The Yinshan Zhengyao

The Mongol courts official book of food, nutrition, and dietetics, the Yinshan Zhengyao (Essential knowledge for drinking and feasting"), was assembled by Hu Sihui (Buell, Anderson, and Perry 2010) and presented to Emperor Tugh Temur in 1330. It is a stunning work of synthesis and includes a great deal of Near Eastern culinary and medical lore. Both Hippocratic and Chinese medical traditions privileged diet as the most important form of medical care. Hu Sihui was charged with making the imperial food healthy as well as sumptuous and exotic. Thus the book is a major primary source on the medical beliefs (notably eclectic) of the Mongol court, particularly its nutritional and herbalist experts (Buell, Anderson, and Perry 2010; see also Anderson 1994; Sabban 1983,1986; the Mongolian traditional medical authority Sharav Bold has independently discovered and commented on this work, Bold 2009, esp. 83-99). In general, Chinese and Turkic foodways were mixing (cf. Golden 1994).

Hu Sihui, the court nutritionist of the Yuan Dynasty, was Turkic in origin, and Paul Buell believes, from the linguistic usages in the book, that Hu came from the eastern reaches of Chinese Turkestan—from somewhere east of Xinjiang. The Zhou Li, the Han Dynasty reinvention of the rituals of the Zhou Dynasty, listed the nutritionist as the highest in status of medical practitioners, since the Chinese always recognized that nutrition is the most important aspect of medicine. Several other works on medicine and medical nutrition survive from Yuan, some written by Chinese, some by Mongol authorities (Bold 2009:199-203).

As Françoise Sabban has pointed out (in conversation with this author, November 20, 2011), the YSZY is the only book known to have been written by a court nutritionist. It provides a large number of recipes with their nutritional values as perceived by Chinese medicine of that time. The recipes come from as far afield as Baghdad, Kashmir, and eastern Europe. Most are Central Asian: Turkic, Mongol, or Iranic. Many are Chinese, but these are definitely in the minority, although the book was compiled in Peking. Many recipes are examples of fusion cuisine: Chinese ingredients in Central Asian recipes or outright blends of the two traditions.

The process of distillation in China apparently goes back to the Han Dynasty, as noted above, but here it reentered China from the West. (A possible independent origin of distilling in India at an uncertain date, and certainly the great development of it in the Near East in the medieval period, seems responsible for the need to bring in Western technology.) Hu gives directions on making arak—using the Arab word (a-la-ji in transcription, from the Arabic 'araq, "sweating," referring to the distillation process).

The Mongols and others at their court wished to demonstrate their sophistication by serving foods from all over the world. They loved to impress visitors by providing them with the foods of their homelands. They were famous for assembling skilled people and knowledge as part of their insatiable thirst for anything that would help them conquer and hold the world. But, beyond this, the Mongols were deliberately and openly showing off their power. The message of their feasts was: we can command foods and recipes from the entire known world; we not only conquered these lands, we really own them, and we can take their people, their cultural ways, their skills, their expertise.

The cuisine of eastern Central Asia became increasingly Chinese-influenced. In fact, knowledge spread farther: Peter Golden found in a dictionary compiled in Yemen in the fourteenth century words for chopsticks and for "Chinese duck" (1994, 2011: 88).

By contrast, ordinary Chinese seemed rather unaffected; Sinoda (1977: 491) has noted that the contemporary novel Shui Hu Quan mentions only standard Chinese foods. Chinese medicine was more eclectic, with Western, Tibetan, and Korean influences prominent, but the YSZTs influence seems to have been rather limited. Among major foods, only the carrot appeared to be introduced as late as Yuan. The cultivated carrot is often said to have been developed in Afghanistan in the late Middle Ages, but there are perfectly unmistakable pictures of domestic orange carrots in Dioscoridess manuscripts from Europe, going back to the Juliana Anicia codex of 512 (see Collins 2000 and the Carrot Museum website, The case for medicines is less well known (except for those Laufer 1919 mentions), but few indeed of the Western medicines in the Bencao Gangmu were introduced in Yuan times.

