Food and Drink: Where the cookbook may be 4,000 years old

SOME THINGS are unchanging about Chinese cuisine, and the degree of its consistency was one of the surprises of my trip to China. That is, in part, because what appears exotic to us is quite natural to the Chinese. Our view of Chinese cooking is falsified by the patterns of Chinese emigration and by our flibbertigibbet eclecticism in eating.

In China, as here, there are really two forms of eating: that which involves the family on a day-to-day basis, and that which includes guests. The former produces a frugal but well balanced diet; the latter (and, for the Chinese, any excuse for a splurge is welcome) prompts a form of gorging.

Entertaining others, the Chinese become adventurous to the point of going outside their own immediate culinary culture; by themselves, they stick to what they know best.

What is beyond doubt is that the Chinese, while not necessarily great eaters (in terms of volume), are passionate about their food, and sticklers as to standards and the precise preparation of dishes.

I talked to a dozen cooks on my trip, and all had a standard repertoire in mind. These were dishes that they had prepared professionally for many years (in China, the average age for a true chef would seem to be between 35 and 40, implying - since the kitchens are full of young men still in their teens - that apprenticeship is long and arduous).

They seemed shocked when I put it to them that the heart of cuisine lay in the ability to invent, to create new combinations. Time and again I was put firmly in my place; Chinese cooking is the result of a long development (both in agriculture and in cooking methods), and customers are very knowledgeable; a cook deviating too far from the norm would be producing something outlandish; his clients would think he was making a mistake.

To judge this innate conservatism would be foolish. One must remember that Chinese cooking, as an art, is 4,000 years old; that it has evolved very slowly according to the agricultural development of the country; that China is vast and therefore the different regions were not always closely related, nor the ingredients (and consequently the techniques) the same.

All national cuisines develop in close relationship to local agriculture and patterns of trade, and what is particular about China is the early development of its agriculture, its regional specialisation, its relative isolation and, above all, its close relationship with ritual and religion. The Chinese would not follow Brillat-Savarin in saying we are what we eat; their philosophy seems to imply that if we wish to become what we ought, there are prescribed ways of eating.

The foundation of this food culture was, and is, simplicity. Few world cuisines are so closely bound to philosophy: out of necessity (population pressure) perhaps, but also out of a desire to get to the fundamentals of what human life is about. Nor is there any nation in which food habits (and their connections to divine purpose and health) have been so carefully annotated. Even more surprising is the way in which contemporary cooks seem aware of lessons that go back at least two millennia and have prevailed ever since.

Agriculture, not war or conquest, was the proper business of the state, but only because famine and war were the regular forms of interference with the well-being of the citizenry. I could do worse than cite a passage from Mencius (2nd century BC) which states the relationship between 'right conduct' and food.

'If you do not interfere with the busy season in the fields,' he writes for his emperor, 'then there will be more grain than people can eat; if you do not allow nets with too fine a mesh to be used in large ponds, then there will be more fish and turtles than they can eat; if hatchets and axes are permitted in the forests on the hills only in the proper seasons, then there will be more timber than they can use.

'When the people have more grain, more fish and turtles than they can eat, and more timber than they can use, then in the support of their parents when alive and in the mourning of them when dead, they will be able to have no regrets over anything left undone.'

What Mencius is suggesting is a state of equilibrium (including, note, the equilibrium between the living and dead and, by extension, an obligation to those who will come after you), and that understanding of balance, the right time and the right way to do things, governs the Chinese concept of food to this day.

This is admirable enough, but even more to my liking is the way in which, alongside this relatively austere way of life, connoisseurship (and the development of a gourmet, fun-loving, sensual class) developed quite naturally.

Thus where, to some, Mencius might seem puritanical, the fact is that both reserve and enjoyment are part of the philosophy of food. Puritanism has done enormous damage to our own cuisine (fun is bad for you); in China it never caught on. And on more than one night I saw, in different restaurants and despite the lateness of the hour, a table of extremely merry Chinese: wrapped up in endless giggles, sweating, glistening and inebriated in a very antique fashion with the sheer pleasure of food and drink.

In a country that is politically so dour, this may be the ultimate form of compensation. If so, it shows how much less civilised the Russians were: for they had only drink; their food was inedible.

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