British Museum blog

Ming culinary culture: it’s all very beautiful, but what did they eat?

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.

Gold ladle and chopsticks, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei, at Zhongxiang, Hubei Province. © Hubei Provincial Museum

Gold ladle and chopsticks, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei, at Zhongxiang, Hubei Province. © Hubei Provincial Museum.

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.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Xie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

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.

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , ,

A very versatile Roman oven

A very versatile Roman ovenSally Grainger, chef and author

In my previous post about Roman cooking I described a type of oven used to bake and roast food about 2,000 years ago. Known as a clibanus it was a sophisticated piece of cooking technology most likely used by the wealthy, and one with which I have spent many years experimenting.

These ovens were made with very course gritted clay and ranged in size from 15-50 cm in diameter, with walls of up to 10 cm high. A central hole seems to have been for regulating the temperature and could also allow cooks to keep an eye on the food baking inside. A flange allowed the fire to be placed on the top of the oven.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

The sites in Italy where these ovens have been identified tend to be rather elite villa complexes where one could imagine the baking of delicate cakes and also warm bread for dinner. It is not necessarily apparent that these ovens were used by the less well off as a means of cooking simpler fair, and it is often assumed that they took their bread to be baked at large bakery complexes in towns, while we do not know what the rural poor did about baking at home. There was an assumption that they didn’t eat bread but made puls wheat porridge in a cooking pot over a wood fire.

The poem attributed to Virgil called moretum suggests that a relatively lowly market gardener baked his bread sub testu: under one of these ovens, though the status of this man is quite difficult to determine. He is considered a peasant, but he sells his produce in town and comes home with a heavy purse on occasion. Identifying these ovens is also not easy as they often come to pieces after prolonged use and recognising the shards (broken pieces) as testa (ovens) is problematic.

There is quite a detailed description of this oven in use in an agricultural manual written by Cato the Elder, in 150 BC. The recipe is for a special sacrificial cake called rather unfortunately placenta: the reason for which is another story altogether. It is a complex layered construction with sweet pasta sheets and cheese and honey bound in an outer pastry shell which might best be described as a round cheese strudel. While being constructed, the cook is advised to ‘heat the hearth and the testum where you are to cook’. Then ‘make the hearth ready beforehand and place the placenta on it, cover with a heated testum and place hot coals on top and around it’ (i).

From original drawings and reconstructed ovens the instructions on how to use it seemed quite logical, although my initial experiments were rather haphazard. I used a wood fire at first and rapidly broke the first oven I owned – we find evidence of metal versions of these ovens in Greece which could be used with a wood fire but ceramic, even very coarse material as these were, could not tolerate an open flame for long. Subsequently I used charcoal with much greater success.

Now I bake so often it has become second nature. The oven needs to be raised above the fire in order to be heated, so a trivet is used. Leaving the vessel directly on the fire caused rapid heat differential which caused cracking and sometimes put the fire that was inside the dome out.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

I left the oven to heat over a charcoal fire and found that the hole acted as a chimney to draw the fire quite well. After a time it seemed better to close the hole and keep the heat in. The hearth I used was a raised platform and its position was crucial as a strong draft also helped the fire to heat. After about an hour or sometimes longer when the heat from the surface caused our spit to sizzle – a past visit to a wood-fired bakery had already told me that when the roof of these ovens is white hot that is when the baker knows it is ready to use.

At this point the hearth needs to be prepared which meant cleaning away the fire so that the cake or bread could go directly onto a tile or ceramic hearth. The fire was brushed aside to make space as big as the oven, and my freshly proved loaf or a Roman cake called a libum was placed on this hot surface with a bay leaf beneath for flavour.

The oven is put back over the cake and then the fire is piled around the sides and on top. A good bake requires good quality ‘restaurant charcoal’ (heavier and therefore long lasting) to retain plenty of latent energy. It is then possible to place fresh charcoal close to the already alight coals so that a continuous fire can be maintained. The remaining embers and smaller pieces of charcoal are pushed around the sides of the oven evenly spaced so that no area is left unheated. Doing this I was able to reach 410F (210C) on a regular basis when baking bread, so could then bake and roast very efficiently.