More Chinese manuals survive largely to the extent that they were copied in later manuals. They cover the same general topics, including a vast range of crops. Expectably, the Chinese paid far more attention to silk production and bamboo, as well as to domesticated fish, than the Persians did. Fish, especially carp species, had long been domesticated in China—supposedly, and believably, since the Warring States period. The Mongols introduced domestic fish and fish-farming to the West, or at least to eastern Europe, where it underwent a dramatic development in subsequent centuries. It soon spread west, and carp ponds became common on feudal estates and monastery grounds.

The Chinese appear to have gotten the carrot from the Iranians at this time (Allsen 2001: 124; Laufer 1919). It is still called Iranian radish (hu luobo) in Chinese. (Hu covered, focally, Central Asian Iranics, not Persians, who were posi. We can be pretty sure the carrot came from the Central Asian peoples— Sogdians or Tadzhiks—as opposed to Persia, because spinach, which was borrowed directly from Persia just a few centuries earlier, was and still is forthrightly called pocai, "Persian greens.")

Conspicuous in the YSZY, but much less so in the Huihui Yaofang, is the cosmology of qi and the Five Phases. In the YSZY, qi is clearly taking on the role of the great unifying flow of energy or subtle fluid or substance-behind-the-material that makes everything what it is and brings everything into one unified field. Concepts of harmony (he, heping) and resonance (ganying) are implicit. Foods, medicines, and diseases are consistently described in terms of qi flow or stagnation and the Five Phases, including the Five Major Organ Systems, Five Tastes, Five Scents, and so forth. In addition to the Five Tastes (pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, salt), there are five levels of heating: Hot (re), warm (wen), neutral (ping "level" or "balanced"), cooling (Hang), and cold (han). These Galenic concepts were assimilated to yang and yin fairly early. Hu also drew on folk beliefs that have no obvious roots in formal medical theory, such as the tabooed combinations, the lore on fox spirits and other spiritual issues, and Mongol ideas of taboo and purity. Near Eastern medical influence is shown in the Hippocratic-Galenic values ascribed to Near Eastern medicinal foods (such as the cheering influence of saffron), the heavy use of sweet drinks and syrups, and a few other odd cases.

The Yinshan Zhengyao is explicitly a guide to court feasting (shan) and thus evidently reflects, especially in its exotic recipes, the great qurim feasts at which the Mongols entertained guests, dazzling and impressing them with dishes from every part of the empire. One recipe is actually called qurim bonnets (it is a very elaborate and unique recipe for dumplings that resemble the tall bonnets of the Mongol royal women). These feasts also were the true home of the huge, exquisite blue-and-white dishes such as those surviving in the Topkapi in Istanbul (Buell, Anderson, and Perry 2010; Carswell 2000).

Its three juan cover an amazing range of foods. The first juan is made up of some general nutritional advice, followed by ninety-five "strange delicacies of combined flavors": recipes for principally Near Eastern and Central Asian dishes. The second is devoted to medicinal recipes, including fifty-seven drinks and liquids, sixty-one brief medicinal recipes for different sorts of animals and the like, another six recipes for Daoist preparations for immortality, and miscellaneous nutritional advice. This advice includes foods to avoid, food combinations to avoid, excesses to avoid, and other caretaking advice. The third juan provides accounts and pictures of the major foodstuffs mentioned in the other juan, as well as some further food animals and plants, for a total of 221 headings. These briefly provide medicinal values: heating or cooling, poisonous or not, and so on. (In Chinese medicine, you du, "having poison," does not necessarily mean a food is poisonous; it may merely potentiate poisons in the eaters system.)

The Yinshan Zhengyao mentions at least 242 species of animals and plants. Surprisingly few plants, only 28, are from the West. Also, the standard domestic animals (cattle, horse, sheep, goat, donkey, dog, domestic honeybee) are from the West. Six plants are from India and Southeast Asia. Everything else mentioned is native to China. However, many of the animals are game animals common in Mongolia but rare in China: cranes, swans, wolves, bears, marmots, and the like. These reflect the Mongol aspect of the work.

