticated restaurants, could be found in urban areas such as the flourishing cities of Suzhou, Yangzhou, Nanjing, and Hangzhou in the lower Yangzi region. At the same time, considerable cachet attached to the private employment of gifted cooks in elite households, where in different circumstances either men or women might take a close personal interest in the production of meals.

At court, the Qianlong Emperor (1736 - 1795 CE), whose partiality to Suzhou cuisine was legendary, often paid minute attention to his meals, choosing what he ate and learning the specialties of his palace cooks. All this took place against a backdrop in which gastronomy ranked on a par with knowledge of art and literature. It was one of the essential attributes of the refined gentleman; therefore, recipe collection by scholars, for instance, was not unusual. Thus it is not surprising that, while there was no precise parallel in early modern China to today's celebrity cooks, the names and signature dishes of some celebrated cooks, and in some cases the details of their careers, have come down to us.

From antiquity, cooks occupied a unique status in China for two distinct reasons. The first was political. Cooking functioned as a useful metaphor for government. For example, the early Daoist work Dao De Jing, attributed to Laozi, asserted that "Governing the country is in principle like cooking a small fish." In both cases, great care and attention were essential, and in their absence problems could quickly arise. The second reason was symbolic. The proper exercise of sociopolitical power was organically connected to the proper regulation and appreciation of the senses, including taste. The preparation of everything the ruler ingested carried enormous ritual weight, and culinary skills were a fine qualification for ministerial appointment.

Perhaps the earliest to gain access to power in this way was Yi Yin, who in the second millennium BCE became prime minister of King Tang of the Shang dynasty (1766 -1122 BCE). According to legend Yi Yin was a foundling whose foster parents taught him to cook. His culinary skills brought him to the king's attention, and in his first audience he transformed the greatest philosophical issues of governance into a menu of foods to be coveted. Among other things Yi Yin likened the whole world to a kitchen in which one prepares food, and proper government to good cooking. Just as in cooking, it was necessary to understand flavors to blend them successfully. So in governing, it was necessary to grasp people's sufferings and aspirations in order to satisfy their needs. Yi Yin also laid out what became a classically influential culinary theory. He classified animal foods, for example, as falling into one of three, all rather unappealing, flavor categories. These were: fishy, rank, or 'muttony' depending on whether the creature involved had lived in water or had been carnivorous or herbivorous. All needed transformation by cooking in order to become pleasant to eat. Having once identified the correct category, the cook could select the most appropriate cooking methods for dispelling odor and producing delicious dishes, adding seasoning to achieve a balanced taste that was "not excessively sweet or sour lightly flavored but not tasteless, tasting of fat but not greasy in the mouth," and so on. Many of Yi Yin's categories remain current in contemporary Chinese culinary culture.

In traditional Chinese households, women normally performed or supervised the cooking. Outside the family, cooks were often male. They fell into three categories: those who worked at court; those who worked for private households; and commercial cooks, including caterers, restaurant cooks, and those hired for particular occasions. Those who were celebrated for their cooking skills came into all three categories. We will briefly examine each category in turn.

COURT COOKS: Records of early imperial kitchens exist but for the most part are limited to statistics about the often astonishing number of people--running into the thousands or even tens of thousands--employed to take care of food and nutrition at court, and the ways in which they were organized. The involvement of so many people underscores the link between the proper exercise of political power to discriminating exercise of sensory perception.

For the seventeenth-to-nineteenth-century Qing dynasty, detailed archives exist. Then there were several different departments within the imperial palace charged with the production of food. In the 1750's, after a series of organizational changes, the imperial kitchen was divided into two departments, one that dealt with meals for the emperor and empress, favorites, and concubines, the other responsible for meals for those working within the palace. Court archives contain detailed information about the actual meals served to the emperor, including daily menus. Typically, far more food was served to the emperor than he could possibly consume, as we can see from the record of an autumn breakfast from an archival record dated 19 October 1779, extracted from Li Guoliang, Bishushanzhuang yushan zatan (Tidbits on Imperial Meals in the Summer Palace) in Gugong Bowuyan Yuankan 1988 cited in a volume by Angela Zito in 1995: .....hot pot with bird's nest and duck; sautéed chicken with soft bean curd; lamb; a stew of duck, dogmeat and pork; bamboo shoots.....bird's nest with chicken; various thinly-sliced meats; deep-fried duck with meat; quick-fried pork; quick-sauteed chicken eggs; sautéed chicken feet; cured pork; doughnuts; chicken soup with dumplings.....lamb with steamed gruel and a fruit congee (the latter two untouched) On another table were fourteen dishes of eight-treasure bobos (stuffed buns), four dishes of yellow greens; three dishes of milk. On a third table some baked goods, and on a fourth, eight plates of meats.

