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Ming Dynasty Foods and Food Behaviors

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(1) page(s): 16, 18, and 18

Starting with Early Chinese Food History in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 3 (4) On pages 21 and 23, articles have discussed foods and food behaviors in several dynasties. The Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) was featured in Volume 12(4) on pages 5, 8, and 16. The Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BCE) appeared in Volume 13(1) on pages 7 and 16. Foods and food behaviors during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) were reported in Volume 13(2) on pages 13 and 14. Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE) food and food behaviors cab ve found in Volume 15(3) on pages 20 and 21. And now, in this article, read about foods and food behaviors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE).

The Ming Dynasty name means 'brilliant' and it was one of the longest and most stable periods in China's history. Started by a peasant, Zhu Yuanzhang, also spelled Zhu Yanzhang, he was enthroned in 1368 and reigned as Emperor Hungwu and served until 1398 (some say 1399). There were nineteen emperors including Hungwu during this dynasty that began during political upheaval, population decline, and rebellions against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.

The last emperor of this dynasty, Chongzhen, is said in some sources, to be followed by three other Zhu family members, each enthroned in 1644, 1645, and 1646. The last of these was Zhu Youlang, even though the dynasty is said to have ended in 1644; conflicting information, of course.

In this dynasty, agriculture continued to develop, slowly at first, as the dishes of the dynasty became more sophisticated. Lots of local flavors reached maturity, regional foods eaten everywhere during this historic period, and herbal dish consumption increased, as well. The number and use of cookbooks and medicinal tomes increased, printing technologies making them available to many ordinary citizens. Information about Chinese food and Chinese herbal beliefs trickled out to the West, many thanks to the French priest, Father Matteo Ricci.

Ricci began his missionary work in South China in 1538. In 1601, he settled in Beijing. His interest in things Chinese, sparked others to learn about this faraway land; and he introduced Confucius to the Western world. He remained in China for twenty-seven years, and thereafter, returned to France. Most in China showed little interest in his outside world or in trading or traveling there.

This lack of curiosity saw a turn-around by the end of the Dynasty in part due to increases in population and distribution of goods. There was an agricultural revolution that sparked distribution of foods and wares further afield with return-trading as merchants were bringing things to China, in return.

Ming times followed the publication of a book by Ni Zan–also spelled Ni Tsan (1301 - 1374). His Forest Hall Collection of Rules for Drinking and Eating includes fifty-two recipes intended for ordinary households. It enables general interest among those unable to afford eating away from home, and by those whose economics allowed it.

The Chinese knew Mr. Ni as a painter; and they considered his work some of the finest examples of Taoist and Zen Buddhist ideas in art. This may have sparked interest in his food tome.

Thanks to an annotated English translation by Teresa Wang and E. N. Anderson, published in Petit Propos Culinarire Volume 60 (December 1998 on pages 24 - 41) one can learn more about what folks during the Ming Dynasty were cooking and eating.

When first published in China, ordinary folk read Ni Tsan’s collection and could use it to make soy sauce (the book's first recipe), noodles, four different preparations for crab, 'yellow-bird' buns, clams, vegetable and mushroom dishes, wheat gluten, shrimp rolls, snails, fish, stew, kidneys, pickled ginger, turtle, fish, pig's head, barbecued pork and goose, jellyfish, and how to brew wine and make several different teas. The recipes are typical of foods from Jiangsu, common those days. True to the times, no ingredient amounts are provided.

Another important printed influence was Li Shizhen’s Ben Cao Gang Mu (1596). This herbal tome is built on the 1368 Yin Shih Hsu Chih (often called YSHC). Its English title is best known as Essential Knowledge of Eating and Drinking. These two and other lesser known printed materials increased recipe use and medical knowledge during the Ming Dynasty.

These books and the sojourners who left China and returned later with foods and fables from elsewhere in Southeast Asia impacted and changed Chinese foods as had food transport within China with increase in use of the Grand Canal. Folks who sailed away and came back with food ideas and apples, coconut, bananas, and other foods from Southeast Asian countries first, and later with ideas and ingredients such as pineapples, potatoes, cashews, corn, and sweet potatoes from the Americas; also peanuts from Africa helped make these changes.

The royal court was first in Nanjing, but it moved to Beijing in 1420 by order of Emperor Yongle. There he built the Forbidden City and Beijing became the capital in 1421. This Emperor also built a large navy of many huge ships and sent six naval expeditions to see what lay beyond his Empire. One set did reach the coast of Africa. Where others went beyond Asia is unsure and a source of conflict outside the country.

Early emperors, particularly this dynasty's first, cared about their people and tried to improve their poor conditions, particularly those in the countryside. They tried to expand foods and beverages available to all including their own entourages. Their courts did a fine job; they were served by seventy thousand Eunuchs, five thousand kitchen servants, and nine thousand palace women.

When the court moved to Beijing, foods from all over China moved there, too. A lot of them did so on the Grand Canal. It is of interest to note that many southern foods moved north on ice, on barges on this waterway. They arrived fresh for palace nobles, staff, and other lucky folk.

What were some of these and other foods consumed during this dynasty? Soybeans and soy sauce are important. Of course pork was the most important meat, followed by poultry–-most of which was chicken, and then fish. As to other animal foods, some-–albeit little tiger, deer, boar, camel, bear, goat, fox, wolf, and even rodents were consumed, as were many molluscs, other shellfish, and fish.

The pidan or so-called 'thousand-year egg' became very popular. So did sweet potatoes found roasting on street corners. There is also an increase in the numbers and kinds of foods hawkers bring to and sell to home-owners and their staff.

