The streaming site BiliBili is currently running several episodes of the TV series Route Awakening (National Geographic), including the shows on the history of Tea and Alcohol in China, in which I taste-test three teas blindfolded, assiduously sample the various varieties of Shaoxing rice wine, and get told off under the hot Fujian sun for picking tea leaves in the wrong manner. These, and many other experiences, all fed into the materials that went into writing The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.
And for listeners in Ireland (or anywhere else in the world, courtesy of the interwebs), I am appearing on Newstalk FM to talk to Sean Moncrieff about my history of Chinese food, the nature of Irish pubs in China, and the hidden diversity in “Chinese” cuisine. For those that don’t know, a Spice Bag is a recent Dublin invention, mixing chips, fried chicken, Sichuan pepper and Chinese five-spice powder.
The logo below is from one of Xi’an’s Irish pubs, the Green Molly, which as linguists may note, uses a handy pun to call itself lu mouli (“Green Jasmine”) in Chinese. Rather that than a certain establishment in Beijing, which is Paddy’s on the main sign, but Ai’erlan jiugui (the Irish Drunk) in Chinese.
Rich trophy wife Kristine (Hanna Taini) is exuberant at the opportunity to return to her native Lapland on a business trip, where she swiftly ditches her priggish industrialist husband Gustav (Sven Relander) and volunteers for a tour of some of the outlying work units. She is placed under the care of the dashing Suontaa (Olavi Reimas), a capable, entitled woodsman who has recently transferred from the government forestry commission and remains ill at ease with the priorities of corporate logging.
“Treat me like a lumberjack!” she breathes. Oh, this is going to be trouble.
During nights under the Lapland stars, and days spent travelling in a real-life one-horse open sleigh, Kristine and Suontaa swiftly see in each other a kindred spirit. But both of them are married, and each resists the temptation of what Suontaa calls a karhu-leikki (“bear’s game”) – a dangerous flirtation. Quoting Immanuel Kant, because he’s that kind of lumberjack, Suontaa observes that he is guided as ever by “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
Director Valentin Vaala’s Lapland romance Vihreä Kulta, filmed partly on location in Kittilä and Pallastunturi, delights in the opportunity to present Finland as the nexus of a global business. These trees end up as “a floor in Scotland, a ceiling in Holland, or a pub table-top in Marseille” – leading to a well-depicted clash between the cosmopolitan industrialists and the simpler folk of the forests. This is best summed up by Heikkinen, a melancholy woodsman comically unsuited to his job, who mourns the death of every tree, and rails against the businessmen who only see “three 18-foot logs and a bit of firewood on top” in a 200-year-old fir.
At least, I think it was Heikkinen. In a bizarre and unrepeated experiment, Green Gold has almost no written credits, instead announcing the major cast members as a voice-over in the style of a religious antiphon, as if a congregation of mumbling worshippers were chanting “starring Keanu Reeves” at the beginning of John Wick. I thought for a moment, that this was going somewhere, and that part of the plot would revolve around the powerful religious fundamentalism to be found in parts of the Finnish hinterland, but no, the only thing that this affectation achieves is to severely damage the film’s artistic heritage. Without visible credits, it is extremely difficult to work out who is who, and eighty years later, its Finnish Wikipedia page lacks a credit list. Full marks, however, to whomever it was that decided the name Fanny Aromaa would be nicely inconspicuous for Elsa Rantalainen’s doctor character.
The film had a troubled production, with the wintry location shoots plagued by bad weather and corrupted footage, so much so that although Vaala began shooting right after completing The Women of Niskavuori (1938), reshoots delayed its release until October 1939. Vaala managed to shoot and release Rich Girl (1939) in the interim. By the time the film reached cinemas, Finland was on the brink of war, which reduced cinema attendance and made its scenes of peacetime prosperity seem out of place.
Green Gold was Vaala’s third adaptation from the plays of Hella Wuolijoki, rushed into production (without adequate appreciation of cold-weather shooting) after the box office smash of their earlier collaboration The Women of Niskavuori (1938). Wuolijoki’s stage version, in fact, featured a cameo role for a “Mrs Soratie” (the titular Juurakon Hulda, after her happy ending), who offers relationship advice to Kristine once she returns, pining for the pines, to Helsinki. This, however, does not appear in the film version, possibly because actress Irma Seikkula was off filming For the Money (1938) with another director.
The film’s only major flaw is the complete lack of chemistry between the two would-be lovers, who seem emotionless and uninterested, placing far too much faith in the scripted dialogue to convey their irresistible attraction and tormented resistance. But there are certain elements that are only revealed in hindsight – Gustav is an insufferably patronising cockwhisk in the opening scenes of the play, but later revealed as a two-timing cad, whose clandestine relationship with a busty Swedish waitress Kristine has been discreetly overlooking.
