Curated by Jiao Tong, Associate Professor, Department of Chinese Literature, National Central University
The Taiwanese saying “First food, then clothing” highlights diet’s importance, acknowledging a simple fact: If we don’t eat, we can’t survive as a species. Another old saw – “People... (Read more)
Curated by Jiao Tong, Associate Professor, Department of Chinese Literature, National Central University
The Taiwanese saying “First food, then clothing” highlights diet’s importance, acknowledging a simple fact: If we don’t eat, we can’t survive as a species. Another old saw – “People must be wealthy for three generations before they understand how to dine and dress properly” – illustrates diet’s relation to culture; what’s being compared here is not material wealth but taste, for an affluent society such as Taiwan’s can still be culturally impoverished.
Some traditional Chinese intellectuals were disdainful of exquisite food, equating it with luxury and extravagance; hence, they refused to express praise or approval of fine cuisine. This, of course, is an imprisonment of taste. In Chinese the character for “taste” (品 pǐn) is composed of three “open mouths” (口 kǒu). To the French, “knowing flavors” and “distinguishing flavors” is not simply a part of taste; it is taste itself. Compared to the Chinese and the French, the English pay little attention to food. In the words of Lin Yutang, “French eating is passionate eating; English eating is remorseful eating.”
If a person doesn’t understand the works of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, it would appear that he or she lacks musical cultivation and is insufficiently cultured. If a person can’t appreciate the paintings of Van Gogh, Chagall, Dali, and Picasso, we could say that he or she lacks aesthetic refinement and is in need of further cultivation. But if a person doesn’t understand eating, can’t tell good food from bad, or is completely ignorant of dietary culture, well, he or she deserves our sympathy and pity.
Diet is culture, and it’s also the appreciation of good food. All ideas and creative notions point to a kind of living appetite, and this “appetite” derives from the appetite for food. Food is not just a biological issue involving the mouth, tongue, and digestive organs, but a question of aesthetics and taste. And “taste” is not an innate characteristic, but needs to be nurtured. Some intellectuals simplify human instincts and biological needs; to these learned ones, food and drink can only satisfy the body’s needs, easing hunger and quenching thirst, but are incapable of satisfying the spiritual longing for aesthetic experience.
To my thinking, the only aspect of Chinese culture that can claim true profundity is diet. Prior to the Qin dynastic period (221 BCE) there were no texts devoted to food or dietary culture; however, Confucian writings – The Classic of Poetry, The Book of Rites, The Rites of Zhou, and The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonies – contain a great many of food-related records. The following passage from the Analects offers a detailed look at Confucius’ dietary predilections: “He did not dislike to have his rice finely cleaned, nor to have his mince meat cut quite small. He did not eat rice which had been injured by heat or damp and turned sour, nor fish or flesh which was gone. He did not eat what was discolored, or what was of a bad flavor, nor anything which was ill-cooked, or was not in season. He did not eat meat which was not cut properly, nor what was served without its proper sauce. Though there might be a large quantity of meat, he would not allow what he took to exceed the due proportion for the rice. It was only in wine that he laid down no limit for himself, but he did not allow himself to be confused by it. He did not partake of wine and dried meat bought in the market. He was never without ginger when he ate. He did not eat much. When he had been assisting at the prince’s sacrifice, he did not keep the flesh which he received overnight. The flesh of his family sacrifice he did not keep over three days. If kept over three days, people could not eat it. When eating, he did not converse. When in bed, he did not speak. Although his food might be coarse rice and vegetable soup, he would offer a little of it in sacrifice with a grave, respectful air. If his mat was not straight, he did not sit on it.” 1 It’s obvious that Confucius not only appreciated delicious foods, but stressed the importance of hygiene as well. Chinese literature has never lacked for dietary writings – writers of the past had a great appreciation for fine cuisine. In the Ming and Qing periods alone there were Liu Bowen, Lu Rong, Lu Shusheng, Xu Wei, Tu Long, Zhang Dafu, Xie Zhaozhe, Yuan Hong Dao, Wang Siren, Wen Zhenheng, Zhang Dai, Xu Cishu, Xu Shupi, Fu Shan, Zhou Lianggong, Pu Songling, Niu Xiu, Ji Xiaolan, Yu Wen, Zhu Lian, Liang Zhangju, Chen Huiyan, Lin Shu…. Those who pay no attention to food, lack knowledge of food, or are unable to judge flavors, have indeed been infected with cultural amnesia; thus, it’s apparent that dietary culture and literature are intimately related.
