Premodern Chinese Recipes
This page contains my recreations of recipes from premodern Chinese history. As in a blog, I will add new entries to this page from time to time, but if you wish to know my latest postings, I suggest following me on Twitter: @RobbanToleno (or on Instagram – see the link at top right)
Recipes from China prior to the 10th century
Essential Techniques for Bringing Order to the People
(Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術), ca. 544 CE
Jiyazibing 雞鴨子餅, cake of the child of chicken or duck
A 6th-century Chinese recipe for fried egg! Is this perhaps the earliest such written recipe? “雞鴨子餅：破，寫甌中；少與鹽。鍋鐺中，膏油煎之，令成團餅。厚二分。全奠一。 “
Recipes from China's Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE)
In China’s Song dynasty, cooking evolved into something resembling the Chinese cuisine of today. After the crumbling of aristocratic power during the preceding Tang dynasty and the rapid political changes of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-960), the return to social stability during the Northern Song (960-1127) led to a flourishing of economic and intellectual activities that raised food to a new status. Tea, citrus, bamboo shoots, crabs, and other foodstuffs became the subject of dedicated treatises, and recipe collections emerged that celebrated culinary products. The great scholar and statesman Su Shi (1037-1101) was a pioneer in the area of food writing, influencing later generations and helping to legitimize food as a topic of literary activity. A notable characteristic of the two main recipe collections that have survived from the Song period is the tendency to praise simple, rustic foods made from vegetables. The first collection, Benxin zhai shushi pu, appears to have been written during the Northern Song and is entirely vegetarian; the second, Shanjia qinggong, is the work of a poet named Lin Hong who was active in the Southern Song (1127-1279) and contains only a few dishes with meat ingredients. These two collections illustrate how some educated elites in the Song ate a mostly meatless diet, in solidarity with the common people, who mostly could not afford to eat meat.
Vegetable Recipes from Benxin's Studio
(Benxin zhai shushi pu 本心齋蔬食譜)
“Old Man Benxin sat idly in his hermitage, finding enjoyment in the Book of Changes, facing a Boshanlu incense burner, surrounded by paper curtains with painted plum flowers, tea leaves sitting in a stoneware pot, providing his own necessities in austere simplicity. Guests came from outside…he called to a mountain youth to provide some vegetable dishes. The guests, tasting these, said they were free of tainting by the smoke and fire of the human realm…”
The foods below come from a scholar’s rural hermitage during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), though the precise dating is not known. The identity of Old Man Benxin is also unknown, but some scholars think the compiler, Chen Dasou, is none other than Benxin himself. The recipe collection contains twenty items, each given a literary name, a brief explanation, and an ode of sixteen characters. There is also an introduction (part of which is quote above), and a conclusion. The language and allusions are predominantly grounded in Confucian learning, with some Daoist sensibilities thrown in as well. Erudite and brimming with subtle humor, Benxin’s collection of vegetarian recipes uses “poetry to sing praise for the eating of common weeds,” reminding us that material refinements are not the ultimate measure of moral worth.
Chuili 炊栗, cooked chestnuts
The Chinese recipe calls for them to be “steamed open.” In the US, we are so used to the romantic image of “chestnuts roasting by an open fire,” but I find that this dries them and makes them harder to work with. Try slitting the husk with a sharp knife, steaming them, and then slipping them out of the husks while they are still hot.
Fenci 粉餈, steamed cakes made from sticky rice flour, sliced and dusted with starch
Mochi, like tofu, was popularized outside of Asia through Japanese cuisine, but it is a cross-cultural food in East Asia with different preparation methods in different regions. Here is a Chinese version made by steaming a paste of water and powdered rice flour. The key ingredient is sticky rice, sometimes confusingly called “glutinous rice,” which becomes sticky and resilient with cooking due to high levels of amylopectin and low levels of amylose. With the right balance of water and rice flour, this is delightfully soft, melting in your mouth. It can be plain or sweetened with cane sugar.
Yuyan 玉延, steamed mountain yam with raw honey
Yuyan 玉延, “jade-stretch,” is a homonym of 御筵, a banquet held by the emperor, which is humorous, because this dish is about as simple as they come: steamed mountain yam sliced and drizzled with raw honey.
The recipe does not specify how to cook the mountain yam (Dioscoria polystachia is probably the relevant species). I tried roasting it over coals and then slicing it, but steaming produced the best results. The key is cooking it enough to remove the slippery texture of its raw state, but not so much that it becomes dry like a baked potato. Gently steamed, trimmed, and eaten with honey, it can be quite good.
Shuituan 水團, glutinous millet balls enclosing sugar, in honey water
Shuituan 水團, literally “water balls,” are made from glutinous (low amylose) millet dough with shavings of Chinese cane sugar inserted into their centers. After boiling them, I floated them in a honey-water broth. The honey water is a stand-in for chenshui 沉水, which could also be interpreted as water infused with agarwood (aloeswood, an incense). I tried this. I personally will stick with honey water.