As court nutritionist, Hu Sihui was in charge of cuisine. He had to make it both tasty and healthy. He had the unenviable job of trying to get the Mongols to eat and drink sensibly. Starting with Qubilai Qan himself, they used their position to feast. Many appear to have died from obesity, stroke, probable diabetes, and alcohol abuse. Therefore, Hu Sihuis book is full of good advice about moderation in eating and drinking, the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, the benefits of clean fresh water and healthful ingredients, the virtues of simplicity, and so on.

However, the recipes reflect what the Mongols and other Central Asians were actually eating. The major recipe section, "Strange Delicacies of Combined Flavors," includes seventy-two recipes for lamb and mutton out of ninety-five recipes total. Most involve cooking the lamb with considerable starch, usually wheat: noodles or dumpling skins (in twenty-three recipes— plus four more in juan 2), whole grains of wheat or rice, and so on. About sixteen recipes involve bread, which when recognizably described is Persian nan. Often, other heavy items are added. Sometimes millet enters the picture. This dominance of wheat and the rarity of millet accords with Central Asian, not Chinese, foodways of the time.

Most recipes call for light spicing, often the classic cinnamon-cumin-black pepper mix of the Near East, often also involving Chinas own large cardamoms and brown pepper. Large cardamoms in particular occur in 24 percent of the recipes in this and the following sections. This is the most pervasive of the Chinese contributions to the flavors of the book. Several Chinese-style recipes call for soy sauce.

Some recipes use chickpeas, which was not a normal Chinese food; these are among the most clearly Near Eastern-derived recipes in the work. Some of these, and some other recipes, produce soups that boil down into a solid mass, that is, the sopa seca, "dry soup," of Mediterranean cuisines. Significantly, there are no stir-fried dishes and very few dishes that involve a topping put over a starch staple (in the manner of Chinese cai and fan). Most dishes are boiled; the Mongols preferred boiled food, believing that boiling concentrates the essence of the food. On the whole, the dishes run heavily to meat and flour, with some beans and a fair, but not heavy, amount of spicing. Vegetables are rare, but fruits abound in the recipes of the second juan. Nothing appears in these recipes about appropriate times, occasions, or sequences of eating, although these were often feast dishes.

The first recipe in the book is a revealing one, and can stand for the whole:

Mastajhi [Mastic] Soup. It supplements and increases, warms the center, and accords qi. Mutton (leg; bone and cut up), tsaoko cardamoms (five), cinnamon (2 oz.), chickpeas (half pint, boiled, skins removed). Boil ingredients together to make a soup. Strain broth. [Cut up meat and put aside.] Add 2 more oz. of cooked chickpeas, a pint of rice, an ounce of mastic. Adjust flavors with salt. Add the meat and garnish with cilantro." (Buell, Anderson, and Perry 2010: 270, modified)

This would stand as a type oishulen, Mongol meat soup (modern Mongol shol, "soup"), but it is clearly a variant of the classic Near Eastern recipe harisa, which is found in almost every Near Eastern cookbook from the Middle Ages on down (although in North Africa the name has been transferred to a hot sauce, presumably on that was originally used on this dish). The dish involves lamb boiled with chickpeas, flour, cinnamon, cumin, and black pepper (in the most basic recipe; it varies from place to place). A very similar recipe was recorded from the other end of the Arab-influenced world: Hispanic New Mexico, where Cleofas Jaramillo learned it from her grandmother in the 1940s (Jaramillo 1981). The Jaramillo family is known to have had converso Moorish roots (Gary Nabhan, pers. comm., May 16, 2013). New Mexico was settled to a large extent by converted Spanish Moors and Jews whose conversion was suspect after 1492; they were exiled to the farthest reaches of the Spanish empire. From 1600 until recently, Hispanic New Mexico was a veritable museum of Hispano-Moorish and Hispano-Jewish culture.

The third recipe is a recipe from "Balpo" (Nepal, Kashmir, and area) for lamb with radish and is quite like a modern Kashmiri dish. And so it goes, down to poppy seed rolls (Buell et al. 305) indistinguishable from those found in any delicatessen today.

