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Original Essays

Where Food and Words Meet: A Literary Sub-School of Chinese Cuisine Survives against the Odds

by Nicole Mones
  1. The Last Chinese Chef
    $6.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    The Last Chinese Chef

    Nicole Mones

  2. Lost in Translation
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Lost in Translation

    Nicole Mones

  3. A Cup of Light
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    A Cup of Light

    Nicole Mones

As China continues its headlong rush to the future, certain areas of life seem to let people also reach back to the past. One such area is food. Cuisine culture has rebounded, with its many traditions. It's enough of a force in life today to have affected diplomacy. In April 2006, when China's President Hu Jintao made a state visit to the U.S., the White House invited him to lunch instead of to a state dinner. In the traditional language of China's cuisine this sent a specific message: You're a second-rate country; you don't matter to us. Feathers were ruffled. The Chinese reaction was a reminder that in food at least, the old ways endure. How else could a centuries-old literary cuisine, the cuisine of the city Hangzhou, once again be succeeding with today's diners?

That there's been a rebirth at all is surprising when one considers how long China forbade serious cuisine. In the early 1950s most private restaurants were closed. The government kept only a few open, for purposes of state. Fine dining was finished. Food was utilitarian, something to fill a need. For a time in the 1950s, work units even cooked and ate in communal kitchens. 1960–61 brought a devastating famine. Then came the Cultural Revolution, 1966–1976.

Things started to change in the early 1980s. The restaurant industry was one of the first to privatize. Small places opened up and diners responded. Growth was rapid. Food, formerly reviled as decadent, became one of the first of life's pleasures to be rehabilitated.

By the mid-1990s restaurants were everywhere, having returned to their former place of importance in Chinese life. They were not just places to eat but venues for building relationships (guanxi) of all kinds and getting things done. The world of dining was also fast-changing, light on its feet and quick to express trends. Through these trends one could sometimes see poignant psychic and societal adjustments taking place on a surprising scale.

One example was the run of historical nostalgia restaurants Beijing saw in the late 1990s. Some of these establishments were devoted to the Cultural Revolution, a time associated much more with privation and suffering than with food. The phenomenon quickly became a humorous curiosity to Westerners. Yet Chinese diners, mostly adults who had lived through the decade in question, flocked to these eateries without irony. They probably weren't there for the food either, which on occasion ran to insects and tree leaves. Instead they were revisiting memories of a very different, earlier time in their lives — and these memories were not entirely bad. "I ate a lot of bitterness, but it forged my character," one man told me over a plate of fried cornbread cubes and cabbage. "That experience will be a form of wealth for my life and my work for as long as I live. If I can live through that environment, I can live through anything."

With food linking so many people to the past, perhaps it is not so surprising that the literary cuisine of Hangzhou has survived into the new century, in fact prospered. This is a cuisine of the soul, food created for men of letters.

It's one of many Chinese cuisines that reflect their audiences. The food of Beijing was the food of officials, up to and including the Emperor who had his own rarefied cuisine. The food of Shanghai, sweet, oily, with rich braised pork and fresh seafood, catered to wealthy merchants and traders. Sichuan food was the rough and ready food of the common people. Famous dishes such as ma po tofu (tofu and ground pork in chile sauce) and fu qi fei pian (mom-and-pop sliced lungs, these days made with beef shank) started out in street stalls.

Then there was the food of Hangzhou, a cuisine of and for the literati. The city was a lovely place, centered around a green-fringed, man-made lake. From the time of its early peak in the late Song Dynasty, it had appeal for poets. Marco Polo visited it then. He wrote that it was "the greatest city which may be found in the world, where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies oneself to be in Paradise." Even in Marco Polo's time, food was the focus of passion and discernment. The center of town was lined with restaurants and wineshops which doubled as places of poetic entertainment with courtesans, music, and opera. Famous poets became part of the city's lore. One of these, Su Dongpo (1037–1101), is supposed to have left behind a pork recipe which has been refined by countless chefs in the centuries since and which now, under its common name dongpo pork, appears on Chinese restaurant menus all over the world.

The literary link was strengthened in 1849 when what would become the venerable restaurant Lou Wai Lou opened on the shores of West Lake next door to the Calligraphy Society. The scholars who gathered there were the place's natural clientele. Chefs strove to delight them. Dishes were created that would not only recall great poets of the past, but perhaps inspire the creation of a few verses at table. Candlelit barge banquets on the lake were a classic setting for these creative pairings of food, wine and poetry. As Jonathan Spence observed of the Qing gentry, "The culinary arts were treated as a serious matter, as a part of the life of the mind. There was a Tao of food, just as there was a Tao of conduct and one of literary creation."

The classic Hangzhou canon was and is small, only 36 dishes. One might expect it to have been subsumed in the wash of Hangzhou's new restaurants selling their chefs' up-to-the-minute creations, but it has not been. Even the local government's wrongheaded 1990s attempt to blot out these 36 classic dishes by introducing 72 'new' Hangzhou dishes was not effective. The 72 are nowhere to be found on the city's menus today. The 36 are everywhere.

Still, one question needled me. Did people still remember the literary connections at the cuisine's heart — or did they just order the classic dishes because they tasted so good?

I couldn't help thinking about it as I ate a delicious lunch at Lou Wai Lou, in front of tall, stately windows through which flooded the clear lake light. All around me happy diners were eating dongpo pork, named for the poet. Did they remember Su Dongpo? Did they know his work? As they ate, did they think of the literati next door at the Calligraphy Society? Was poetry and calligraphy still part of the art of food, or had it fled and left nothing behind but the pleasure of eating?

I stepped outside and walked down the steps, still wondering. A breeze rustled through the trees. What I saw on the sidewalk below made me stop where I was. There, a man with a bucket of water and a brush as big as a mop was writing on the sidewalk in fluid vertical lines of calligraphy.

I held my breath, watching. Then I said, "Sir, may I ask? What are you writing?"

He looked up. His face was full of pleasure. "Just a few lines from Su Dongpo," he answered.

I laughed in delight. So the deeper layers still lived. Several more diners emerged behind me. They also stopped to look, and savor. All of us sensed for a second the evanescence of food, and of art. We had just eaten exquisite dishes which were memories now, part of us. Here on the sidewalk below, the flow of thousand-year old words made time stop while we watched in silence. Then it evaporated away. By the time the last words were finished, the first had already vanished. spacer

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