Talk Radio

Click here to listen to me talking to Mark Dolan on his Talk Radio show last night about drunken monkeys, innovations in rice production, the primacy of pork products, chopsticks, the desert of desserts, Mao’s melon unpleasantness during the Cultural Revolution, and the looming issue of international food security.

I show up at the 20:30 mark, so you need to click on the second of the four available sections.

Dim Sum vs Dim Sim

Possibly because of the increased prosperity of the Tang era, it is also the first time we see a mention of a particular kind of snack food, intended to be consumed between meals, and increasingly as time wore on, in accompaniment with tea. Named as mere Touches of the Heart (dian xin), which is to say barely enough to fill you up, they are better known abroad by the Tang-era pronunciation preserved in the tea-taking, brunch-munching culture of the Cantonese: dim sum.

There is a curious Australian habit of calling them dim sim, which seems to confuse a topolect variant first recorded in the Melbourne Argus in October 1928 with a large pork dumpling invented in the same city by William Wing Young in the 1940s. As a result, whenever I am among Australians we find ourselves hectoring each other about pronunciation, with me pedantically trying to get them to speak medieval Chinese while they try to get me speak Australian. Another peculiar Australian coinage is to distinguish between Long Soup, which has noodles in it, and Short Soup, which has dumplings in it.

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


The Emperor’s Feast, by shining a light on some of the intricacies of Chinese history over more than two millennia, serves as a timely reminder that the country’s modern cuisine is the delicious fruit of a rich, ancient and perhaps surprisingly multicultural tradition.”

A lovely review of The Emperor’s Feast appears in this week’s Spectator magazine, by Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper.

One Month in Tohoku

“Pover’s narrative of her Tohoku experiences scales out and out like a Christopher Nolan film, beginning with her first frenzied days handing out supplies to tsunami victims, and then the years that followed as she returned to follow up: a day, a month, a decade. The reader experiences her expanding circle of attention almost in real time – when she first sees Oshika, it is a once-picturesque village in ruins, populated by wary victims and feral children. As she gains the deeper time and perspective to look around her, we get to hear about people’s lives and the long history of the community.

“One Month in Tohoku is that most glorious of prospects: a disaster-movie in reverse, beginning with the awful, grandstanding destruction, and then showing us the village rebuilding, names being put to faces, and storylines unfolding.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Caroline Pover’s memoir of disaster relief in the wake of the 2011 tsunami.

The Apothecary Diaries

“Maomao is a self-harming teenage wallflower in an institution populated solely by other girls who will literally kill each other over the chance to go to the prom. In that most imperial of Bechdel tests, there is only one man who matters in the whole world, and the women talk about him all the time, but he is literally the master of all he surveys, and anyone who can snare his heart and bear his favourite son and stay alive will be the queen bee.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Natsu Hyuuga’s novel The Apothecary Diaries.

Noodle Dancing

Kaifeng’s bars were riddled with chancers – sing-song girls who would come to the table unbidden, and freelance hawkers who would hand out flowers or treats as if they were complimentary, only to reveal that there was a price to pay. Such hassle was part of the drinking life all over Kaifeng, except at Charcoal Zhang’s and Yoghurt Zhang’s, two higher-end establishments that served only the finest of wines and particular pickles, and chased all the riff-raff from the door.

We see in them, however, the early glimmerings of the Chinese theatre. Although few of their skits have been known to survive, at least in the forms they were originally performed at table-side, we do have a list of some of their names, many of which are immediately evocative of certain set-ups that would not be out of place today.

There are several titles related to ‘wrecking the restaurant’, which were presumably playlets of humorous incompetence. One is called Starting a Fire While Serving the Soup (song geng tang fang huozi), and immediately summons up images in my mind of a Chinese Basil Fawlty losing it with a waiter. Similarly evocative of a timeless routine is one that’s simply called There’s Only a Little Pepper (hujiao sui xiao). Some titles suggest wordplay or a stand-up routine, even a challenge to name a hundred fruits or cooking implements, while others have an interactive element requiring the participation of certain diners as they interact with actors playing the ingénue, the poor student, or the wily official.

Such lost Song-era performances have numerous echoes in modern-day Chinese dining. Skit is almost the wrong word for them – but there are scripted moments of performativity in many a modern-day Chinese restaurant that lays claim to anything more than basic food.

