Gems of Chinese Literature/Yüan Mei-The Art of Dining


a.d. 1715-1797

[An official who got into trouble with his superiors and went into retirement at the early age of 40. Chiefly known as a poet, he wrote prose in a fascinating style, and his witty and amusing letters are widely read. He also composed a famous cookery-book, which amply entitles him to be regarded as the Brillat-Savarin of China.]

EVERYTHING has its own original constitution, just as each man has certain natural characteristics. If a man’s natural abilities are of a low order, Confucius and Mencius themselves would teach him to no purpose. And if an article of food is in itself bad, the greatest chef of all ages could not cook a flavour into it.

A ham is a ham; but in point of goodness two hams will be as widely separated as sea and sky. A mackerel is a mackerel; but in point of excellence two mackerel will differ as much as ice and live coals. And other things in the same way. So that the credit of a good dinner should be divided between the cook and the steward,―forty per cent. to the steward, and sixty per cent. to the cook. Cookery is like matrimony. Two things served together should match. Clear should go with clear, thick with thick, hard with hard, and soft with soft. I have known people mix grated lobster with birds’-nest, and mint with chicken or pork! The cooks of to-day think nothing of mixing in one soup the meat of chicken, duck, pig, and goose. But these chickens, ducks, pigs, and geese, have doubtless souls; and these souls will most certainly file plaints in the next world as to the way they have been treated in this.

Let salt food come first, and afterwards food of a more negative flavour. Let the heavy precede the light. Let dry dishes precede those with gravy. No flavour should dominate. If a guest eats his fill of savouries, his stomach will be fatigued. Salt flavours must be relieved by bitter or hot-tasting foods, in order to restore the palate. Too much wine will make the stomach dull. Sour or sweet food will be required to rouse it again into vigour. In winter we should eat beef and mutton; in summer dried and preserved meats. As for condiments, mustard belongs specially to summer; pepper to winter.

Don't eat with your ears! By this I mean do not aim at having extraordinary out-of-the-way foods, just to astonish your guests. For that is to eat with the ears, not with the mouth. Beancurd, if good, is actually nicer than birds’-nest.[1] And better than sea-slugs (bêche-de-mer), if not first-rate, is a dish of bamboo shoots. The chicken, the pig, the fish, the duck,―these are the four heroes of the table. Sea-slugs and birds’-nest have no characteristic flavours of their own. They are but usurpers in the house. I once dined with a friend who gave us birds’-nest in bowls more like vats, holding each about four ounces of the plain-boiled article. The other guests applauded vigorously, but I smiled and said, “I came here to eat birds’-nest, not to take delivery of it wholesale.”

Don't eat with your eyes! By this I mean do not cover the table with innumerable dishes and multiply courses indefinitely. For this is to eat with the eyes, not with the mouth.

To know right from wrong, a man must be sober. And only a sober man can distinguish good flavours from bad. It has been well said that words are inadequate to describe the various shades of taste. How much less then must a stuttering sot be able to appreciate them!

To make good tea, the water must be poured on at the moment of boiling. If allowed to go on boiling, the water will lose its flavour. If the water is allowed to go off the boil, the tea-leaves will float.

I am not much of a wine-drinker, but this makes me all the more particular. Wine is like scholarship. It ripens with age, and it is best from a fresh-opened jar. “The top of the wine-jar, the bottom of the tea-pot,” as the saying has it.

  1. Juvenal, too, contends that “magis illa juvant quae pluris emuntur.”