Mushroom Hunting

He moves like a ghost among the trees, prodding the undergrowth with his staff. He is old before his time, hunched slightly by the effort of peering constantly at the forest floor. But he has found something new, a fungus not like the ones he has seen before – a rich, rounded white cap above a thick stem. He gently pulls it up, taking as much of the stem as he can, and brushes away the earth. He sniffs it experimentally, and pops it, raw, into his mouth. Nothing happens…

In spite of all the efforts of the Chinese to ruin Lijiang with pony rides and quadbikes, bongo drums, muzak and tie-dye T-shirts, I can still sense some faint glimmer of how the place must have appealed in the past. In the hills beyond the city, a mile above the level of the distant sea, one can still find grubby temples limned with savage gods, garuda birds snarling from the shadows, and garbled tales of an ancient war with demons. I like the Naxi people’s music and their mad sorceries, their candies made from yak cream and the hunks of dried yak meat, the men with their hawks on their arms and the old ladies bent double with their baskets.

The nearest town is Baisha, literally “White Sands,” although that is a modern gloss on the original Naxi name Boa-shi – “Place Where We Slew the People of Boa.” The heads were piled in the streets like cairns, so say the Naxi songs. Nearby there is a picturesque mountain lake where the locals go hunting. Naxi legend says a traitorous princess was once caged on its shore to die of thirst within sight of all that water.

Even at the beginning of October it’s warm enough that we don’t need coats. The sky above is searingly blue, the waters in the nearby pond so crystal clear that the fish appear to be hovering in it like dirigibles. Our feet crunch on the bracken, and Big Li seizes a fallen branch to turn into a staff for me.

“You need this for poking in the undergrowth,” he says. “Because of the snakes.”

We are looking for mushrooms, but it’s the early autumn, after the best mushroom-hunting season in Lijiang, and the pickings are meagre.

I poke around the long-needled pine trees, and uncover a few ratty-looking fungi.

“What about this one?” I say.

“Poison,” he replies.

“Oh. What about this one?”                                                                                                     


There are more than a hundred local mushroom varieties, but only 20 of them are edible. I would much prefer Big Li tell me a dozen times not to pick something than end up killing myself. I ask him how he knows and he says shyly: “My Naxi ancestors found out the hard way.”

There is a death or violent illness behind every one of his admonitions, but in half an hour we have assembled enough to fill a dinner plate.

We take them to a nearby Tibetan restaurant, where the cook has agreed to fry them all up. Well, not all. He grimaces at one of my finds, and throws it in the bin.

“Poison,” he says sourly, shooting a withering stare at my companion.

Big Li shrugs, as the oil begins to crackle in the wok, and the cook throws in a handful of green leaves and ginger.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

The Cold Food Festival

In 672 BC, a duke of the northern state of Jin, scored a crushing victory against one of the Rong tribes, and took two of the chieftain’s daughters as part of his prize. History books gloss over the fact that the duke was himself part-nomad, and that when we tell his story, we are putting a coat of Chinese paint over a power struggle between several partly-assimilated steppe clans. One of the Rong princesses, Li Ji, managed to charm the duke so much that she persuaded him to cast aside his elder sons in favour of their own child – if this story is already sounding familiar, I am afraid it is all too common in Chinese history, in which women repeatedly take the blame for the political ambitions of their male relatives. Any concubine who has the ear of the ruler can put in a good word for her family members, particularly if her own offspring becomes the heir. With multiple concubines in play, the entire order and infrastructure could be upset by the next beauty to catch a noble’s eye, and often was.

In 656 BC, Li Ji framed the crown prince, presenting the duke with gifts of poisoned sacrificial meat, the nature of which was revealed when he fed some to his dog, which promptly died. The prince was badgered into taking his own life, and his siblings went on the run. One of them, Chong’er, spent twenty years in exile, travelling with his entourage among the nomads and the borderlands, until he was put back in power with military assistance from the up-and-coming state of Qin. Somehow, in the middle of all the medals and commendations doled out to Chong’er’s followers, he neglected to promote Jie Zhitui, his most loyal counsellor, a man who had legendarily carved his own flesh from his thigh to make soup for Chong’er at the times of their worst poverty. Jie went into exile, and Chong’er, increasingly embarrassed at his oversight, embarked upon several schemes to lure him back. Eventually, the frustrated Chong’er set fire to an entire forest in the hope of flushing Jie out, only to find his charred corpse three days later, clutching the smouldering stump of a willow tree.

The dishonour of Jie’s death and his lord’s ingratitude would develop into a series of superstitions in the local area. Afraid of incurring the wrath of Jie’s spirit, people would refuse to light any fires in the week that he had died, which was unfortunately in the middle of winter. This was believed to be the origin of the ancient Cold Food Festival (hanshi jie), a custom that spread to neighbouring provinces, and would be the subject of several stern rebukes by future rulers, who could not believe that their subjects were prepared to shut down their sole source of warmth and cooking in the coldest month of the year. Fearful that Jie’s spirit would cause storms, believers would keep to uncooked food, and particularly lilao, a barley porridge made with apricot pits and malt sugar.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

The Straw Hat Crew

Liu Tianjie at the Gulong Sauce Factory. Photo by Clarissa Zhang for Route Awakening (Nat Geo).

The Gulong Soy Sauce Factory in Xiamen uses methods that would not have been all that out of place two thousand years ago. The only difference is the scale. Soybeans are steamed and mixed in with wheat flour, and the all-purpose qu fermentation starter, then wheeled in to the drying rooms on trolleys the size of hospital gurneys.

Clad in his uniform grey boiler suit, fetching white wellies and a wide-brimmed straw hat, manager Liu Tuanjie walks me through the process, as his gloved assistants hand-mix piles upon piles of still-warm beans on gurney trays.

“This used to be a family thing,” he says. “Every household would have their own particular recipe, and their own home-grown qu. It was only over time that the process grew larger and larger in scale, until it was industrialised like this.”

The warm beans are left to dry-ferment in a hot room for three days, until they start to go a dodgy-looking yellow, at which point they are whisked away and tipped into child-sized jars of salt water out in the baking sun.

This, I realise, is why Mr Liu is wearing his straw hat, as we march along row after row of the large jars, each topped by an oversize straw hat of its own. They are sitting on open ground, stretching far into the distance – there are 60,000 of them, in an area the size of several football pitches. Each day, as the cool night air recedes, Liu and his assistants dart down the rows, lifting off the straw covers in sets of four, so the brine solution and its bean-mix contents get the maximum amount of sunshine.

I struggle to keep up with him on the next row over. My own hastily issued straw hat, which comes complete with a flowery brim to put me in my place, fails to keep the bright sun from my eyes, and my fingers have trouble gripping the rasping fibres of the heavy straw covers. He is already several jars ahead of me, flipping the covers off like they are bottle caps.

“We take the beans, we cook them and roll them in flour and yeast, we let them dry-ferment for a bit, and then we put them out here for a year. The sun rarely changes. It’s always hot, and that slowly bakes them down into soy sauce.”

“It takes a year,” he continues. “In each season, spring, summer, autumn, winter, we adjust the conditions.” So – covers off for longer in the slightly colder months, on for longer when it’s warmer. But with Xiamen being warm all year around conditions for brewing the soy sauce are not as fiddly as they might be elsewhere. “Each day, we have to optimise the daylight – lift the lids, let the light in… see how the fermentation’s coming along.”

“You couldn’t do this in Beijing,” he scoffs, whipping away another cover with practised ease. “The weather changes too much.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E03 (2016).