Malcolm McNeill, project researcher and doctoral candidate, SOAS, University of London
In the book accompanying the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, curator Jessica Harrison-Hall’s chapter ‘Courts: palaces, people and objects’ vividly evokes the sumptuous banquets of the Ming elite. A Timurid embassy’s account of a feast held in a meadow on 20 August 1420 treats us to an enticing description of geese, roast fowl, and dried and fresh fruits, all artfully arranged to impress these Central Asian dignitaries. The alfresco fine dining experience was accompanied by courtly pageantry. Beautiful cross-dressed male performers danced for the envoys, while entertainers in papier-mâché animal masks moved like wild beasts. These same Central Asians tell us that the Yongle emperor (reigned 1403–1422), the warrior, dined on a multitude of meats in a single sitting and had a penchant for yellow wine made from grain or rice (huang jiu). This combination of theatrical and culinary delights paints a revealing portrait of early Ming courtly fine dining. The plethora of porcelain and gold vessels in the exhibition show just how lavish the tables of early Ming imperial and princely courts would have been.
We even have two sets of chopsticks, inscribed with the date they were made, their weight, and the name of the imperial workshop in which they were produced, excavated from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang and his wife Lady Wei. Looking at these in the exhibition, I imagined the delicacies these golden chopsticks might have lifted from plate to palate. This left my mouth watering, but also set my mind wondering. How were these delicacies made? What did they smell and taste like? And what would ordinary people, without the wealth of an emperor, have had for dinner?
While researching objects for the Hands On desk outside the exhibition entrance, I found answers to some of these questions. The desk doesn’t just let you touch the wonders of the early Ming, you can smell them too. If you go, do ask for the small box of tea grown at the site of the Ming imperial tea plantations, the Wuyi Mountains in China’s southern Fujian province. These loose leaves of high-grade oolong tea tell a story that can be traced back to the first Ming emperor Hongwu (reigned 1368–1398), the founder. He had a profound impact on the way tea was brewed in 15th-century China. Hailing from lowly stock, he was frequently exasperated by the aristocratic excesses of his courtiers and ministers. This frustration led to an edict issued over the preparation of tea, which forbade brews made from laboriously manufactured bricks of tea powder in favour of infusing tea from dried leaves. While the brick tea popular in the courts of the preceding Song and Yuan dynasties is still drunk in Japan, Hongwu’s loose leaf tea is the brew of choice across China today. Something to bear in mind next time you pop the kettle on for a quick cuppa…
With my mind turned to food and drink, I recently revisited the exhibition in search of more clues about smells and tastes. Looking at the books on display in the section devoted to the arts of peace, my eyes lighted on a collection of bean recipes. These are found in an incredible compendium that aspired to contain all knowledge within the empire, the ‘Great Canon of the Yongle Reign’ (Yongle da dian). Rather than an original piece of writing filled with definitions and explanations, the Yongle da dian was a reference text that pieced together pre-existing knowledge. It was more like a library than an encyclopaedia. The three volumes on show in the exhibition illustrate its breadth of subject matter. On the right you see a selection of feng shui diagrams, on the left a guide to funeral etiquette, and wedged between them is a list of recipes for the humble bean. Reading the text I was staggered by the number of uses for simple pulses: there are recipes for salted beans with minced pork and lamb, beans in oil, beans with salted bamboo shoots, beans from the ‘barbarian’ tribes to the south, and beans of foreign states.
For all the detail in this great compendium, and for all the glamour of golden tableware, it was in the corner of one painting that I found the fullest expression of Ming gastronomy. At the far left of the handscroll ‘Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden’, is a scene of elite opulence with servants preparing wine for their master’s guests. We can only imagine the taste and smell. I want to end by sharing with you a translation of a recipe for honey wine from Liu Ji’s (1311–1375) ‘Many Methods for Humble Tasks’. We don’t know exactly what kind of wine was being heated in the Apricot Garden, but Liu Ji’s recipes were in circulation in Ming China when Xie Huan’s painting was made. The painting captures a single moment, but the recipe narrates every stage of a similar process: from the skimming of the bubbling mixture with a chicken feather to the pounding of a pungent paste for fermentation, ending with adjustments of timings to match the rhythms of the seasons in fermenting this sweet, honey wine. I hope that seeing the painting and recipe together gives you a flavour of Ming China.
Method for making honey wine
Slowly heat two jin of honey in one dou of water, scraping off what bubbles up with a chicken feather. Continue heating until nothing more bubbles up. Grind cinnamon, pepper, ginger and red bean, and combine these parts together. Place no more than eight qian of this mixture in the vessel, then add no more than four liang of plain flour, and finally add the honey water. Use oiled paper to seal the honey container under seven layers of bamboo. In winter leave it to mature for 27 days, 10 in autumn and spring, and 7 in summer.
The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP
The exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online
To learn more about Ming culinary culture, come to award-winning cook and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s talk Tastes of Ming China on Friday 14 November.
If you prefer something you can literally sink your teeth into, have a look at the special Ming menu in the Museum’s Great Court Restaurant.