A Soup for the Qan: Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era
(As Seen in Hu Szu-hui's Yin-han Cheng-yao)
Paul Buell and Eugene N. Anderson with an Appendix by Charles Perry The Henry Wellcome Asian Series, (London and New York: Keegan Paul International, 2000) Hardback, 780 pages, £150
(Reviewed by Vivienne Lo, EJOM Vol. 3 No. 4)
A Soup for the Qan is the culmination of twenty years of Mongolian studies for Paul Buell. It is jointly authored with Eugene Andersen who has published separately on Chinese culinary traditions. In a beautifully bound volume they provide us with the first translation of, complete with introduction and commentary to the Yin-shan cheng-yao (Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink), a dietary manual and recipe book presented to the Mongol Emperor at the Yuan court in 1330 by the court dietary physician Hu Szu-hui (a position he had held for over ten years). It is an unparalleled contribution to the study of early Chinese food culture, its materia dietetica, cuisine and medical values. This is a field which is not well endowed with scholarly translation and analysis in European languages. For those who read classical Chinese the translation of each section is preceded by a handsome reproduction of versions of the 1456 edition which faithfully reflects extant sections of the original Yuan edition.
The authors present their translation and study as a new perspective on the history of Mongolian imperialism. Outside of the select field of Mongolian studies that history has only ever been disseminated in cliches of plunder and rape. Here, for the first time, through the less sensationalist and more sensual medium of the range of spices and ingredients, cooking technology and dietary philosophy, we have another view of how the Mongol world order came into being; in this story the pervasive Mongolian presence emerges as a vehicle for effective cultural assimilation and dissemination throughout Asia during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The introduction is broad enough to hold the interest of a general readership, and the quality of scholarship places their translation and textual analysis at the forefront of sinological and Mongolian studies.
The Mongol emperor became the pivot of three diverse cultural spheres: the Mongolian heartlands, the Chinese empire and the Muslim communities of Turkistan, Northern Iran, portions of the Caucasus and the Pontic Steppe. At a local level not one of these three spheres of Mongol influence had cultural or historic unity. But the Mongols, dispersed across a vast territory and lacking the concentrated manpower and expertise for effective administration themselves, were open and receptive to local bureaucratic structures and, simultaneously, cultural exchange at a more mundane level.
At court in China they celebrated their mastery of the universe with a level of internationalism never before witnessed in the more inwardly looking Chinese courts. In culinary terms this seems to have manifested in a blend of Mongol food, Muslim spice and sometimes Chinese cooking methods, overlaid with Chinese medical philosophy. Buell and Andersen suggest, for example, that the Mongol court brought to China an easy enjoyment of food, borne of the intimacy and indulgence of Islamic family life and its taste for spice, sweets and fine pastries. They contrast this with what they perceive as an ethnically Chinese structuring of food culture that reflected ritual relationships between family, state and cosmos.
Yin-shan cheng-yao is the first true Chinese cook book in the sense that it not only contains food lore and philosophy, but also gives a guide to the preparation of over 200 dishes. Hu Szu-hui has been rigorous in setting out ingredients by weight and follows a formula for each recipe. The chapters from Ch’i min yao shu, a 6th century agricultural manual, which describes how to make fermented sauces, meat jellies, pickles, vegetarian dishes and dumplings provide one earlier Chinese source for recipes, but we are not given any translations for comparison. In contrast, just before the conquest of China, we are told that the mediaeval Arab world enjoyed a ‘fully developed cook book literature’ with the first example of practical recipe collections dating to 10th century Bagdhad. Buell and Andersen speculate that this structured cook book may have followed in the wake of the Mongol conquest.
Most of the recipes reflect the culinary preferences of the Mongols, traditionally a nomadic and herding people, and some who were also hunters and gatherers. In a pastoral life the most practical choice is to roast meats or to boil raw foods - in this case particularly mutton and wild meats together with fermented milk products, wild vegetables, fruits and berries - into the ‘sulen’ or soup of the title of this book. A sulen could be a kind of soup-casserole, or left to absorb the fluids so that the grains were just moist with the juices of the stock. Classic Mongolian flavouring came from the large cardamom and vinegar; for oil and fried foods they cooked in the fat taken from the tail end of the enormous rump of their sheep, grains were often boiled in milk products from horses and sheep. They were also particularly fond of drinking kumiss, a mild fermented mare’s milk.
In the unique spicing of Yin-shan cheng-yao ‘sulen’ the authors show how Mongolian recipes are Islamicised through Turkic influence. Normally boiled bland ‘to bring out the essence of the ingredients’ with little more than leeks, onions, cardamom and vinegar to enliven them, the Yin-shan cheng-yao sulens uniquely use fenugreek, cinnamon, cumin and asafoetida as well as pulverised chickpeas for thickening. Turkic influence is also evident in finely milled flours made into early forms of the phyllo pastries, Turkic stuffed breads, as well as the various jams, jellies and syrups. Many of the ingredients with an origin in the Near and Middle East are not new to China in the fourteenth century, but the particular flavour and ingredient combinations are unmistakably Islamic. But determining decisively in which respects Hu Szu-hui’s work was innovative requires, in the words of Francoise Sabban, ‘a study of the use of spices in China from antiquity to the time of Hu Szu-hui’s writings’, a mammoth task.
