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.

The Red Menace

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.

Day of the Dumpling

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.

The Tyrant’s Meal

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.

The Emperor’s Feast

“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

“…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

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.

Out now in hardback, ebook and audiobook versions.

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.

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.