Some fifty-three of these recipes provide medical indications; the others lack them. When there are medical indications, they are in strictly Chinese terms: what is supplemented or tonified (bu), which qi is strengthened, what illnesses are alleviated, and so on. Usually it is the "center" that is tonified, but various organs are sometimes those helped. In traditional Chinese terms, most of the recipes are warming and supplementing; the latter term refers to certain tonic herbs but also especially to foods like lamb and game meats. These were seen to supplement the body's strength, vigor, color, and healing abilities. In modern biomedical terms, they are high in easily digestible protein and easily assimilated mineral nutrients, including iron.

Recipes range in complexity from "willow-steamed lamb," which is lamb pit-cooked in an earth barbecue (302), a truly simple and straightforward Mongol dish, to the elaborate Qurim bonnets (304-5). The latter recipe involves a range of ingredients from eggs, safflower, and vinegar to sheeps' stomach, lungs, and tripe! Interesting is its usage of "pine pollen" for pine nuts. The recipe calls for these, apricot kernel paste, pistachio nuts, and walnuts; these nuts, and the whole obsession with tree nuts that it reveals, unmistakably ties this recipe to a Persian or Afghan background.

The cuisine is heavily Near East-derived, but recent recounting shows more local or Central Asian influence than at first seemed the case. Some twenty-one recipes from the ninety-five in the "Strange Delicacies" section in the first juan are fairly straightforward Near Eastern ones. Another twenty-one are simple Central Asian recipes for bear, wolf, and other game, as well as various parts of the sheep. Some eleven recipes are straightforward Chinese ones. One is Indian (a dish still made in Kashmir), with Arab and Persian ancestry. The other forty-two combine Near Eastern, Central Asian, and Chinese foods and influences in various ways, ranging from simple to exceedingly complex and innovative (E. Anderson 2011; Buell, Anderson, and Perry 2010). Some similar recipes exist in other cookbooks of the time, and some survive in western China, Afghanistan, and neighboring areas today (from author's personal observations in Afghanistan and Shaanxi and in Xinjiang-style restaurants around the world). Interesting in some of these exotic recipes is nut paste, a very rare ingredient in world cuisine except in Spain and parts of Italy. The expected paste in Near Eastern cooking would be sesame, but it is not that in the YSZY. Instead, we find almond paste, though some recipes specify peach kernels, the standard Chinese substitute for almonds. Several recipes also mention pine nuts, a food unusual except in the eastern and central Mediterranean (from Pinus pined), although it is also found locally in Afghanistan and Pakistan (from chilgoza pine, P. gerardiana), in Korea and neighboring parts of China (from P. koraiensis and close relatives), and, important here, in Mongolia (from P. sibirica).

Dairy products are strikingly absent. There are a few mentions of cheese, possibly a cheddar type like that of Afghanistan's Baghlan province or a fresh white cheese such as the Mongols enjoy.

About sixteen recipes mention bread, usually as nan used to eat the food. Another twenty-three mention noodles. Chicken, fish, and game meats are found in some recipes. Much of the spicing is Near Eastern, with cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, sesame, occasionally saffron. But, to balance this out, ginger, green onions, soy and mung beans, Chinese large brown cardamoms, and other classically Chinese flavorings are very widely found.

Rarely does Hu Sihui the person appear in the book, but in some places a gentle, low-key humor breaks through. This is clearest in the recipe for roast wolf soup (286). He writes: "Ancient bencao do not include entries on wolf meat. At present we state that its nature is heating. It treats asthenia. I have never heard that it is poisonous for those eating it. In the case of the present recipe we use spices to help its flavor." (The recipe is in fact a recipe for lamb that has been retooled for wolf.) This description conjures up a vivid image of an uncouth Siberian tribesman throwing down a wolf and saying "Cook that!" This concept is particularly disturbing since Mongols (then and now) do not eat wolves, because the ancestor of the Mongol people was a gray wolf who married a fallow doe, and of course the many Muslims at court avoided all canids as haram. (There is no detectable link with the ancient uses of wolf and similar animals as medicine in the Near East.)

