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Song Dynasty and Its Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21

More than three hundred years long, the two-part Song Dynasty began in 960 CE and continued under the rule of eighteen different emperors. There were nine in the Northern Song (960 - 1126 CE) and an equal number in the Southern Song (1127 - 1279 CE). In both, food was important, recorded, and relished.

Many anecdotal food canons were published during this dynasty; so were a few recipe books. The latter were a great improvement over earlier ones. One of these was the first ever to provide ingredients in measured amounts; it was called Madame Wu's Recipe Book and Wu Shih Ching Kuei Lu, in Chinese. This book was the first to offer more than simplistic generalized instructions, though they were a far cry from methods listed in steps, as they are these days. Instead, Madame Wu's book offered instructions such as'bake on top of the stove' or 'drip oil over them' or 'cook ... until very soft.' There was an oft quoted one that said 'cover the pot closely and add one or two mulberry stones which makes the meat tender.' Another frequently mentioned one is 'in summer, cook meat with only vinegar.'

During both Song periods, gastronomy continued; it was the business of artists, scholars, poets, and like classes of people. There was no time for cooking beyond what was necessary by common folk. But there were some plain folk, considered snobs, who delighted in preparing complex dishes.

One poet, Yu Shipi, wrote about eating plain meat, brains, frog's legs, pigs' knuckles, fish maw, and other exotica. He liked them and said that these unusual foods were served to the Crown Prince. Some culinary, he discussed, included blanching kidneys and cooking them with wine and vinegar, sauteing quail with bamboo shoots, cooking crab legs with venison, preparing river prawns in soup with fish maw, and stewing whitefish in wine. How long any of these were prepared and/or cooked or how they should look when done, he mentioned not. That seemed to be left to the knowledge or imagination of each individual cook.

Books of these times were more booklets than books, as we know them today. For example, one popular one was just a few pages. It was called Menu of Delectables. Others were a mite longer such as A Chef's Manual, or the Imperial Food List. A one hundred-plus page volume was titled Basic Needs of Rustic Living. There was another of one hundred fifty-pages titled Records of the Corrigible Studio.

This enlightened period had other printed materials. The world's first paper money was printed during the Song; it was in color and on special paper. The abacus was still used as was the compass. During the Song Dynasty in Kaifeng, a perfected clock was built. These were things useful and neither scientific nor practical, anf that was done for beauty, the practice of foot binding. Only practiced on and by upper class women, this long and painful process often started around the age of seven or eight. It made the feet of Han girls subjected to it, be referred to as 'lilies.' Minority populations did not participate in these bone-breaking practices that kept women upstairs, out of the fields, away from the kitchen, and for the most part, off the streets.

On the educational front, Emperor Song Taizu, whose earlier moniker was Zhao Kuangyin, encouraged printing. It was a cheap way to copy books, lots faster than charging someone with the task of rewriting them. As a matter of fact, it was so fast that one person could produce one thousand pages a day. This proliferation of the printed word increased scholarship and readership, be it of Madame Wu’s book or any other book. It changed writing from hand to using one wood block for up to twenty thousand pages, using pen and ink to rubbing ink on the block and pressing it on one sheet of paper after another.

Besides printing and reading books, they were used to study for examinations. This meant more could sit and take these civil service examinations than ever before; so many more did apply and take them. In a one hundred year period in this dynasty (the source we read did not indicate which years), more than four hundred thousand men took these examinations; this expanded the size of and the duties the Imperial Court could handle.

Foods and other goods were more sought after by this enlarged group serving the Emperor than ever before. To get more of them and get them faster, larger and faster ships were constructed and used. How large, simply put, some of them were manned by a thousand sailors. They transported books, rice, porcelain, and other items, many via the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. This increase in foods, food related commodities, and other things meant that during this dynasty, food could become important. Larger groups of people could get more varieties and quantities, and obtain other things, as well.

They not only obtained more and better foods, but poets wrote about food, upper-class folk ate and drank more, and other classes became interested in foods and the works of the literati. Their words were read at the tea shops and came into general use during this dynasty. Also, more ingredients and culinary techniques entered the mainstream.

Reliance on rice increased during the Song Dynasty. Double-cropping came into fashion and rice use was able to increase. Some champa, rice, originally introduced from India, was coming to China as a tribute from the Champa state in Vietnam. Also growing in popularity, though less so, was red and black rices; these were grown locally.