Gongsu 工酥, daikon congee
Radish cooked soft with rice and plenty of water, salted to taste. Chinese recipes from the Song period suggest that people considered radish to be an excellent digestive aid. Rice congee had a similar reputation, so this dish must have been a comfort to those with indigestion. Apparently the dish provides good energy (I thought so, myself). The recipe says, “…biting into a vegetable root, one can accomplish a hundred tasks.” Maybe offer this as a late-night snack to university students?
Yuzhuan 玉磚, a steamed wheat cake dusted with salt and prickly ash (Sichuan pepper)
The recipe for this dish is clear about the ingredients, but ambiguous about the techniques. Being a wheat product, I initially tried making dense steamed buns with a sourdough culture, or oven-baked loaves of bread, but these just wouldn’t conform to the image of sliced jade. Another possibility is that this is meant to be something like a pudding that has set, which is then sliced into bricks and dusted with the flavoring. An elegant but rustic food, indeed.
Gengcai 羹菜, stewed vegetables
The recipe, if it can be called that, only says that “ordinary garden vegetable roots, leaves, flowers, and fruits can all be stewed.” Here, I have cooked radish and mustard greens into a simple soup. I suppose one could do better than this, collecting a greater variety of garden plants and stewing it properly until the vegetables break down. This is perhaps more of a tang 湯, than a geng 羹, but this at least captures the simplicity of the foods in this collection.
Yinji 銀韲, forced garlic chive pickled with ginger and prickly ash
Yinji 銀韲, “silver pickled garlic chive,” uses the yellow and white leaves of ‘forced’ garlic chive in a brine pickle flavored with ginger and prickly ash (Sichuan pepper). The resulting pickle is fragrant and pungent, an exotic treat. Enjoy it early in the fermentation process, or it will take on a bitter flavor, probably from the prickly ash.
Weiyu 煨芋, broiled taro
“Broil until fragrant and slice thinly.” In early spring, before the farmer needed his fallowed field, my daughter and I dug a small pit among the remains of last-year’s corn husks and lit a fire, burning up waste wood and broiling a number of small taro corms at the edges of the glowing coals. The result was satisfying, albeit a little smoky in aroma. The memory of that day, however, is unforgettable. What modern people have gained through smokeless cooking may only slightly outweigh the experiential poetry of primitive methods.
Ganji 甘薺, sweet shepherd's purse
“Heaven’s giving life to this thing is for the benefit of recluses and hermits.” And those self-isolating due to a global pandemic. For several weeks this spring, a fallow field provided a steady supply of shepherd’s purse greens for my household when not much else had yet emerged and when we still did not feel safe in stores. It doesn’t look like much as a plant, but it is an outstanding wild vegetable, deep green when cooked and mild like broccoli. The Chinese recipe doesn’t say what to do with it, so I tried it in jiaozi (gyoza), soups, omelettes, braises, pickles, pizza, etc. This is an under-appreciated superstar green. In China it is cultivated commercially, yet it is just a weed to most people where I live. Indigenous peoples such as Apache, Cahuilla, and Cherokee utilized this plant as a green vegetable; some also ate the seeds (see Moerman). In spring, look for the tender new growth shooting out to the sides of each leaf cluster. (But don’t forage if you are unsure of the identity of your plant.)
Zizhi 紫芝, "violet sesame" = nettle
Nettles are another fabulous and under-appreciated wild green. The recipe offers no guidance on preparation, but people in other parts of the world have often made a nutritious soup from these iron-rich plants. The stings are not so bad, I find, but one can pick them in garden gloves if bothered. The sting disappears completely in the cooking. Recipes I tried include rice congee with abundant chopped nettles, blanched nettles with garlic and oil, and, yes, nettle pizza. If you have a local supply of nettle leaves, consider yourself blessed with a wonderful wild windfall!
Pure Offerings of Rural Households
(Shanjia qinggong 山家清供)
Compiled by the poet Lin Hong 林洪 (fl. 1224–1263), this is one of the best-preserved early recipe collections from China, holding a prominent place in Chinese food history.
Lin Hong is said to have passed the imperial exams, but does not seem to have held public office. He travelled around China to visit intellectuals in their private academies and official posts, inquiring about the foods that he was served and writing down notes that he later compiled into this collection of recipes and anecdotes. By the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), woodblock printing techniques were well enough developed to allow even lesser-known scholars to publish small works. Lin Hong probably published his recipe collection through a clan school, which issued imprints of texts for local circulation and for use as textbooks (called jiashu keben).
Around the end of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) and beginning of the Ming (1368– 1644), Lin Hong’s recipe collection was picked up for inclusion in a large anthology of texts called the Shuofu 說郛 (The Outer Wall of Learning), helping to preserve it. At the end of the Ming, the scholars ZHOU Lüjing 周履靖 (1549–1640) and CHEN Jiru 陳繼儒 (1558–1639) produced an edited version of Lin Hong’s recipe collection for the anthology Yimen guangdu (Extensive Documents of the City), substantially altering some of the text. The various editions available today appear to mostly derive from these two streams: the Shuofu edition that is likely closer to Lin Hong’s original, and the heavily edited Yimen guangdu edition.