Becoming more common-place are moon cakes for a festival. A Ming Emperor orders ten thousand candles set afloat to attract Buddha to come and visit. This day becomes an important holiday; it is the one now called Lantern Festival.

We know about the above day and others during Ming times from written records and from materials uncovered during more recent excavations. The most important of these was Ding Ling, the tomb of Emperor Wan Li. It is one of thirteen tombs found in the Northwest suburbs of Beijing. When visiting this capital city, do go see them; they are now an underground museum. There and elsewhere, archeologists and others are increasing their knowledge about the food history of this and other early dynasties.

With crops like maize and sweet potatoes (which come to China in the 16th century, just before the Ming); these and other new crops feed a population that continues to increase, and still increases to this day.

Many Chinese return to their motherland from the Philippines and Indonesia and bring foods from where they or their ancestors had migrated. These become China's foods with and without local variations. The food supply and the ways they make Chinese food increases. This and other influences impact what and how much China imports as need for enough food to feed an ever increasing population grows. Other foods are exported. They go to the United States, Canada, Australia, Thailand, Turkey, Argentina, and New Zealand, and do so in ever increasing amounts.

Not just foods, but many food behaviors change during the Ming Dynasty. One is that banquets become popular at noon instead of in the evenings. Staples, namely rice in the south, broaden; and sweet potatoes, corn, and peanuts are included. The national government, to stem starvation, provides huge relief efforts distributing these foods. Sugar use, due to increased technology, expands. With so many mouths to feed, the government rewards some soldiers who bring heads to officials; actually, they kill many thousands so doing. The sale of porcelain which the Portuguese began importing along with tea, after they land in China in 1514 helps expand interest in China's wares. They sell blue and white 'Ming ware' in their country and in England. Brisk sales expand its use in other countries.

These good times do not last. With corruption rampant, ruling the people becomes problematic. The Manchu invade and the Dynasty collapses. The Qing Dynasty is taken over in 1644. By the time that happens, many people are eating three meals a day, one up from the two that were popular previously. More foods are cooked using stir-frying, and fire-pot cooking is already commonplace. With many new foods and new ways to prepare them, diets are now quite varied, and pride in what is eaten and foods in general increase.

What follows are four popular recipes from Ni Zan’s Cloud Forest book. They tell how to cook crabs, how to stuff them, also how to make noodles and serve them cold-stirred.
Hongwu Bean Curd
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
1/2 cup minced pork
6 peeled shrimp, veins removes, and cut in half the long way
2 squares firm bean curd, cut in half–top to bottom to the counter, then in half, parallel with the counter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons arrowroot flour
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon Chinese rice vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1. Heat wok, add oil then add scallions and the pork and stir-fry it for two minutes, then add shrimp, and stir fry another minute, then remove wok from the heat source.
2. Put bottom pieces of bean curd on a plate, divide the pork mixture into four parts, and spread each part on a bottom piece of bean curd and top with the other piece of its bean curd making four sandwiches.
3. Mix flour, egg whites and rice vinegar making a batter, and dip each sandwich into the batter.
4. Heat vegetable oil, put in two sandwiches and brown, then turn over and brown on the other side. Remove them to a serving plate and repeat with the other sandwiches. Cut each in half on an angle, stand on the narrow ends, and serve.
Dragon and Phoenix
1/2 pound squid, skin removed and quarter-inch apart cross-cuts
1/4 pound half-inch chicken breast pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 egg white
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 scallions, cut into one-inch slivers
4 slices peeled fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thin-sliced
1 teaspoon vinegar
3 Tablespoons soaked cloud ear fungus, cut into half-inch strips
3 Tablespoons bamboo shoots, thinly sliced
6 leaves fresh spinach, cut into half-inch strips
1. Blanch pieces of squid in boiling water, then immerse them in cold water, drain, and set aside.
2. Mix chicken pieces with half the salt and half the wine, stir well, then add the cornstarch and egg white, mix well, and set aside for five minutes.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil and fry the chicken pieces until crisp, then drain and set them aside on a paper towel, discarding all but one tablespoon of the oil.
4. Heat the remaining oil, fry the scallions, ginger, and garlic for half minute, then add the vinegar, cloud ear fungus, and bamboo shoots, and stir-fry for one minute before adding the chicken and squid pieces. Stir well for half minute, then add the spinach pieces, stir-fry for half minute, then put in a bowl and serve.
Hubei Dragon Egg Rolls
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
4 eggs
5 Tablespoons any white fish, minced
1/4 cup minced fatty pork
2 egg whites
1/4 cup arrowroot or lotus root starch
1 scallion, minced
1 thick slice fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 small clove garlic, peeled and minced
½ cup chicken broth
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1. Heat wok or small fry pan, add oil. Dip a brush in it and set it aside. Then pour in the beaten eggs mixed with one to two tablespoons of water and spread egg mixture making a ten-inch omelet. Allow to set, then turn out onto a plate, and turn that onto another so set side in down, the other side up.
2. Make a sticky paste stirring fish, pork, egg whites, arrowroot or lotus starch, minced scallions, ginger, and garlic in one direction. Spread this over the entire omelet.
3. Brush a heat-proof plate with the oil set aside on the brush, then roll and set the rolled omelet seam-side down onto the plate brushed with the oil.
4. Steam over rapidly boiling water for fifteen minutes, then remove, slice on an angle, and set on a small serving plate. Serve this roll hot, warm, or cold.

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