The last thing I want to discuss at 9am is whether I want whipped cream on top of my coffee, particularly in Mandarin. Why can’t I ask for a coffee and get one, and not have to say grande instead of medium? The arseholes who invented the illusion of choice at coffee shops clearly never stopped to consider the miseries of ordering such minutiae in Chinese, where foreign concepts are assembled from a jumble of syllables that sound almost equivalent to Chinese ears, all of which have their own discrete meaning. Even asking for a Caramel Latte involves saying that you desire Cooked Sugar Seize Iron Add Africa. And a Mocha is a Magic Card. I feel like I am inside some Situationist art installation, asking a woman in an apron to bring me a Shining Fish Wiggle Rainbow, and doing so with a straight face.
“What size do you want?” asks Betty.
“I just told you,” I say, “dabei”. Which means Big Cup.
“Does that mean the biggest cup?” she asks, which is tebie dabei (or Special Big Cup) in Chinese, “Or does that mean the medium cup?” which is called ‘Big Cup’ in Chinese, as I just told you. And her.
“Grande,” I sigh. “You call it dabei. It says dabei here on the sign. I am reading out your own labels.”
“Ah,” she says. “Gu Lan De,” making up an entirely new concept in Chinese to describe the thing that is already described as Big Cup, but now is apparently also to be referred to as an Old Blue Independent.
“All right, then,” I say. “An Old Blue Independent Cooked Sugar Seize Iron Add Africa,” using the correct terminology, which is only correct at this moment, in this conversation, between me and Betty. If I use the same jumble of ideas with anyone else, they will blink at me blankly and wonder if I am mad.
“Would you like a muffin?” she adds, innocently. Which, if you ever need it in Mandarin, is Ma Fen, which means Carnelian Finn. But if you say it with the wrong tones, it means a Pointless Faff.
Over at the recommendations site Shepherd, I provide a list of my top-five books on Chinese food — or at least, my top five books today, including the peerless Fuchsia Dunlop, the educational Hsiang Ju Lin, and the America-focussed Liu Haiming. It was particularly hard picking just one book from the American ones, and just one novel, but I did my best to be objective.
A disappointing number of accounts deal with the history of Chinese food with a hand-waving, folkloric lack of due diligence. While it is important to the modern-day owners of the Imperial Carriage Stops on a Hill (Nian Zhi Po) restaurant in Xi’an that the Empress Dowager Cixi was once so taken by the smell of mutton stew that she halted her carriage and demanded some in 1900, I find the whole story suspicious. It’s not that Cixi didn’t go there, or didn’t subsequently donate the calligraphic sign it bears to this day. It’s rather that the Tong family’s restaurant was already a famous local fixture, and had been for the previous two centuries – she knew exactly where she was going that day, so the whole story amounts to little more than “Cixi Ate Here”.
Some stories are more fun, although their historical value is questionable. Go to the Seven Days restaurant in Cambridge, England, and you will be told that Stir-Fried Potatoes and Chili (hejin tudou pian) was “Stephen Hawking’s favourite dish”, the first stage in an evolution that may well turn it in future into Hawking Hot Potatoes or something similar. But did Stephen Hawking ever go there?
“Oh yes,” the manager tells me. “I saw him here, once, at that table.” He points to the one right next to mine. “He was in his wheelchair with two or three carers. He couldn’t really chew, but they had this liquidiser thing with them.”
Or you could go to Falls Church, Virginia, where the Peking Gourmet Inn boasts the safest view in America. Table N17 was the favourite seat of George H. Bush and George W. Bush when they would meet for father-son presidential chats, and now boasts bullet-proof windows, courtesy of their security details.
Bush senior, for his part, served from 1974 to 1976 as the USA’s emissary in Beijing, where he developed a love for Sichuan food and heaped praise upon his cook: “The food again perfection in our house as far as we are concerned. The tangy beef cooked in a dark brown sauce with oranges has to be the greatest.” He was presumably describing Orange Spice Beef (chengwei niurou), and I am surprised that some enterprising restaurateur hasn’t already decided to rechristen it as Bush Orange Beef.
Topics covered include the uses of describing his birthplace in Shandong as the “Holy Land” of China, the many topics he refused to talk about, chauvinism in the Bronze Age, and the fact that despite dynamiting his grave and desecrating his descendants’ corpses, the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution did not turn out to be his worst enemy in the twentieth century!
We finish up by discussing the “new” bits of Confucian scripture that have turned up in recent memory, finds like Several Disciples Asked and the The Essentials, found in the 1970s, and the two “lost” chapters of The Analects, unearthed in a tomb in Nanchang in 2011.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“BEHOLD!” he bellowed. “I AM THE NOODLE DANCER WHO CREATES NOODLES OUT OF NOTHING. SEE AS I WHIRL AND TWIRL. SEE AS I SWIRL AND FURL! LIKE A LASSOO! LIKE A WHIP! I CREATE NOODLES OUT OF RAW DOUGH JUST FOR YOU!”
Unfortunately for me, I had ordered two helpings, so he had to go through the whole ostentatious routine all over again.
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.
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.