Abstract: In Chinese history, the practice of collecting recipes evolved along two parallel but interacting trends. The first placed food within a medical context in order to nourish the body and heal different ailments. The second was concerned with technical aspects as well as the aesthetic enjoyments of food. Beginning with twenty recipes found on bamboo strips from the second century bce, Chinese recipe collecting would by the nineteenth century result in the comprehensive Tiaoding ji, with well over two-thousand recipes.

Citation:  Anderson, et al. (2021). Encyclopedia of Sustainability (2nd edition). Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

DOI: 10.47462/1419367258

Keywords: Chinese recipes; recipe collections; food history; culinary history; dietary history; dietetics; Daoist recipes

Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

Back to list of Advance Articles

Recipe Collecting Shípǔ 食谱

Robban Toleno, Columbia University

Few collections of food recipes survive from ancient and early imperial China. Ancient classical texts sometimes touch on food topics, but tend to focus on theoretical ideas that informed the dietary practices of literate elites, or they merely name foods but do not leave instructions for their preparation. What recipes we do have from early periods tend to be embedded in literary works such as medical literature and agricultural manuals that were valued for much more than the food recipes that they contain. Roughly around the Tang-Song dynastic transition (ca. tenth to eleventh century), improved woodblock print technology stimulated a new print culture that allowed publication and widespread circulation of genres of writing that previously might have only have been shared as hand-copied editions. The emergence of the recipe collection as a stand-alone and publication-worthy literary genre appears to date from after the development of this new print culture, in Song China (960–1279). Before this time, recipe collections may have circulated locally and played a role in domestic affairs (some have been found in tombs), but they did not earn a place in the orthodox bodies of writing handed down to the present.

The Song period was a pivotal time in Chinese culinary history, when a vibrant restaurant culture stimulated by the mixing of northerners and southerners matured cooking techniques and flavoring principles into a recognizably Chinese cuisine (Wilkinson 2015, 445; Freeman 1977, 144). Recipe collections from later imperial and early modern China show a continued evolution as cooks integrated new techniques and ingredients, but the core tradition had been established by the thirteenth century. The entire history of culinary recipe collecting in China can be understood as cumulative, because later collections have a tendency to build upon those of the past, with the more innovative, smaller collections getting absorbed into comprehensive compilations.

Medical Formulas and Food Recipes

In early imperial China, food and medicine were closely interacting categories, so the distinction between the two was not often as clear as it appears to us today. Although eating food (shi 食, chi 吃, etc.) is conceptually and linguistically distinct from the taking of medicine (fuyao 服药), the notion of a recipe as a written method was associated early on with medical formularies. Both medical formulas and food recipes could be denoted as fang 方 (recipe/formula) or as fa 法 (method). Indeed, food and medicine have been so closely associated that it can be difficult to distinguish a culinary recipe from a medical formula in early China. Collections of food recipes include celebrated medicinal ingredients in dishes that appear to be for general consumption, and medical formularies include everyday foodstuffs as medically active ingredients in formulas (Lo and Barrett 2005, 401). A representative example of diet therapy in China’s medical literature is Sun Simiao’s (581–682 ce) influential “Diet Therapy in the Qianjin Formulary” (Qianjin shizhi 千金食治) an excerpt of his Beiji qianjin yaofang备急千金药方). Medicines, like foods, were often prepared in a kitchen, using kitchen techniques.

The medicalization of food appears connected with the influence of Daoist and Confucian ideas on medical knowledge that matured during the Han period (202 bce–220 ce). Some of these ideas continue to shape Chinese dietary practices even today. These theories posited a cosmos structured by integrated but oppositional categories, yin 阴 and yang 阳, which colored people’s perceptions of foodstuffs. Foods were deemed, if not neutral, to have a “warming” (yang) or “cooling“ (yin) effect on the human body. Everything dynamic––from ghosts, to weather, to people, to foods––was thought to be filled with and influenced by flows of qi 气, a kind of fluid force that was often described as yin or yang. In this theoretical frame, cooking became a matter of balancing the properties of different ingredients for health, and not just one of harmonizing flavors for a positive gustatory experience. Medical texts such as materia medica (bencao 本草) applied such theoretical categorization to medicines and foods, thus subsuming everyday foodstuffs within a medical framework that was broadly inclusive of all ingestible natural ingredients. The pronounced overlap of food and medicine is one of the most prominent features of Chinese culinary and medical history, finding expression in such cultural concepts as “nourishing life” (yangsheng 养生) and healing with food (shiliao食疗, shizhi 食治) (e.g., Wilkinson 2015, 441).