Meanwhile, Suontaa’s wife Alma (Lea Juotseno) has a single scene in the first half of the film, where she rolls her eyes and laughs about her husband’s love of the wilderness. This is later revealed as evidence of a marriage facing irredeemable collapse, as Alma matter-of-factly announces when she pays a house call on Kristine with her new and more acceptable beau, a portly magistrate. This is a cultural element worth noting – a habitual bluntness and honesty among Finns can often wrong-foot foreigners, while what in English might be regarded as harmless banter can leave Finns red-faced and shocked. Both Suontaa and Kristine are destined for divorces from the very first scene, but such a nuance is inaudible to the English viewer, who hears spouses playfully insulting each other on a daily basis.
All’s well that ends well. Gustav can have his booby Swede and Alma can have her fat judge, and that frees Kristine and Suontaa to run off into a hut in the woods. It’s not quite the cross-class romance of Juurakon Hulda, since Suontaa is an educated man, and Kristine has been yearning for a log cabin since the start. And it does rely rather conveniently on a degree of sleight-of-hand, in which two frankly more interesting plots happen off-screen purely in order to leave Kristine with the moral high ground. I probably would have preferred to see a film about Suontaa’s apparently amicable divorce, which ends with a bogglingly contemporary custody agreement over his two off-screen kids, or Gustav’s torrid affair with a woman who has a Laughing Buddha statue on her mantelpiece. This last item is dismissed, in a moment of jarring racism, as a “Chink” souvenir, which I would have liked to hear more about.
In a welcome bonus, the DVD of this Suomi-Filmi production comes with Finnish, Swedish, English and French subtitles, as well as a short film, Helsinki Awakes, crammed with valuable footage of the workers in Finland’s capital, going out their business in the early hours of a pre-war morning.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.
In 1958, Nikolai Trofimovich Fedorenko (1912–2000) would have been a celebrity at any other Chinese meal but this one. He had championed the author Guo Moruo as a Communist genius; he had translated the socially incisive works of Lu Xun. He had written countless essays for the Soviet media on the greats of Chinese literature, which meant that he knew the subject better than most Chinese. He had even translated the poetry of Chairman Mao into Russian, which you would think might have warranted him a place of honour at a dinner hosted by the Chairman himself.
But Fedorenko, a deputy foreign minister, soon to be appointed the Soviet Union’s ambassador to Japan, was ignored at the table, since he was there as Nikita Khrushchev’s interpreter. He sat at Khrushchev’s elbow, his food slowly going cold, never quite able to lift his chopsticks to his mouth, as Khrushchev put a brave face on a visit that was going inexorably off the rails. Fedorenko had given up trying to remind Khrushchev who the other Chinese diners were, but as he had consistently done for the rest of the trip, he kept shoving their names into his translations to make it seem that the Russian leader had not forgotten them. So it wasn’t “that guy over there”, it was General Peng, and it wasn’t “secretary guy”, it was Yang Shangkun. The only person Khrushchev never had any problem remembering was the Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and that was because she was a woman, Soong Ching-ling, usually known by her late husband’s name, as Madame Sun Yat-sen.
But Madame Sun wasn’t around today, and it showed. Mao had brought out the baijiu, claiming it was the best in the world, although Fedorenko had to finesse Khrushchev’s off-the-cuff rejoinder that he guessed Mao was saving the vodka until after the Russians who had gifted it to him had gone home.
“Well,” sighed Khrushchev, “if you can’t snag a bird of paradise, you might as well have a wet hen.” He banged the table in lieu of a comedy rim-shot, and the room grew silent for a moment as Fedorenko struggled to remember the word for “bird of paradise” (jile niao) and to explain why a wet hen was better than nothing.
“You should come swimming with me. I’m a wonderful swimmer,” said Mao, jerking his thumb behind him at the pool shimmering outside the window.
“You may be, Mr Chairman,” said Khrushchev. “But please remember: I am a miner, not a swimmer!”
Khrushchev laughed it off, although there was a time delay while Fedorenko conveyed his words into Chinese. Then Mao, laughed, too, taking a swig of his tea and sluicing it loudly around his mouth.
“Tuck in! Tuck in!” bellowed Mao, gesturing expansively at the table. “We’ve got so much food in China, so much to go around. I mean, I’ve been meaning to ask our Russian friends, when Communist productivity proves to be so successful, what on Earth do you do with all the extra food?”
Khrushchev stared blankly back at Fedorenko as he relayed this question, his eyebrows twitching in disbelief.