I can only indicate the quality of the bake by offering the following:

The crust on my sour dough was beautifully thick and crisp even when cooled; meat on the legs of a small chicken roasted for 45 minutes in a dish rather than directly on the hearth, fell to pieces; a lamb shank cooked for one and a quarter hours was similarly tender, and belly pork fell apart and had super crackling after the same amount of time.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the relatively small space inside the oven is such that any potential moisture both from bread and also meat is retained around the food being cooked so that a steam/roast/bake process is going on. Bakers know of course that you need steam to create a good crust and now it has become common to find modern catering ovens with added steam.

All manner of complicated techniques are used to achieve the desired moist atmosphere yet 2,000 years ago the Romans had invented the technique already.

i. C. Grocock and S Grainger, 2002 Moretum: a peasant lunch revisited. The meal: proceedings of the oxford symposium on food and cookery 2001, Prospect books Totnes, pp.95-104.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Chiseldon cauldrons, Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, , , ,

Heat, steam and Roman cooking

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

There are two exhibitions on at the British Museum at the moment which relate to the theme of Roman cooking and dining.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain evokes a late Roman dining room, including a partial reconstruction of a curved dining couch, or stibadium, arranged around the Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure. Many have puzzled as to how these huge silver platters were used: what kinds of food, if any, were placed on them and was it acceptable to cover up the fine carving?

Having spent many years studying and experimenting to understand what Romans ate and how they prepared and made it, my particular interest is not so much with the outward service of the food, but the actual cooking process. It is clear from ancient texts that the preparation of dishes for fine dining was very sophisticated with intricate vessels combining steam and oven heat and also gentle delicate poaching and simmering: techniques one does not normally associate with ancient cultures.

Food also features heavily in Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which has a unique and inspired focus as Dr Paul Roberts, curator, has re-created the shell of a Roman home, each room containing the artefacts associated with the function of that room.

When I visited, I entered the kitchen room with huge anticipation. I was not disappointed: a good selection of bronze cooking pans, and food residues of all kinds including one of those wonderful carbonised loaves of bread and dried fruits, seeds and nuts which are so perfectly recognisable. The cooking equipment is very fine; a compact little portable brazier that appears to be the kind shared around by the tenement dwellers, and most importantly for me a double clibanus or portable oven/ casserole.

Many years ago, Dr Roberts was responsible, along with two other archaeologists, in reporting on these ovens and had alluded to the idea of a double one, but no drawings existed and I had long been impatient to see one (i). He tells me that when he found this oven in the Naples store he just had to have it for the exhibition and I am so grateful that he did as it is a beautiful piece of cooking technology that I am eager to experiment with.

Many years ago now I had one of the more common single bodied clibanus ovens made by potter Andrew Macdonald. Since then these ovens have spread among the Roman historical re-enactment fraternity and I see them wherever Roman cooking is demonstrated. Over the years I have had numerous versions made (as they inevitably fall apart under the thermal shock) and have also developed the skills needed to bake and roast in them and written about these experiences in my own publications on Roman food (ii).

Replica of a double clibanus oven

Replica of a double clibanus oven

On Sunday 19 May I received a replica of a double clibanus made just three weeks after the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition opened, by potter Chris Lydamore whose creations are highly valued as museum replicas as well as by historical re-constructionists.

My first experiments with this new piece will be reported on here soon. But as a preliminary I will start with a look at how the single-bodied oven works.

i. Cubberley et al 1988 AL Cubberly, J.A Lloyd, P.C. Roberts, Testa and clibani: the baking covers of classical Italy. Papers of the British school at Rome 61, pp. 98-119

ii. C. Grocock, and S. Grainger. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with Introduction and English Translation. Totnes: Prospect Books. Grainger, S. 1999 Cato’s roman cheesecakes: the baking techniques, Milk:beyond the dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on food and cookery, Prospect books Totnes, pp.168-178

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , , ,

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