Enjoy the Food of China – Book Review

Anthropologist E.N. Anderson explains why the Chinese eat what they do in The Food of China (1988, Yale University Press). Anderson provides a detailed history of Chinese food beginning with considerations of the natural environment up to and including a discussion of how the Chinese use food as communication in contemporary society.

Following Anderson’s argument for how Chinese cuisine was created reflects more how an art form was created than how a biological need was fulfilled. In discussing China’s natural environment to begin his book, Anderson may surprise some readers when he states that geography is the result of human intervention in China. (p.6). The most salient example of this intervention is the Yellow River’s riding high above agricultural land thanks to a system of dikes.

Anderson provides numerous examples of achievements towards building cuisine as an art by dynasty. The shortlist of these achievements gives an idea of the breadth of Anderson’s research:

• Chou (or Zhou) Dynasty (1046 – 256 B.C.E.)

Agriculture was held to be the most important function of state. The emperor performed token plowing every year beginning in this dynasty and the empress tended to silk worms right up until the end of the Qing Dynasty which ended in 1911. (p.35)

• Ch’in (or Qin) Dynasty (221 – 207 B.C.E.) and Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220)

The Chinese made innovations in noodle technology and stir-frying was introduced to China. Writings on food as medicine appeared at this time as well. (pp. 43-44)

• Medieval China: 400 Years of Disunity followed by reunification under the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and T’ang Dynasty (618 – 907)

During the period of national disunity, Buddhism and tea entered into China from India. (pp. 47-50). Double cropping of rice was adopted in Northern China. (p.54)

• Definitive Shaping of the Food System: Sung (or Song) Dynasty (960 – 1279) and Yüan Dynasty (1271 -1378)

Elaborate foods were being developed by local elites that surpassed imperial food in innovation. (p.57). Dairy foods began to be shunned for their association with foreign invaders such as the Yüan Dynasty’s Mongol Emperors. (p.66). The Mongols brought with them a liking for mutton.

• Late Imperial China: The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

New World food products such as peppers, peanuts, and corn (maize) were introduced by Chinese traders returning from Manila in the Spanish colony of the Philippines. The Portuguese also contributed to the introduction of New World food products through their colony in Macau located southern China.

• The Ch’ing (or Qing) Dynasty (1644-1911): Manchu Rule

Agricultural, herbal, and medical books circulated that reflected food’s role as a medicine.

After this detailed history of Chinese food, Anderson writes that “Chinese cooking is a cooking of scarcity” (p. 149) and describes heating and cooking methods beyond the usual Western conception of Chinese cooking as a stir-fry cuisine. He proposes a “wheat in the north” and “rice in the center and south” dichotomy that makes Chinese cuisine easier to classify. He ends his opus The Food of China by using an example of banquet seating and serving to show how food serves as communication in Chinese society. Anderson’s The Food of China is an essential book for understanding the role of history and geography in making Chinese cuisine what it is today.

Originally posted on Ruth Paget’s Belle Vie Reviews and more blog: http://belleviereviews.blogspot.com