Thanks to the increase of and faster shipping of foods, litchi and sugar cane use spread throughout the country. Other foods did, as well. Some cities such as Hangzhou and Kaifeng set up special areas for the sale and distribution of these and other foods. Perishable foods were wrapped in lotus leaves for shipment; these were often the 'bags' used to carry them home from the marketplace.

With increased quantity and availability, rich and poor had access to more kinds of foods, and they began to learn differences in food quality. They were now able to eat three meals a day, and large numbers of people did. Snacks became an adored item these days and many kinds were available for purchase, particularly during night markets.

More fermented wines, distilled alcohols, and other beverages were developed during Song times. Tea use increased in popularity and soon surpassed the consumption of alcoholic beverages. One of the latter that did increase considerably was koumiss, a drink made of mare's milk.

Places to enjoy these foods meant increases in places to consume them away from home, and that was why more restaurants were built. Some had housing for prostitutes next door when more men were eating away from home. Some had rooms within for guests to bed down before making their long journey home. Some of these eateries offered entertainment such as sing-song girls, poetry readings, and other delights.

With these many more eateries came need for more folk to cook in them. The variety of available dishes they offered, and one such boasted 100-Flavors Soup, Milk-steamed Lamb, Oven-strewn Hare, etc. One of these places listed two hundred thirty-four famous dishes their guests could choose from. 'Imitation' dishes became popular not just for Buddhist guests but for everyone who wanted to enjoy them. Barbecue shops increased as did oil-baked-pastry shops.

Meat use expanded. Restaurants, more and more, used all parts of the pig, lamb, sheep, cows, and goats. Even horses, rabbits, deer, goat, frog, fish and other manners of seafood use increased during Song Dynasty times. Some meats were made into fermented pastes and sauces during the start of this dynasty, but near its end this use declined and virtually disappeared after the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (1280-1368 and 1368 - 1644 CE, respectively). But before they did, unusual foods such as yellow sparrows, mussels, crabs, and the heads of pigs were enjoyed fermented from raw or from their cooked states.

During and after the Yuan and Ming dynasties, foods such as eggplant, radishes, ginger, melons, pears, and citron, and soy pastes were added to the fermentation process. These, too, eventually, went out of fashion. Only soy paste and sauce use remained; and that is still true today. However, while they were popular, these fermented meat, fish, and vegetable pastes and sauces were used with whole or pieces of chicken, fish, and other animal foods.

The Song Dynasty was a time of beauty and publications. One place today recreates it, That is in Hangzhou Paradise Park. One can see some of it pictured on this page, also check it out at: www.songcn.com or go to Hangzhou and see it in person.

One can get a mental taste of foods then looking at the first two recipes below. They are from Madame Wu's Cookbook and written in paragraph form as they were in the original before translation. They are here to show how recipes were written then, not to cook them.

SHORTBREAD: Mix four ounces butter, one ounce of honey, and a pound of flour. Make this into cakes and bake.

PICKLED SHRIMP: Use large shrimp and remove their tails and tiny legs. For each pound use five mace and salt and let them stand half a day (covered and in the refrigerator). Drain and place in an earthenware jar and top each layer with thirty grains of wild pepper to make the flavor interesting. Add three ounces salt for each pound of shrimp and first dissolve it in good wine. Pour it over the shrimp. Seal the jar with mud. In spring and autumn it will become tasty in five to seven days; in winter it takes ten days.

The recipe that follows is a Song Dynasty dish writen as recipes are these days.
Salted Fish and Rice, Modernized
2 cups rice
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 pound dark meat chicken, pounded into a paste
1 cup peeled grated eggplant
2 ounces salted fish, rinsed and mashed
2 slices fresh ginger, minced finely or grated, divided in two parts
2 teaspoons granulated or crushed slab of brown sugar, divided in two parts
1 teaspoon sesame oil, divided in two parts
1 teaspoon water chestnut powder, divided in two parts
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 Tablespoon scallion greens, chopped fine
1. Mix rice and vegetable oil in a bowl, then add four cups of water and steam covered for fifteen minutes. Do not remove the cover, just let it set for an additional ten minutes.
2. Mix chicken with the eggplant, half the fresh ginger, the brown sugar, sesame oil, and water chestnut powder, and set aside for twenty minutes.
3. Mix the fish with the other half of these same four ingredients and set it aside for ten minutes, then put this fish mixture on top of the rice, cover it, and continue to steam for five minutes more. Remove the cover and stir.
4. Next, add the chicken mixture to the top of the mixed rice mixture, cover it, and steam for tem more minutes.
5. Mix soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, and scallion, then mix this into the fish-rice mixture, and serve.

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