I like to read menus. In all the world only Chinese menus read like poetry. In general, menus in the West list only dishes’ names and ingredients; however, Chinese menus often purposely obscure the ingredients that make up a dish, opting rather to metaphorically express the dish’s creative concept. For example, the following are names of vegetarian dishes at the South Putuo Temple in Xiamen, China: “Brightly Colored Flowers Greet the Guests” (a cold plate of tiny mushrooms arranged in the shape of a flower); “Golden Lotus of the South Seas” (a “lotus root” made of deep-fried tofu skin and lotus-root powder, adorned with winter-melon rind carved to resemble lotus leaves, and garnished with a sweet-and-sour sauce); “Half Moon Sinking in the River” (a soup of Chinese angelica root, mushrooms, winter bamboo shoots, and wheat gluten; the mushrooms are black and the gluten is white, resembling a moon sinking to the bottom of a river); “White Wall, Blue Clouds” (a vegetable soup in which “hair moss” – an edible algae – and tofu are the principle ingredients; hair moss is also known as “blue clouds” and tofu is white like a wall, hence the name). Hakka cuisine features “Eight Drunken Immortals” (eight parts of ox – tongue, liver, stomach, etc. – stir-fried together) and “Kirin 2 Emerges from the Womb” (a combination of pork belly and dog meat; the dog meat is the “kirin” and the pork belly represents the “womb” – when the pork belly is sliced, the “kirin” emerges from the “womb”). In Li Ang’s short-story collection Aphrodite’s Appetites this same principle in used in betokening story plots; for example, in “State Banquet” differences between the Chinese and English menus connote gender and political issues.
And I really like to read recipes. Actually, a number of noted Chinese writers – Su Dongpo, Yuan Mei, Li Yu, and Zhang Ailing – have left recipes. I’ve even collected the recipes written by foreign writers – Filippo Tommaso, founder of the Futurist movement, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Alice B. Toklas, M.F.K. Fisher – and painters, such as Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso. Indeed, recipes are an expression of talent – both artistic ability and verve for living.
Food undoubtedly enlivens artists’ spirits and lives.
Recipes are often written in elegant prose, as are literary descriptions of foodstuffs. In Uwe Tim’s Die Entdeckung der Currywurst (“The Birth of Curried Sausage”) food flavors embody the taste of war and the fortunes of children caught up in its midst. In Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua Para Chocolate (“Like Water for Chocolate”) twenty Mexican dishes weave a web of conflict and desire. In the films Babette’s Feast and Chocolat, a dinner party and chocolate respectively alter the face of two small towns – one in Denmark, the other in France – forever changing the lives of the people who inhabit them.
When literature fades out of people’s lives, some rediscover it in food.
Foods in literature always evoke nostalgia, leading people to ponder and reflect. Fine cuisine belongs to memory; good foods eaten in the past leave an aftertaste in the mind, lingering on in recollections.
Research into food in literature has given birth of the study of a literary theme, issuing a call to awaken slumbering aesthetic sensibilities.
Early Taiwanese food writing for the most part evoked nostalgia. Whether recalling human interactions or flavors of home, writers such as Liang Shiqiu, Liang Rongruo, Tang Lusun, Qijun, and Lin Taiyi set the tone for early essays on food. Later writings discussed differences in dishes and methods of preparation, tending to emphasize cultural depth and pure aesthetic experience.
Although Yu Guangzhong isn’t featured in this unit, he has written many fine poems depicting fruit’s beauty, directly engaging with the subject of diet. In Yu’s poetry, fruit is a vehicle for expressing deep feelings about the past and maintaining cultural continuity, singing of romantic love and the land, allusions hidden within the poems linking diet and traditional culture.
In selecting this unit’s ten works, literary genre, the periods in which the works were written – and, of course, literary value – were primary considerations. Zhang Cuo’s (Dominic Cheung) widely circulated “Tea Love Poem” is one of the unit’s earlier works of food-related literature. In Zhang’s poem the act of steeping tea leaves is a metaphor for romantic love, a testament to dietary culture’s extensive roots and profound significance in the civilizations of East Asia.
In a preface to his From a Cottager’s Sketchbook, a collection of essays on dietary culture, Liang Shiqiu touches on his reasons for writing about food: “Sometimes when I’m homesick for Peking, I like to talk about the delicious foods I used to eat there, and that makes me so happy it’s almost if I’m eating them again.” Liang was a Beijing native, and the book is a reminiscence of the past, with foods recalling the flavors and feelings of former times.
Portraying love and affection through reminiscences of food is the essence of food writing. The works of Qi Jun, Lin Taiyi, and Lin Wenyue can be seen as a kind of literary style, a model. Lin Wenyue’s Notes on Food, a collection of essays on food, was a bestseller. The cover blurb is apropos: “In reminiscing about foods, the writer recalls friends and relatives, the people in her life who knew her intimately. Nineteen delicious recipes are woven into a warm and moving memoir, a tapestry of the past. Although the work can be said that of a master chef wielding an elegant pen, recording her cooking experiences, it is in fact a great study in the recollection of thoughts and emotions, a moving portrait of the writer, and her mentors, friends, and family.”