It’s only here, as I type up the forgotten table antics of the medieval Chinese eatery, that I am reminded of the time when I was with a film crew in Luoyang, where my ‘special’ fish dish came with the ringing of a gong, fireworks, and a hooting bunch of waiters dressed as imperial ministers. I remember this only because when I discovered it, I tried to get my attention-shy director to order it the next day without telling her that the whole restaurant would come to a halt when she did.

Similarly, I once endured a seemingly endless five minutes with the ‘Noodle Dancer’ (laomian-shi) at a prestigious hotpot restaurant in Xi’an – a capering madman who would juggle and thrash the dough to create handmade noodles in front of me.


Unfortunately for me, I had ordered two helpings, so he had to go through the whole ostentatious routine all over again.

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

The Cafe Conflict

It all started at the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop, a Hong Kong airport café requiring customers to order at the counter and wait for their number to show up. Online reviews for the chain are extremely complimentary – Yelp is full of comments about some of the best fried noodles and congee to be found, high praise indeed for a food-obsessed place like Hong Kong. There are, however, occasional references to a certain brusqueness of service at the airport branch, a very large menu that is difficult to process in a hurry, and an anxious overcrowding that can cost dawdling customers their table if they don’t keep a watchful eye for their order number.

Some or all of these elements combined for two Mainland ladies in 2018, who had plainly already had a miserable time on their Hong Kong vacation.

“I felt like I was subjected to shame and humiliation,” one had tweeted earlier, as reported in the South China Morning Post by Naomi Ng. “In Hong Kong, if you speak English, people will be polite to you. If you speak Mandarin, they will roll their eyes at you.”

At the café, waiting for their homebound flight, they got into a scuffle with a member of staff. They complained about poor customer service. He told them to stuff it and swore at them. Both sides, according to one witness, started throwing food around, until the man pushed a tray of congee and noodles at them, splashing some on one of the women’s clothes.

Reading between the lines: it was post-Christmas/New Year rush, people had probably been working overtime and covering for winter flu. The café was crowded, and the staff under pressure to keep tables moving. Someone misses their number; someone takes their table; someone gets told to hurry up; someone says they wanted theirs without chili not with it. After some shouting, the women were refunded their bill and left, but a media footprint was already growing – including shots of the incriminating tray, left on the floor for mere minutes afterwards.

Social media magnifies and preserves such incidents in a way not possible in previous generations. The pictures and the online footprint of something that would have otherwise been forgotten in moments provided enough material for newspaper follow-ups. It is a story I can access years later, and part of a narrative that continues Hong Kong’s cross-cultural stand-off of “dogs and locusts.” I remain in two minds about whether this is a good thing, and here’s why.

In 1991, I was witness to a hysterical altercation at a family-run fish restaurant in Kending, Taiwan. As best as I could tell, someone had married someone they shouldn’t, and granny’s inheritance risked being frittered away and someone should have cleaned out the pumps, and in what seemed like mere seconds, a scrum had developed at the front of the restaurant, open to the warm summer-night air and the beach beyond. The old granny grabbed a meat cleaver and smashed its blunt corner into the glass fish tanks, inundating the plaza outside with water and gasping trout. The crabs made a break for it into the street, scuttling through swerving traffic, as the old lady sat sobbing at one of the empty tables. Her children scattered back to the kitchen and rushed to clean up the tables, and everybody pretended there weren’t a dozen huge fish dying on the patio.

I had no idea what was going on. At the time, I lacked the Chinese or the authorial pushiness to really ask. But the only evidence of this is me telling you. I didn’t have a film studio in my pocket that could document it all. Access to the World Wide Web was still a year in my future. I’m sure that the Great Kending Fish Restaurant Fight was an order of magnitude of drama and controversy above a scuffle in an airport café in 2018, but the technology we use in our everyday lives has changed the way that we prioritise and remember. In the 21st century, such technology can be used for the evils of fake news and filler, but it can also be used to swiftly escalate issues in food safety and law. Access, accountability and archives are a feature of modern social media, and the way we talk and think about food and the food industry.

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

Tea and Booze

Testing the mash for rice wine in Shaoxing. Photo: Clarissa Zhang for Route Awakening (Nat Geo)

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.

Ireland and Chinese Food

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.

Green Gold (1939)

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