Culinary Harmony and its Historical Context in Ancient China

Culinary in ancient China is radically different from the world of culinary that we are familiar with today. Ancient Chinese culinary plays a prominent role in rituals – both in the rituals of ancestral worship and in the rituals of the state. Not only are food and wine used as offerings to the spirits, but they are tightly integrated in state rituals used for regulating society.

In this post, I will look at two aspects of culinary – food (cooking) and drink (wine) – and explore the idea of culinary in the context of ancient China. I will begin my discussion first on the historical context of wine, followed by the historical context of food and its preparation, and lastly, I will focus my discussion on what counts as culinary harmony in both food and wine.

The consumption of wine has been a very important aspect in ancient Chinese life, especially in the Shang Dynasty. However, records from the Zhou Dynasty suggests that the Shang’s heavy drinking eventually led to the downfall of their empire. While the Zhou Dynasty did not forbid the consumption of alcohol, they did, however, implement different sets of regulatory rituals around the consumption of wine. Not only was wine-drinking a tool for cultivating social interaction, but it was also employed as a tool for distinguishing people’s social status, and to educate them about their position in society. This was a way in which the ruler was able to regulate society both politically and morally. There were different sets of ritual codes for each class of society: lords, ministers, high-ranking officials, literati or low-ranking officials, and commoners. According to the Rites of Zhou (周禮 Zhouli), among every 500 households, one person must be appointed as director over these households, and he was in charge of teaching people the proper conduct of the various rituals, i.e. religious offerings, funerals, marriage, adulthood initiation, and wine drinking. Another person was to be appointed so as to regulate people’s consumption of wine. Each social class had their own unique rituals for consuming wine, and were allowed to use only specific types of vessels according to their status. The different ritual codes for the various social classes also meant different ritual actions and vessels for religious offerings and funerals (it also prescribed which deities the various classes could pray to). Nonetheless, in the context of religious offerings, wine plays a significant role as it was used to invite blessings from their royal ancestors, and to pray for good weather or a good harvest from the gods/spirits. It is worth noting that in the offerings of food to the spirits, wine holds a central position, possibly because of the intoxicating effects of alcohol, which many societies regard as the effects of divine ecstasy.

Wine in ancient China was usually made of grain. A small amount of grain is capable of producing a lot of wine. Moreover, the wine produced from the fermentation process is very thick, and needs to be diluted before consumption. The vessel used for mixing such wine with water is known as  盉 he, from which the word for harmony, 和 he, is derived from. By mixing water into the wine, the strong flavours from the thick concentrated wine are weakened so as to become more palatable for consumption.

In the case of food, the preparation of food is very important in ancient Chinese culinary. As I have mentioned in my earlier post (See The Pre-Beginnings of the Philosophical Concept of Harmony (和 he)), food has a moral dimension. The cook was seen to hold great power to influence the moral strength of the ruler by means of his food. By eating food that is harmonious (i.e. where the flavours are well-mixed/balanced), the ruler will then acquire a harmonious heart-mind (心 xin) that will allow him to rule over his kingdom in a harmonious way. It was extremely crucial, therefore, that the cook prepared his food properly. For this reason, the preparation of food is of utmost importance when it comes to food.

Another reason why so much emphasis is placed on preparation is that food must be sacrificed to the spirits of the ancestors and to the gods, even if they are meant for human consumption. The idea behind it is that when food has been sacrificed, the food would have absorb some 靈 ling (a kind of spiritual power), which one can ingest and receive  “symbolic access to power and to the spirit world.” [It is important for me to point out that the ancient Chinese world never had a mind-body or a spirit-body dualism. Spirits are just as material as the body – everything’s made of the same stuff. It is therefore possible for the ancient Chinese to believe in the possibility that spirits could absorb something from food, and their interaction with the food would have left behind something numinous that will benefit humans] At the same time, food has the power to lure ancestors and spirits to the aid of praying supplicants. By keeping spirits well-fed, the ruler (or those offering food to the spirits) is able to receive their divine protection and aid. This is especially necessary for the ruler who desires harmony in his kingdom.

So much is at stake that food must be prepared and cooked to perfection or else the cook and, possibly even his assistants, may be executed.

One important aspect of preparation worth highlighting is the cutting of meat. On the practical side, the evenly cut ingredients – with uniform volumes and uniform surface areas – will mean that these ingredients will cook at the same rate, and interact similarly with the other ingredients. Unevenly cut meat will not cook evenly, and will therefore fail to produce a dish where the various flavours are in harmony with each other. As for the ritual aspect of cutting meat, the cook’s ability to cut meat evenly is a sign of his partiality and equality towards his guests, and of his sense of measure to distribute meat evenly to them (traits useful for good governance). By consuming such equally divided (and harmoniously cooked) food, it was believed that the cook was also able to impart such values and influence the ruler to be just as partial in his rule.

The scholar-minister, Yan Ying (晏嬰), describes social harmony as analogous to culinary harmony:

和 He is like making soup (羹 geng). One needs water, fire, vinegar, sauce, salt, and plum in order to cook fish and meat. One needs to cook them with firewood. The cook has to mingle (和 he) the ingredients together in order to balance the taste. He needs to compensate for deficiencies and to reduce excessiveness. The good person (君子 jun zi) eats [such balanced food] in order to achieve a balanced mind.

(Chun Qiu Zuo Zhuan 春秋左傳, “Shaogong 昭公”, Year 20)

The soup that Yan Ying used in his illustration refers to a complex type of soup. It is a type of soup made up of vegetables and meat, with starch added to create a certain level of thickness. Preparing this soup requires more than just simply adding ingredients together in a pot to boil. In the first place, this soup requires meat (or fish) as the necessary ingredient. As meat has strong flavours, the cook needs to balance such excessive flavours with other flavours. This involves adjusting the level of water in the pot, the strength of the fire, and adding the (well cut) meat and vegetables into the pot at the right time so as to extract the right level of flavour from each ingredient. As for the final touches, the cook has to add a special well-mixed starch solution towards the end to give the soup a nice thick consistency. In so doing, the cook is able to balance and evenly distribute the flavours and texture throughout the soup, so that no single flavour/ingredient/texture is in excess. In so doing, though the soup is a composite of many ingredients, it becomes a single organic whole.

What counts as culinary harmony (i.e. the harmony of flavours) for both food and wine involves making sure that excessive flavours are balanced in such a way that no single flavour overwhelms or is overwhelmed by another flavour. This is achieved either by mixing it with water (that which has no flavour), or by balancing it with other flavours (which either reduces the excessiveness of a particular flavour, or complements it so that the excessive flavour becomes pleasing to the tastebuds). It may also be necessary to add additional ingredients (e.g. starch or, in the case of wine – water) to balance and complement the texture(s) of the other ingredients. If one were to use other flavours to harmonise the excessive flavours, then the following factors must be considered: (1) the timing in which the ingredients are added to the pot (or wok); (2) the size and evenness of the cuts (for both meat and vegetables) so that the rate in which its flavours and interaction with other ingredients are controlled; and most importantly (3) the stirring, to ensure an even distribution and mix throughout the entire pot, so that no single spot contains any particular taste or texture in excess.

When the cook is able to achieve such a harmony of flavours, the consumer will encounter an organic whole (in taste and touch), even though it is comprised of many distinct ingredients.