Lu Yaodong is a historian whose pen imparts deep sighs of emotion. The quality and quantity of his food writing rival the works of Tang Lusun, another twentieth-century food writer. Lu Yaodong changed the way in which writers approach dietary culture – by investigating food “family trees” he added a deep historical dimension to food literature. Lu’s food-related writings appear in the collections A Tree of Yearning Outside the Window, Visiting the Past, That New Year’s Day, Seems Like Freedom, and A Big Belly Can Hold a Lot. Yuan Jen and Jiang Xun have also written much on food; the former’s “Eating” and the latter’s “Lasting Flavor” are outstanding essays, worth reading and rereading.
The literature of food includes works of fiction, poetry, essays, reportage, film, and drama. But food is never easy to write well about – if approached even slightly carelessly, an essay can devolve into a “food guide.” Only superior writers can truly convey flavor and interest. In addition to possessing literary talent, a good food writer must be sensitive and thoughtful, for only then will he or she produce fine creative work. Unlike other literary themes, food writing produces a biological reaction, stimulating readers’ salivary glands.
This unit’s ten selections were chosen not only for their literary quality, but also for their standing in food literature’s “family tree,” reflecting the times in which they were written, and, moreover, providing readers with an initial taste of fine writing on food. Beginning with the works of Liang Shiqiu, Taiwan writers have produced a body of food writing impressive in both quantity and quality. Selected Works of Taiwanese Food Writing (Vols. 1 and 2), which I edited, are the fruit of an initial attempt to assemble a collection of Taiwanese food essays.
Additionally, in 2007 I began compiling annual volumes of selected works on food. Since then, each year I’ve continued to select and edit excellent works on dietary culture that have been published in the Taiwanese media. All in all, I hope that these collections will illustrate the development and style of Taiwanese food writing, highlight intergenerational differences among the writers, and offer an overview of Taiwan’s finest contemporary literature on diet and culture.
1Translated by James Legge
2A mythical creature considered a good omen in East Asian cultures.
“Eating” was published in Yuan Jen’s 1993 essay collection, It’s Not Funny. In addition to his career as a writer, Yuan Jen has also served as a Taiwa... (Read more)
“Congee” is taken from Liang Shiqiu’s collection Liang Shiqiu on Eating. In a preface the author mentions that when someone once asked him why he stud... (Read more)
Lin Wenyue’s “Steamed Turnip Cake” is part of the writer’s 1999 essay collection, Notes on Food, stories of nineteen different food dishes. The work i... (Read more)
“A Mother’s Love Mixed in With the Meat Floss” first appeared in Lin Taiyi’s autobiography Second Daughter of the Family (1996), and was later include... (Read more)
Fond reminiscences of mother and family are perpetual themes for writer Qi Jun. Her essay “Reunion Cake” is a recollection of a Mid-Autumn Festival wh... (Read more)
Published in 2000 in the China Times “Human Realm” supplement, “Many Thanks to the Shi Family” is a culinary tour of China’s Suzhou City; the work was... (Read more)
Published in 1952, Lucian Wu’s “Cocktail Party” appeared in his essay-collection Cocktail Parties and Other Affairs. Common social gatherings in the W... (Read more)
Jiang Xun’s famed essay “Lasting Flavor” is a treatise on the sense of taste. Recording his aesthetic musings in lyrical prose, Jiang Xun believes tha... (Read more)
“About Breakfast” appeared in Jiao Tong’s essay collection Binge Eating Everywhere (2009), the culmination of eighteen years of dining experience. Twe... (Read more)
Liu Yutsu, PhD candidate, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Director Lin Zhengsheng’s 27°C – Loaf Rock (2013) is co... (Read more)
Liu Shufu, founder of Taste of Taichung Cultural Writing Team and one of the authors of Tastes of Taichung How do you discover a city’s character? Ho... (Read more)
Chiang Kuoyu, MA, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Jiao Tong’s poetry collection Erotic Recipes: A Complete Menu f... (Read more)
Ma Yihang, PhD candidate, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Postmodern Eating was published in 2004. Author Liao Bi... (Read more)
Chai Ao, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University Written in fresh, beautiful prose and rich in imagery, Essay... (Read more)
Ye Renjie, PhD student, Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages, and Literature,National Taiwan University A landmark in Taiwanese food literature, L... (Read more)
Wang Liru, PhD student, Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages, and Literature, National Taiwan Normal University Director Wang Yemin’s 2008 Tea Fig... (Read more)
Shi Tingyu, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University The Chinese title “Savory Soy Milk 1 ,” might lead audie... (Read more)
Hsiao Wenhua, MFA, Graduate Institute of Theater Performance and Playwriting, National Taipei University of the Arts 2011’s Night Market Hero is Ye T... (Read more)