The second section includes more strictly medicinal foods, and many of these are Near Eastern preparations of fruit and sugar in which fruit juice is boiled down with sugar. If it is boiled down to a drinkable liquid, we have a syrup, from the Arabic sharab or sharbat, something drunk. If boiled down to a thicker liquid, we have a rob, Arabic rubb. If it is a paste, it can be cut into lozenges, Arabic lauzanj. However done, it is mostly sugar, and its health benefits rather small.

Comparison of a few food accounts with Galen's and with Sun Simiao's Recipes Worth a Thousand Gold proves that Hu stayed close to Sun and did not follow Galen. Of course, Sun was not without Near Eastern influences himself (Engelhardt 2001), so there is some common ground.

I have elsewhere quoted several descriptions from Sun Simiao's Recipes Worth a Thousand Gold and compared them with the YSZTs and with Galen's. The YSZY is usually close to Sun and not to Galen (Anderson 2011:16-19). It appears that there is no clear Western input to the Yinshan Zhengyao's medical assessment of foods that was not already developed in Sun Simiao's time. Ute Engelhardt (2001) and I have both pointed out elsewhere that Sun was an amazing individual in his ability to adopt Western ideas and blend them with Chinese ones (see my introduction to Sun Simiao 2007). He was ahead of his time in many ways, although he was certainly equaled in his comprehensive, rational, and innovative thought by Jia Sixie and Tao Hongjing in the previous century. But Hu Sihui, much later, was derivative.

Hu's medical texts are also extracted from earlier material. A long story of a woman who became a Long-lived Person by eating Solomon's seal is close to the one in Ge Hong's Baopuzi (fourth century; see Campany 2002: 22-23). A number of other blocks of text in the YSZY are obviously copied from older material.

Fox meat "cures infantile convulsion epilepsy, spiritual confusion, indistinct speech, and inappropriate singing and laughing" (Buell et al. 2010, 409). This is basically fox-madness, as seen in Chinese folklore.

Interesting are the very long lists of recommendations. These are almost all avoidances. Many are common sense: do not consume spoiled food, food of uncertain origin, polluted drinks, and so on. But most are mysterious. They are part of a very ancient tradition of avoidances, which was transmitted both in literature and orally from earliest times. Many involve combinations that were regarded as dangerous; this is a particularly distinctive Chinese tradition, again known in both literary and oral transmission for many centuries and continuing today.

Approximately 168 foods are discussed by Sun Simiao (2007; fourteen are of Western origin, four are Southeast Asian.) In most cases, Sun categorizes them in terms of hot/warm, balanced, or cool/cold. (Hot and warm, and cool and cold, are somewhat poorly and inconsistently distinguished in Chinese medicine and will be consolidated into two categories here.) Of the 210 foods discussed in much detail in the YSZY, most are similarly coded; 33 have the same classifications as Sun gives them, while 19 are different.

In almost all cases in which Sun and the YSZY differ, the codes in the latter are the same as the modern ones I collected in studying folk medicine in rural Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s. In a few cases, the YSZY differs from Sun, but the moderns side with Sun. Only one item—sesame—is different in the three: balanced for Sun, cooling in the YSZY, warming in modern Hong Kong. Galen discussed sixteen foods well enough to give a good sense of his perception of their heating and cooling qualities; six are coded as in the YSZY, three are different, and seven are not found in it. Galen also says that "Everything pungent has been shown to be warming," astringent foods are cooling, and sweet things are more balanced (Galen 2003: 84; see also 85-86). This is basically true of Chinese food coding today and of modern Mediterranean and Latin American folk belief as well. My own research in Mexico and China shows that the codings are usually identical; the logic is almost identical; and even the words used are the same, allowing for translation problems (E. Anderson 1996).

The relationship of Near Eastern and Chinese food codings is far too close to be coincidence. We are dealing here with one system that has been transmitted worldwide. I once thought it was Greek but am now convinced that the flow went both ways, because the influence of Chinese medicine on Near Eastern thought can no longer be denied and because Galen seems far less thorough and clear on the codings than were later authorities who wrote after the Chinese connection had been established.

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