I am translating both the older Shuofu edition from the Hanfenlou library collection (HFL) and the Yimen guangdu edition (YG), in order to compare them.
Yuguanfei 玉灌肺, "jade-filled lung," a mock meat
Yuguanfei is one of my favorite historical recipes. It is said to come from the imperial kitchens and is a fully vegetarian dish, despite appearances to the contrary. I have several times brought this dish to social gatherings and watched vegetarian friends gaze upon it with horror, but it is free of meat. Colored blood-red with “red yeast rice” (rice cultured with the edible mold Monascus purpureus) and given the appearance of fatty striations through the addition of high-gluten fried dough (youtiao 油條), this dish is a true mock meat, unlike tofu. The creative chef who came up with this recipe probably modeled it on an existing dish that called for real lung to be stuffed with walnuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds, and herbs, then steamed. I have never tasted lung, but I am not surprised that the imperial court became fond of the vegetarian version!
Pantao fan 蟠桃飯, flat-peach rice or Peaches-of-Immortality Rice
“Pick mountain peaches, use the rinse water from making rice to cook them, then strain, place in [cool] water, and remove the pits. Wait for the rice to bubble up, [add the peaches], cook them together for a little while, and then use the method for making covered rice (i.e. reduce the heat and slowly cook the rice until the liquid is all absorbed).” 採山桃，用米泔煑熟，漉寘水中，去核。候飯湧同煮頃之，如盦飯法。
I used five flat (saturn or doughnut) peaches and one cup of white sushi rice. This worked for me, but adjust the proportions to your preferences. I added just enough cooking water to have everything bubbling in liquid (about two cups), then let it cook down slowly on low heat.
Penggao 蓬糕, interpreted here as fleabane rice cakes (see below)
The Xijing zaji 西京雜記 [Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital] says that court elites in ancient China purified themselves with apotropaic cakes, peng’er 蓬餌. The 13th c. Shanjia qinggong 山家清供 gives a recipe for penggao 蓬糕, which seems similar. I recreated it here with fleabane 飛蓬. Japanese scholars tend to assume the plant peng 蓬 is mugwort. Even Li Shizhen, the famous compiler of a Ming-dynasty materia medica, was confused.
Penggao 蓬糕, interpreted here as mugwort rice cakes (see above)
Without a doubt, mugwort use in culinary applications is more widely attested in East Asia than is fleabane use, but both seem plausible here. Fleabane has the advantage of being softer, mixing into the rice flour more thoroughly; mugwort is fibrous and difficult to mash up in a mortar, and even with a thoroughgoing effort results in little pieces of pulp in the mix that can interfere with the process of shaping in a wooden mold. I think mugwort is better suited for a wetter mix that produces a dense, chewy cake, as with the ones here in the bowl. Indeed, mugwort shows up in mochi in Japan and in sticky rice cakes in rural China (as was featured in an episode of 舌尖上的中國). Fleabane would still be my preference for making a lighter, drier cake. Whether or not I am getting any closer to historical accuracy is another issue.
Chengyusheng 澄玉生, Asian pear with yuzu peel
China is a biodiversity hot-spot for citrus and pears (and apples). This 13th-century fruit salad of Asian pear and yuzu peel adds the bright fragrance of yuzu to the crispy cubes of Asian pear. Remove the pulp and seeds from the yuzu peel, smash it, add a touch of salt, rice vinegar, and fermented bean paste (or light soy sauce), and use this coat the pear. The author, Lin Hong, says this makes a good accompaniment for alcoholic beverages, so maybe try it alongside baijiu 白酒, if you have some handy. I improvised here, as yuzu is not available to me currently; this is a mix of pomelo and orange peel. The citrus variety Citrus junos (yuzu) most likely originated in China, where it is called xiangcheng 香橙, “fragrant orange.” The Japanese name yuzu is written 柚子, which in China would indicate pomelo grapefruit, C. maxima or C. grandis. In Chinese markets, ask for xiangcheng.
Litang geng 驪塘羹, turnip and radish broth
A simple, post-meal broth from medieval China: Litang’s Broth 驪塘羹, aka Dongpo’s Broth 東坡羹, from a 13th-century recipe, but clearly practiced in Su Dongpo’s 11th-century as well. Lin Hong, compiler of the recipe, says, “In the past when I was a guest at Wei Litang’s academy, after every meal they would always send out a broth, pure white (clear) and extremely likable. One would get it after the rice and would not exchange it for even ghee or sweet dew. I asked the cook about it, [and learned that to make it] one takes cai 菜 and daikon radish, chops them finely, and boils them in well water until they break down; there is no other method.” The cook does not specify the second vegetable, but Su Dongpo’s poem, Cooking Turnip and Radish Broth in Dishao Prefecture 狄韶州煮蔓菁蘆菔羹, clarifies. This is meant to be a clear, pure broth, almost like tea. It has a subtle sweetness or umami that is quite pleasing. I did not add salt, which is not mentioned in the recipe and does not seem to be needed.