On this occasion, as usual, the emperor ate lightly, sampling only a few of these dishes. His leftovers were distributed in a prescribed order among concubines, imperial family members, high officials, and occasionally foreign visitors whom the emperor wished to honor.

In many cases we can tell, as could the emperor, which cook had made specific dishes. Palace cooks were required to take responsibility for their work by putting their names on the menu next to the dishes they had made. During the Qianlong reign (1736 - 1795), court kitchens employed several specialists in the cuisine of Suzhou, known especially for its aquatic fare. The Qianlong emperor had developed a taste for Suzhou cuisine after encountering it on one of his tours through the south, in part because it was delicious, and in part perhaps because of his desire to tap into and dilute the potent nativist allure of Jiangnan culture.

Amongst Suzhou chefs in the palace kitchens, one of the most famous was Zhang Dong'guan. Zhang first cooked for the emperor quite some time before he actually joined the palace kitchens. Although everything the emperor ate was carefully vetted by means of an established procedure before he touched it, when he went on tour through the empire (i.e.: away from the palace), as happened several times a year, officials were permitted to offer him gifts of food, among other things.

Naturally, they vied with one another to find the best cooks to pander to his particular tastes. Knowing his predilections, they often presented him with Suzhou dishes. That was how Zhang Dong'guan first came to Qianlong's attention. In Shandong in 1771, the emperor stopped at a garrison. There, the commander offered the emperor not only food provided by the garrison itself but four dishes made by Zhang. Amongst these was one of chicken with winter bamboo shoots that the emperor particularly enjoyed. After that, whenever the emperor was traveling near the area where Zhang worked, he would give orders for Zhang to cook for him, sometimes specifying the particular dishes he wanted this chef to make. It was always some Suzhou specialty.

The emperor rewarded Zhang with silver and with black marten-fur to trim his hat, and with some bolts of high-quality satin, an unusual distinction. It is thought that he did not immediately 'poach' Zhang out of respect for the latter's current employer, who in any event would hardly have been able to protest. But after three years, Zhang joined the palace kitchens.

Over the course of his employment at court, Zhang was richly rewarded. In early 1781, for example, he received "one long blue fine-silk robe with a sheepskin collar, one dark green fur-trimmed long unlined jacket, and one dark green foxfur riding jacket, unlined." This compared with the standard practice of issuing a sheepskin jacket to other palace cooks once every four years.

Another favored imperial cook was Zhang Anguan, a Suzhou native originally employed at the residence of the Imperial Silk Factory that provided textiles for imperial robes. The emperor enjoyed Zhang Anguan's cooking so much that for a time Zhang's name appeared on almost every menu. Quite often he was ordered to prepare this or that particular favorite dish, such as duck, or birds' nests. Qianlong particularly loved Zhang's fish dishes. In a single ten-day period in 1749, four times did the emperor enjoy Zhang's braised fish, three times his fish with sweet and sour sauce, and three times his fish with black beans.

When the emperor went on tour, he would take Zhang along, not wishing to deprive himself of his cooking for a single meal. Like Zhang Dong'guan, Zhang Anguan was richly rewarded. Over the twenty years of his service, he received silver ingots and silks, among other gifts. After his retirement, officials at Suzhou's Imperial Silk Factory sent two more cooks up to work in the imperial kitchens.

There were a number of other Suzhou cooks at court whose names we know. These include Zhao Yugui, Chang Er, Zheng Er, Sui Ying, and Wu Jinchao. However, the emperor seemed less excited by their food than by that of the two Zhangs. Most would have received only their regular pay, which for cooks in the palace kitchens was not more than three taels (Chinese ounces) of silver monthly. This was forty percent more than what a soldier and seventy-five percent of what a bondservant in a prince's household typically earned at that time. Presumably most such people received free board and lodging.

Senior officials sometimes tried to curry favor by sending their cooks' signature dishes for the emperor's enjoyment. Grand Councillor Fu Kang'an, for example, best known for his unfriendliness to the embassy sent by King George III in 1792-93, and Heshen, the imperial favorite from the 1770's until the emperor's death in 1799 both on a fairly regular basis, presented the emperor with dishes their cooks had made. If their cooks were rewarded at all, it was on a much less generous scale than the emperor's gifts to the Zhangs. Imperial favor rarely exceeding a single ounce (tael) of silver apiece.

HOUSEHOLD COOKS: Among the best known eighteenth-century Chinese food writers was Yuan Mei (1716-98). He is, sometimes, inevitably referred to as 'China's Brillat-Savarin due to his proclivity for sharp witticisms on the subject of gastronomy. Yuan had abandoned a promising official career to make his living as a writer in Nanjing. He was himself something of a celebrity. His Suiyuan Shidan (Recipes from Sui Garden), was published in 1796, probably after it circulated in manuscript form for some time.