“Try the Red-Braised Pork,” continued Mao. “It’s wholly different from the way it used to be. Cleaner, better, more modern, like our factories! Lamb with Leeks, from our model farms out in the West. We are taming the desert, we are turning it into pasture, and that lamb is the result. Oh, don’t miss the vegetables, from the market gardens outside Beijing. Bigger than ever.”
The Lazy Susan was in constant motion, as Khrushchev struggled to lift morsels onto his plate with his chopsticks. Fedorenko hissed at him to lift his bowl, to plonk each portion onto the rice, but Khrushchev never listened.
“And this one, here,” said Mao, “this is my favourite. Whole red peppers from my glorious home province, where we like things to be hot! Red, of course, is the colour of Revolution! Gentleman, I propose that we form a Red Pepper Party to show our loyalty to Communism. Anyone who can consume a red pepper will be our comrade. Anyone!”
The Chinese diners shovelled rice into their mouths from their bowls, glancing slyly at the Russians. Khrushchev smiled and nodded, but literally had his plate full with the Red-Braised Pork. The Lazy Susan had stopped turning, and the fateful plate of whole chilies had come to rest in front of the white-haired Nikolai Bulganin (1895–1975).
“Oh, if it’s for Communism…!” quipped Bulganin, snatching up one of the smaller peppers and shoving it into his mouth.
“And that’s the joy of these peppers,” Mao was saying, as Bulganin’s eyes widened in surprise. “The smallest ones are the hottest.”
Fedorenko’s memoirs retell the whole ghastly incident, as Bulganin’s mouth was suffused with a terrible, fiery sting. He snatched at some tea, but that only washed the acidic, burning sensation further afield, to every corner of his mouth, into his gums and down his throat. Bulganin, wrote Fedorenko “almost passed out, coughing and choking, [engulfed in] tears and with a running nose, he couldn’t speak a word.”
As the diners gathered around the choking Bulganin, offering vague advice on water and tea, the embarrassed Chinese only smiled all the more. The Russians, not a race given to smiles at the best of times, were all stony-faced and fuming.
“What a barbaric thing to do,” muttered Khrushchev, glaring at the giggling Mao. “What a fucking Tartar!”
Fedorenko met the gaze of his opposite number, the Chinese interpreter at Mao’s side. He shook his head slowly, and the other interpreter nodded. In silent détente, neither of them explained what the Russian leader had just said.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.
The River Neva glitters in the summer sun, and Russian girls teeter past on heels so high they might as well be circus stilts. It is only a short walk from the Hermitage Museum, site of the Tsars’ art treasures, to a pokey restaurant on the Fotanka river embankment that specialises in “dumplings of [the] people of the world.” I sidle up to the counter and order a bunch from the menu – St Petersburg style, and Georgian style, and what’s this, Siberian? The waitresses chatter back at me, unaware that my Russian only extends to a couple of imperative verbs and whatever I am reading directly off the board.
When the food arrives, it is often only the sauce that differs. Pelmeni in a European style are served with dill and sour cream, or a little zing of onion. But pelmeni from Siberia are served with a soy-sauce dip. They have become “Chinese”. The name changes to manti when they reach China’s Muslim frontier, and the filling changes to mutton. They are fried in China, where they become jiaozi (the Russian word for which, gedza, seems to derive from the Japanese pronunciation, gyōza).
The left-to-right progression of the menu at Pelmenya reflects that of the Euro-centric, or rather, Russo-centric imagination, compounded by the natural assumption of European languages that things on a page will start at the left (west) and progress to the right (east). One might just as easily read the menu backwards, and imagine that the dumpling started in Asia, particularly in Siberia where they are still often prepared as autumn foods, stored outside in sub-zero temperatures.
In fact, however, the first dumplings are found in central Asia. They migrated both east and west. Neither of the far ends of the Silk Road, or the Dumpling Drive, or whatever you want to call it, has a real claim of being the originator of the recipe.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.
And here I am on Loose Ends with Clive Anderson, talking about the Bronze Age, Confucius’s ability to hold his drink, and cannibalism. Like you do.
Achievement unlocked on Monocle radio (wearing L’Occitane cologne and an Au Noir shirt, don’t want to let the side down) to discuss Chinese food with Markus Hippi.
I do my best to stay away from fast food when I am in China, but fate struck one night when, delayed by seven hours and landing in Xi’an without any luggage, I was obliged to find food for my family at two o’clock in the morning. Only one place was guaranteed to be open, and that was the Yangyang International Plaza McDonald’s, manned by sleepy staff facing a lone parent who had never been inside a Chinese burger bar before.
