a chinese feast

This semester, I am taking a class called the History of Food. By reading recipes and records of feasts from various historical periods, we are cooking our way through the centuries to examine the evolution of taste. Once a week, we meet together in small groups to test a sampling of recipes from the assigned time period while convening with other groups over Skype. This past Saturday, the entire class gathered in the BU kitchens to create a feast using recipes from the Yuan Dynasty of China.

Charged with the task of making tea, I turned to our trusty reader for direction. “Ginseng Puree accords ch’i” the book said, “it opens the diaphragm, controls thirst and brings forth saliva.” Precisely the things I look for when choosing a recipe. It called for four laing of Korean ginseng with green shoots removed and diced, one liang of prepared mandarin peel, two liang of purple perilla leaves, one chin of crude sugar and two tou of water. Though fully equipped by American standards, our kitchen did not seem to contain any liang, chin, or tou measuring cups, so I was forced to guess a few ratios. Neither could I find fresh shoots of ginseng, so packets of ginseng tea had to suffice. Despite the minor guesstimations, the tea was a sweet and refreshing appetizer to our meal. The steeped perilla (also known as the herb shiso) complemented the ginseng, bringing a hint of spice to the tea that lingered after the sweetness had disappeared. Though I can’t say whether it opened my diaphragm or brought forth saliva, I would gladly serve this tea at any upcoming Chez Heureuse dinner parties

Other recipes of the day included steamed poppy buns, carp soup, chicken morsels, and mastic mutton soup. Though the carp soup – meant to treat jaundice and pacify the womb – did not settle well with the class (unfortunately the entire pot found its way into the garbage due to its similarity in aroma to sewer water), each of the other recipes turned out surprisingly delicious. The steamed poppy buns were a bit dense given their lack of leavening, but the flavor paired well with the resin-y brightness of the mastic mutton soup. The overall winner of the day was the deboned chicken morsels with hand-pulled noodles. Each student participated in stretching the dough for noodles. Unfortunately our lack of dexterity in noodle-pulling resulted in many slivers of overworked dough which would snap when expected to bend. Eventually we resorted to rolling and slicing the remaining dough in order to speed up the process. The chicken was boiled before being broken down, then fried and poured back into its own broth. The noodles were added with onions, fresh ginger, and Szechuan peppercorns. The first bite opened with the flavor of ginger, but was mellowed by the chicken and noodles. By the third and fourth bites, the Szechuan peppercorns began to numb the tongue enough to warm the mouth without dulling the flavors.

Noticeably lacking in every dish was the presence of soy. Although soy grew in China during the period of the Yuan Dynasty, it did not make its way into food until several years later. Dishes of this time period instead utilized new interpretations of the variety of spices coming in from the Middle East – mastic, cardamom, poppy, and cinnamon being the most prevalent in the dishes we created. 

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