This Suiyuan Shidan is a collection of recipes that Yuan, who had retired from the imperial bureaucracy after a short but evidently lucrative career, had collected over a period of several decades. Some of these recipes he obtained by consulting the cooks of friends at whose house he had enjoyed a particular dish--a practice in which he was not unique among scholarly collectors of recipes at this time. Certainly Yuan also had some knowledge of cooking rather than relying completely on professionals. It is clear that he tested recipes before including them. Whether he did so personally or watched his cook carry out the test, is unknown.

Yuan left one of the few accounts of a household cook that have come down to us. In doing so, he ensured the cook's everlasting fame. Wang Xiaoyu worked for Yuan in the 1750's for some years before his death. His high standards clearly impressed Yuan. Wang undertook to produce good food at low cost—his plain vegetable soup was "so good that one went on and on taking it till one really felt one needed nothing more." He never decided what to cook until he saw what was available in the market and never made more than half dozen or so dishes at a time.

This cook's behavior in the kitchen, as described by Yuan Mei, recalls that of some celebrity cooks of the present day. His capacity for absolute concentration on a particular dished was matched only by the vehemence of his rage when his helpers failed to snap into action on command. Yuan Mei himself could hardly be said to have been a calming influence in the kitchen. He wrote, as translated in 1956 by Arthur Waley in Yuan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet:

...I once asked him why, when he could easily have got a job in some affluent household, he had preferred to stay all these years with me in the Sui Garden. "To find an employer who appreciates one is not easy," he said, "but to find one who understands anything about cookery is harder still. So much imagination and hard thinking go into the making of every dish that one may well say I serve up along with it my whole mind and heart. The ordinary hard-drinking revelers at a fashionable dinner-party would be equally happy to gulp down any stinking mess. They may say what a wonderful cook I am, but in the service of such people my art can only decline. True appreciation consists as much in detecting faults as in discovering merits. You, on the contrary, continually criticize me, abuse me, fly into a rage with me, but on every such occasion make me aware of some real defect, so that I would a thousand times rather listen to your bitter admonitions than to the sweetest praise. In your service, my art progresses day by day. Say no more! I mean to stay on here!" ..."But when he had continued with me not quite ten years, he died, and now I never sit down to a meal without thinking of him and shedding a tear."

Yuan Mei was probably not atypical in his close personal involvement in the culinary affairs of his household, although he may have been particularly fervent in expressing his likes and dislikes. Nor did he necessarily always use his own cook. Elsewhere in his writings we learn that for special occasions, in common with others of his class, he might hire in an outside cook. Perhaps some time after Wang Xiaoyu's demise—despite everything he considered--cooks were petty men with petty capacities.

Although men dominated the culinary profession, cooking seems to have been one way that women could improve their lot in life. Among the most famous of female cooks were the 'skinny horses' of Yangzhou. These were young women of lower or middling class families rigorously trained in various skills, including cooking, in the hope that they could become concubines of wealthy men. 'Skinny horses' were in great demand even beyond Yangzhou. Their acquisition was surrounded by rituals akin to marriage. Girls in other cities also learned how to cook as a way of making themselves more marketable. Training a daughter in culinary skills thus could be quite lucrative, suggesting that at least in urban settings a preference for sons may not always have been as strong as in the countryside. What the young women may have suffered we can only imagine from the occasional poignant poem that has come down to us.

Female cooks were at certain times the height of fashion. Scholar Li Guangting’s memoir of a childhood spent in the countryside outside Beijing, probably around 1800, noted that in the county capital, "half the old gentry families use female cooks," and that several of those were known even beyond the household for their specialties. Li recalled that Miss Liang Wu in Wang Daqi's family had been particularly good at roasting meat, and at making fried crabmeat noodles. Xie Kui, the Li family cook, made wonderful roast chicken and other dishes. The general consensus was that these women’s culinary standards were uniformly high. Li's inclusion of stories about female and other cooks in his personal memoir was not unusual. The scholar and poet Mao Xiang (Piqiang, 1611-1693) immortalized his concubine, Dong Xiaowan, in a loving memoir that detailed some of her legendary culinary skills.

Mao's memoir listed in loving detail some of the meals—-salted and spiced peas, red beancurd—-that Dong served him, either in private or when guests came, and even today she still appears in lists of famous cooks of the Jiangnan region. Similarly, Shen Fu, an eighteenth-century scholar, filled his reminiscences with descriptions of dishes-—among them pickled cucumber and various different beancurd dishes, including a salted version with sesame oil, and Suzhou-style stinking beancurd, that his concubine Yun had made for him.

