Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 563-566
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A Soup for the Qan: Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Szu-Hui's Yin-shan Cheng-Yao. Introduction, translation, commentary, and Chinese text by Paul D. Buell and Eugene N. Anderson. London and NewYork: Kegan Paul International, 2000. xiii + 715 pp. $225.00 (cloth).
At the core of this book is a facsimile reprint of the 1456 edition of a dietary manual, "The Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor's Food and Drink," including its enchanting illustrations of kitchen scenes and foodstuffs such as rice, wheat, millet, wolf, crane, sheep, crab, and carp. It was written by Hu Szu-Hui, who probably came from a bilingual Chinese-Turkic family in northwest China and who served [End Page 563] as imperial dietary physician to several short-lived descendents of Qubilai Qan in the early 1300s. The text, which he originally presented to the emperor in 1330, consists of three sections, the first two comprising over two hundred recipes interspersed with nuggets of dietetic advice and the third being a comprehensive materia dietetica describing the nutritional and medical properties of various foodstuffs.
As a fascinating, if hard to interpret, glimpse into the culture of the Mongol Court, the text has attracted much attention, mainly from Chinese and Japanese scholars but also from Françoise Sabban, a leading French culinary historian at the École des Hautes Études in Paris. The prevailing interpretation is that, although the text faithfully reflects the contemporary belief that food was medicine and medicine was food, the recipes themselves record a short-lived, indeed unfortunate, intrusion of an unsophisticated Mongol cookery based on mutton and milk products into the great traditions of Chinese cuisine.
NowPaul Buell, a respected historian of medicine, andE. N. Anderson, an anthropologist well known for his book The Food of China (Yale University Press, 1988), have joined forces to prepare a fully annotated English translation preceded by an informative monograph describing the political, medical, and culinary context of the "Proper and Essential Things" and succeeded by a substantial appendix on the grain foods of the early Turks commissioned from the Arabic scholar Charles Perry. Bringing to bear linguistic, culinary, and historical skills, they paint a more complex and compelling picture of Hu's agenda, suggesting that the imperial physician was a past master of culinary politics, as alert to the concerns of empire as he was to problems of health and gastronomy. Far from simply perpetuating Mongol gastronomic inadequacy, they argue, he presented a synthetic, pan-imperial cuisine that symbolized and reflected imperial policy. From the Mongol heritage, he took the organizational scheme, as well as some characteristic culinary techniques and ingredients. The first two sections reflect the traditional Mongol culinary classification of comestibles into soups (food) and drinks or liquid concentrates. Soups, the strength-giving foods, extracted the essence of the flesh, bones, and organs of forty animals and birds, including mutton, of course, but also such exotica as curlews, swans, wolves, and snow leopards. The recipes also include basic Mongol ingredients, such as foraged acorns, nettles, and crabapples; roasted grain flour for traveling; sheep stomach salted and dried in the wind; and koumiss and other fermented milk dishes.
From the Turkic and Islamic traditions, Hu selected a culinary nomenclature for spices, baked and steamed breads, non-Chinese noodles, additional cooking techniques, and a wide range of ingredients. [End Page 564] He included recipes for typically Islamic sugar-based preparations such as jams and preserves, sweet fruit drinks and syrups, distilled liquors, and fruit punches. He used typically Persian spices: cinnamon, fenugreek seeds, saffron, turmeric, asafetida, attar of roses, and black pepper. And many of the soups he thickened with long-grain rice, chickpeas, or noodles to make typically Islamic pilaus.
The manual, though, was written in Chinese. It included such typically Chinese ingredients as ginger, orange peel, cabbage, soy bean sauce, bean paste noodles, and glutinous rice powder (incidentally giving an...