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Cooking with Kublai Khan

by E.N. Anderson

Food in History

Winter Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(4) page(s): 13 and 14

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem, honeydew and the milk of paradise were the proper foods for Kublai Khan. In reality, he ate sheep—every part, head through foot, to say nothing of the yogurt made from their milk. And, he drank kumiss, fermented mares' milk tasting like buttermilk spiked with beer. Between feasts, and he did die grossly obese and with a drinking problem, he conquered China in 1279 CE, and conquered or held most of the rest of the world known to the Mongols of his time.

Under his descendants, the court nutritionist Hu Sihui compiled a book of nutrition, Knowledge Needed for Drinking and Feasting in Chinese. Its Chinese title is Yinshan Zhengyao. A court nutritionist in old China was a key post, often considered the highest in the medical hierarchy. The Chinese, more sensible in this matter than westerners, have always correctly identified nutrition as the most pervasive and basic influence on health.

This book appeared in print in 1330 CE and is a fascinating mix of classical Chinese nutrition lore and Central Asian and Middle Eastern recipes the Mongols and their Turkic and Central Asian allies preferred. The book counsels moderation, a light and balanced diet, eating plenty of herbs and vegetables, avoiding excessive drinking, avoiding spoiled meat, and much other valuable material. It also has more traditional beliefs such as the hope of achieving extreme longevity by eating Solomon's-seal roots.

Paul Buell and I translated and annotated this work some years ago. A second and considerably improved edition of A Soup for the Qan was published in Leiden by Brill in 2010. The reason it sold well enough to go into a second edition fascinates. The why is The Society for Creative Anachronism discovered it! They were enthusiastic about having real Mongol Empire recipes to cook. I dare say they can do a better job than I did when I kitchen-tested practically all the recipes. That is all but the impractical ones involving things such as sheep feet and skin.

After some nutritional advice, the book provides ninety-five recipes, most of them central or west Asian. There are even one or two European recipes. One produces poppy seed rolls identical to the ones sold in an old-time corner deli. Some seventy-two of the recipes involve sheep in one form or another. Many involve noodles, popular then as now, all over east and central Asia. Most fascinating to me was finding one of these recipes in a cookbook by Cleofas M. Jaramillo called The Genuine New Mexico Tasty Recipes. That volume was published by Ancient City Press in Sante Fe NM in 1981; its original edition was in 1942. How did this recipe get there? It started out as an Arab recipe still popular in Baghdad and elsewhere. While traveling east to China, it was also traveling west to Spain with the Arabs. From Spain it came to New Mexico, presumably with the early settlers, many of whom descended from converted 'Moors' in the 17th century.

This section is followed by one hundred fourteen shorter recipes, for medicinal soups, drinks, and syrups. Many of these are Near Eastern, others traditional Chinese recipes. All are notably simple, unlike the much more complex ones in the Ming Dynasty texts we studied. Then comes more nutritional advice, and a long and fascinating section on the alleged nutritional value of an enormous array of plants and animals, many central Asian wildlife that rarely occur in China such as swans, cranes, and desert antelope.

This book is not an isolated case. We are working on a full translation of the Huihui Yaofang, or Muslim (or Western) Medicinal Formulations. This is a book of Yuan and Ming times, probably produced about the same time as the Yinshan Zhengyao, but published in a 15th-century edition. Only about one-eighth of this volume survives. It mentions one hundred fifty-six foods used medicinally, and hundreds of herbal drugs. These are used in recipes for medicines, some involving dozens of ingredients. We have many such recipes, involving most of the foods listed. However, many in the Table of Contents are not used in any surviving recipe.

Still later, in the late 16th century, the rather eccentric health-seeker Gao Lian, produced a medicinal food book that includes several Near Eastern recipes. Some are familiar, including halwa, transliterated into Chinese as hailuo. One did stump us, it was a stuffed dumpling called shilaier. Actually when we figured out the meaning of the word and the recipe, we gleaned it as won ton skins stuffed with minced meat and scallion. Eventually we ran into this specific term in an Azerbaijanian cookbook where essentially the same recipe is called shor. Sumei Yi, a historian, has translated this work and we hope to publish it some day.

These and several other cookbooks and medicinal books show a far greater Central and West Asian influence on Chinese food than we usually assume. Most of the more exotic recipes declined and died out over time, but the cooking of Northwest China gets more and more similar to Yinshan Zhengyao foods as one goes west. Beijing has received some influence, and Shaanxi cooking is definitely shading toward Yinshan Zhengyao styles. Xinjiang preserves much more. Many similar recipes also survive in Uzbekistan and in Afghanistan.

Here are a trio of them provided as updated recipes. Hope you make and enjoy them!
Yellow Soup
1 pound lamb leg meat
3 large (brown) cardamon
2 cups Basmati rice
3 carrots, cut up
1 lamb rib chop
1 cup cooked chickpeas, skinned if you have the patience
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons ground ginger
A pinch of saffron
Salt, to taste
A dash of vinegar, to taste
Cilantro leaves, for garnish
1. Boil the lamb with the cardamoms, then add the rice and carrots.
2. When about half cooked, add the small lamb rib chop and the other ingredients except the cilantro.
3. Garnish with the cilantro just before serving.
Carp Soup
1 fresh carp, or fillets of any good white fish
1 teaspoon Chinese brown pepper, ground
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 Tablespoon chopped onion
Salt, to taste
Dash of Chinese wine mixed with all the spices
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sprouting fresh young ginger
1 teaspoon ground long pepper, optional
Dash of vinegar
1. Marinate the fish in the brown pepper, coriander, onion wine, and salt for about ten minutes.
2. Boil the marinated fish quickly with the rest of the ingredients, then serve.
Broiled Sheep Loin
1 packet of saffron
1/2 cup rose water
1 rack of lamb or some loin
1. Dissolve the saffron in the rose water; scale the amount to the size of the rack.
2. Broil the lamb, cut up or not, basting it with the saffron-infused rose water until the doneness preferred, then serve.

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