COMMERCIAL COOKS: Eating outside the home had been common in China since at least the twelfth century, when agricultural and commercial transformation resulted in more people than ever before moving into employment other than food production. This gave rise to a new merchant class that relied on others to provide food. Foodstuffs moved with other goods along inter-regional trade routes and were sold at periodic markets in centers both large and small. These developments contributed to the growth of large cities whose inhabitants—-from workers and artisans to merchants, scholars and officials--bought their food at market stalls, in teahouses, wineshops, and large-scale restaurants. Some of the latter were capable of serving hundreds of people at a single sitting. Thus public eating establishments arose in China at a relatively early stage in comparison with, say, France. In the late eighteenth century, the city of Yangzhou on the northern banks of the Yangzi River, was a cultural and gastronomic mecca even among the cities of Jiangnan. Among other things, the leisure activities of its elite often involved picnic outings to view a scenic spot, perhaps accompanied by the exchange of poetry or political views (the two were not necessarily distinct), or visits to one of the restaurants for which the city was famous. In addition to many individual memoirs of city life, we are fortunate to have a detailed account of Yangzhou which pays considerable attention, among many other topics, to its gastronomic delights. Li Dou's Yangzhou Huafang Lu (Record of the Painted Pleasure Boats of Yangzhou), published in 1795, offers tantalizing glimpses of a culinary culture at its height. It gives us some sense of the epicurean possibilities open to elite Chinese men in the late eighteenth century. Li is more interested in restaurants and the special dishes they offer than in the cooks who made them, but in some cases where cooks had a reputation for particular dishes’ he cannot help but name them. Thus we learn of Wu Yishan's roasted beancurd; Tian Yanmen's deep-fried duck, Jiang Zhengtang's pig head ten ways; Zhang Sihuizi's whole lamb; Wang Yinshan's boneless fish, and Jiang Wen-mi's honey-boiled cakes and more.

Outings on one of Yangzhou's many waterways were extremely popular among the elite. Such excursions always involved eating and drinking as well as musical and sexual entertainment. Most of the famous pleasure-boats of Yangzhou—in effect floating brothels catering to different social classes--were individually huge and often moved in convoy. However, most lacked their own kitchen and had to order out from one of Yangzhou’s many catering establishments. Otherwise it was necessary to bring one's own supplies on board. Wine vendors drifted nearby ready to supply whatever was needed.

Finally, we might note that, at a time (eighteenth to nineteenth century) when many brothels employed female cooks, food as well as sex became a selling point of individual establishments. It is unclear whether the fad for female cooks had spread from private households to brothels or vice versa.

Even for those who employed one or more cooks for their daily needs, it was quite common to hire a cook or caterer for a particular occasion. In Li Guangting's neighborhood there was a family in which father, son and brothers hired themselves out to cook for weddings and funerals. In most places one could order in from certain restaurants, while in Beijing from no later than the Ming, one also could find a cook through one of two places known as 'Cook’s Corner' located in the area due south of Tiananmen Square. It must have been here that the nineteenth-century guildhalls and regional associations went to find cooks for the special-occasion banquets they often hosted. Here, the walls were hung all over with yellow lacquered wooden signs, on which variously would be written each cook’s name and home address, and the date. A prospective employer would write the date of employment on the wooden board, and the cooks would have to check daily so as not to miss the opportunity of a job. There were strict regulations, enforced by a boss, about who could tout their services here. There was considerable specialization, and by the late Qing, the cooks had organized their labor power fairly effectively. A late-nineteenth-century stele inscription recorded a proclamation directed at controlling the behavior of cooks in the Suzhou area.

Some commercial cooks became famous and could command high prices that only officials and well-to-do families could afford, while stories about temperamental caterers, both male and female, were commonplace. Some insisted, for instance, on serving only hugely expensive foods (in one much-repeated example, probably dating from the seventeenth century, a caterer called for several hundred sheep and used only the lip meat), or on using the very finest utensils, so that those who employed them sometimes found themselves spending far more than they had anticipated.

With some exceptions, such as the Zhangs at the Qianlong court, and the specialty purveyors of Yangzhou, the celebrity of these cooks of the Chinese past may have been considerable. But it generally was limited in scope to their particular time and place. It is remarkable that we know about them today. While they themselves may not have been more than marginally literate, and for the most part occupied a lowly position in society, educated men nonetheless thought it worthwhile to record their names, exploits, and some of the delicacies they produced. By doing so they have illuminated for posterity, some of the structure and details of Chinese culinary history.
Joanna Waley-Cohen has taught the history of China at New York University since 1992. She is the author of several books and scholarly articles on Chinese political and cultural history. She is now working on two related projects. The first analyzes cooking and consumption in early modern China, when gastronomy ranked with art and literature as integral to the cultivated life, much as in France. The second uses an account of an upper-class Chinese household of the eighteenth century, including family members, domestic servants (maids, nurses, cooks, gardeners, cleaners, messengers, and others), religious advisers, and in-house entertainers (singers and actors) to illuminate the functioning of social class and gender distinctions in Chinese daily life in an era of prosperity.

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