Here’s the problem with Mandarin: move an inch outside your specialty, and there is no guarantee that any of the words you see will mean anything to you. I had been speaking Chinese for twenty years, and was in town to give a lecture about medieval history, but the strange sigils describing arcane translation nightmares, like McFlurry and McNugget, might as well have been in Martian.
But I could talk my way around it in Chinese, in much the same way that a mad professor might forget the word for “dog”, but could tell you that it was a canine, and that if one was in a bun it was a hot one.
“What’s that thing called,” I began wearily, “which is very big, probably the biggest thing that you have, and there are two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions, all in a sesame seed bun?”
“Ah,” said the bespectacled youth before me, “you are referring to the Immense Tyrant Without Compare (巨无霸).”
At last, a new use for the archaic term for a Bronze Age overlord, now recognised by twenty-first-century Chinese teenagers as the word for a Big Mac.
“All right, then,” I said. “Two Immense Tyrants Without Compare, and some fries.”
In case you were wondering, a McFlurry is a Wheat Whirlwind (mai xuanfeng), the Mai being the first syllable of McDonald’s in Chinese. A McNugget is a Wheat Gram Chicken Piece (maidang ji kuai), combining the first two syllables of McDonald’s in Chinese with a term I had last seen used for fragments of oracle bone. But not in Cantonese, where it’s a Wheat Happy Chicken (mak lok gai).
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.
“This is a splendid introduction to the cooking and history of China, filled with surprising details on the origins of many famous dishes…” — PD Smith, The Guardian
“Clements marshals his sources in a deft and approachable manner, leavening the complexities of history with folklore, and spicing up his narrative with piquant anecdotes.” — Fuchsia Dunlop, The Spectator
“…running through Clements’ account is an insistence – smartly and subtly offered, and particularly welcome in our present straits – on the role food plays in binding family and friends together.” — Christopher Harding, The Telegraph
“The Emperor’s Feast is witty and insightful, taking readers on a journey through China’s history from the comfort of the dinner table. It inverts the old maxim by convincingly demonstrating that people aren’t just what they eat, but how they eat.” — Derek Sandhaus, author of Drunk in China
“Clements’ love for China’s history and cuisine shines through in each chapter, with his evident passion making the book a consistently engaging read.” — Tom Wilmot, Asian Movie Pulse
“This book is itself a feast, each chapter a sumptuous course.” — Frederik L. Schodt, author of My Heart Sutra.
“…a novel perspective on traditional history book tropes that will engage both foodies and historians alike.” — Elouise Hobbs, Buzz Magazine
“The Emperor’s Feast is a terrific read and historian Jonathan Clements writes with erudition and humour about this vast, perplexing country.” — Constance Craig Smith, Daily Mail
“…perfect lockdown reading…” — Mark Dolan, Talk Radio
Jonathan Clements tracks the diverse history of China through its food and drink, from the sacrificial cauldrons of the Bronze Age, to the contending styles of a modern Chinatown. He outlines how changes in politics, technology and ingredients have altered “Chinese” food over the centuries, as the nation copes with new peoples, crops and climate conditions.
Clements focuses on the personalities connected to Chinese food – the drunken priest-kings of the Shang dynasty; the Tang noblewomen experimenting with tea and lychees; the stand-off between Mongols and Muslims over halal meat. Later chapters carry the impact of Chinese food out of its homeland and around the world, as migrant communities cater to local tastes and encounter new challenges. “Chinese” food is different, yet again, depending on if you eat it in small-town Canada, a Mumbai mall, or a Singapore street market.
You can hear a three-minute sample from the audio book here, read out by yours truly, and inexplicably followed by a music track by someone called Mr Bongo.
Marcus [SINGS] Rule Britannia…
As the door opens.
Adam [RECEDING/CALLING] Don’t mind him, he’s drunk, officer.
Adam [DISTANT] Just high spirits!
Doctor Can you tell me what year it is?
Marcus [DISTANT] What year it is!?
Marcus [DISTANT] And I thought I was wasted!
Adam [DISTANT/TO MARCUS] What year is it, actually?
Marcus [DISTANT] It’s the Year of the Ox, matey!
Adam [DISTANT] Yeah! Year of the Ox! [MOOOOOO!]
Marcus [DISTANT] [MOOOOOOO!] Come with us!
Doctor Where are you going?
Marcus [DISTANT] Little England!
And as Marcus and Adam fade out, chorusing to the tune of “Here We Go”: Enger-land Engerland Engerland… Engerland, Engerland Engerla-and…. Engerland Engerland Engerland, Engerla-and, ENG-GER-LAND!
Doctor [MUSING] It’s worse than I thought.