The complexity of differentiating the influence of one non-Chinese cultural group from another in Mongol court culture, and in Yin-shan cheng-yao in particular, manifests clearly in the microcosm of linguistic debate - and is testimony to the great feat of translation that the authors have accomplished. Yin-shan cheng-yao is written in Chinese but contains 23 Mongolian terms and phrases and 51 Turkic or Turkicised words from other languages. These terms are sometimes transcribed with approximate phonetic equivalents, presumably in Northern Chinese dialects, into Chinese script. Frequently exact equivalents are mediated through the selection of Chinese graphs that also convey part of the meaning of the term. But how can we determine what these terms refer to in this text? Have migration, different agricultural domains, dialect and then the passage of time and yet further translation altered referents? Where an English translation is given confidently, a close reading of the notes might reveal serious scholarly debate over the exact reference. Consider the complexities of rendering, and then recognising, shish-kebab in China, or reassess the meaning of mantou the traditional plain steamed wheat bun of north China, when it refers to stuffed breaded meat or comes wrapped in aubergine skins.
Similarly, we can look for cross cultural influence in Yin-shan cheng-yao food technology: the know-how for noodle production was available in China from Han times, and the arrival of fine milling of wheat owes its origin to a much earlier era of dissemination of ideas from the Middle East. But the terms for rack-dried, fried, stuffed and blood noodles along with their production methods are often given with Turkic words which are associated with Islamic noodle making.
Any study of the Yin-shan cheng-yao builds on the pioneering work of such scholars as Sabban and Herbert Franke who have separately written about the Yuan materia dietetica. Sabban has also produced excellent articles about fermentation and the importance of milk and milk technology from the Tang period. Buell and Andersen challenge Francoise Sabban’s view that the Yin-shan cheng-yao represents a Chinese ‘refinement’ of Mongol tastes. On the one hand they demand a finer definition of what has been considered purely Mongol (Turkic/Islamic etc.) and on the other they question how far the veneer of Chinese medical influence or Chinese culinary technique penetrates the recipes themselves.
As the authors point out, it is the pervasive medical structure and content, rather than the recipes, of Yin-shan cheng-yao that have ensured continuity of Chinese interest in the Yuan dietary. The recipes are sandwiched between substantial tracts on longevity, foods to avoid or not to combine, how to behave in pregnancy, and miscellaneous precepts for hygiene and deportment taken from some well known early Chinese sources as well as lists that are unattributed and therefore presented as general knowledge. The strength of this first translation and introduction is in its treatment of the culinary tradition. It also provides an invaluable research tool for medical historians who wish to develop an understanding of the historical relationship between Chinese food and medical culture. It will also be fascinating to see a textual analysis of the self-cultivation and hygienic elements of the book. The richly illustrated classification of foodstuffs that constitutes the whole of the third chapter reflects the contemporary Chinese agenda of those medical theorists of the Song, Jin Yuan period who put a great deal of effort into classifying all edible plant and animal life according to the medicine of systematic correspondence.
Despite, indeed perhaps because of, a high degree of organisation in the text, medical values are not consistently assigned: at times there is a sense that the authors of Yin-shan cheng-yao ran out of steam, perhaps recognising the futility of dry categorisation of foreign foodstuffs in the absence of a received wisdom. In the description of Roast Wolf Soup the dilemma is clear, ‘ancient bencao do not include entries of wolf meat. At present we state that its nature is heating.........it warms the five internal organs and warms the centre.’ As far as received and applied wisdom is evident through the categorisation we can identify therein a familiar blend of empirical evidence, sympathetic magic and miscellaneous beliefs from all the many cultural influences. In the first chapter, many of the grain recipes are given a rather formulaic medical value. The majority supplement the centre and increase qi’. Most of the Mongolian meat recipes, on the other hand, are not assigned medical value. Those that are, are loosely classified according to sympathies, i.e. Boiled Sheep’s Heart, ’treats heart energy agitation, while the loins treat lumbago’. In contrast the thinking behind the medical action of the fruit and vegetable recipes of chapter two seems more sophisticated and most recipes are specifically related to illnesses.
The Yin-shan cheng-yao recipes, although catering to the unique characteristics of Mongol taste, was also addressing a Chinese audience and therefore assume some knowledge of the food culture of both fourteenth century Mongol and Chinese court cuisine. Unfortunately, just as in most cookery books, there are substantial ellipses in the step-by-step guide to preparation. Buell and Anderson occasionally refer to ‘cook-testing’ a process of interactive translation which adds a worldly dimension. They also provide very practical tips in the footnotes where they demonstrate their own wide knowledge of international cookery. At the authors' recommendation I steamed some aubergine stuffed with minced lamb and finely chopped tangerine peel. Served with a strong garlic and herb yoghurt sauce it was a rare delicacy much appreciated by my guests. ‘Seu’ an exotic lamb soup/stew flavoured with enormous amounts of ginger, pepper and cinnamon and cooked with fresh pomegranate juice had a magnificent flavour and a warming effect. But without the required set of sheeps’ hooves it did not boil down to the intended consistency. Nevertheless, with a few interpretive flourishes and a little skill this is a great cookery book. The Yuan court chefs are to be congratulated, along with Buell and Anderson who have themselves served up a great feast of Chinese and Mongolian cultural history.
Recipe Mutton Sheep's fat Sheep's tail Onions Prepared mandarin orange peel (cut up finely) Tender' eggplant (remove the pith).
Combine ingredients with meats into a stuffing. But instead of making a dough covering put it inside the eggplant (skin) and steam.
For convenience I simply used Tesco's minced lamb and added a dash of soya sauce, vegetable bouillon and rice wine. It was truly delicious.
Vivienne Lo Vivienne Lo has been an acupuncture practitioner since 1980. She has a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in early Chinese medical history and is currently a Wellcome Fellow in the History Department.