Ambiguity in the categories of food and medicine is evident not only in many of the received texts of Chinese history, but also in excavated texts such as the “Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments” (Wushier bingfang 五十二病方) found in a tomb of the Mawangdui 马王堆 archaeological site that was sealed in 168 bce. The Wushier bingfang formulas, which from the title and section headings is easily identified as medical, includes recipes using everyday food ingredients:

For rigidity due to a wound, boil li (plum) fruit in a sufficient amount of water. Let it bubble rapidly and then remove (the liquid). Sieve (the fruit) to obtain the liquid. When cooled to lukewarm, give it to the ailing person to drink…

Another. For rigidity due to a wound. Take one handful of xie (scallions) and boil in one half dou of pure liquor until it bubbles. Drink it, and immediately sit with warm clothing pressed around all four sides…

Another. Make gruel with blue choice millet grains. Use fifteen parts water to one part grain to produce five dou of gruel. Remove it, let the vapor steam away, and fill a new pottery water jar with it. Cover the mouth with three layers of cloth. Then seal it with mud two cun thick. Bake until the mud is completely fired, and drink it. The wound desists.

Another. Boil two roosters that have been aged for three nights, pouring three dou of water (into the kettle). Remove when done. Scoop out the liquid and pour it over (the roosters) again. Set a […] beneath a slotted steaming-pot and cook the five grains. Drop rabbit flesh into the slotted steaming-pot. Gradually pour the liquid on top, letting it collect in the bowl below. When done, drink the liquid. (Harper 1998, 230, 231, 241–242)

While this cultural tendency to blend food and medicine is a critical component of our understanding of Chinese food history, it is sometimes overstated, especially for ancient China. In 1999, an archaeological site from around the same time as Mawangdui yielded up a hitherto unknown text demonstrating that even in ancient China, food could sometimes be simply that: food. A recipe collection written on bamboo slips and placed in the tomb of Wu Yang 吴阳 (d. 162 bce) at Huxishan 虎溪山 in Yuanling 沅陵 (Hunan Province) illustrates that collections of food recipes without any obvious medical application also existed. Although the Huxishan recipe collection is heavily damaged, scholars are able to characterize the text, based on the extant portion, as focused on culinary outcomes:

Wu Yang could undoubtedly contemplate a diverse and nourishing variety of foodstuffs and cooking techniques in his diet. In the surviving twenty of an estimated original 148 meat and fish and seven grain and vegetable recipes, we can see that the Han élite valued a varied diet with different methods of cooking rice, grain and vegetables, dog, goose, lamb, deer, pig, chicken, swallow, beef and hare. Different parts of the animals were cooked separately with a variety of techniques including steaming, braising, and pot-cooking, using alcoholic liquor, ginger and various ingredients for flavouring. (Lo and Barret 2005, 402)

Premodern Chinese authors and editors of recipe collections in China sometimes medicalized food, and sometimes did not. This fact has led scholars to identify two main trends in Chinese food writings, one technical and the other therapeutic. The technical strain of food writings concern cooking methods and gustatory aesthetics, while the therapeutic food writings offer information on the use of foods for general health or medical intervention (Huang 2000, 121). This characterization helps our understanding of key differences in extant examples of Chinese recipe collecting, but the two main trends are not mutually exclusive. For lack of space, this overview of recipe collecting will mostly trace the development of collections of food recipes with culinary––rather than medical––motivations, but it will include cases where the two main trends overlap in a collection. We should keep in mind that recipe collections in China illustrate how food could serve a range of objectives, including culinary delight, medical efficacy, social differentiation, moral exemplification, spiritual transformation, and so forth.

Food Recipes in Ancient Classics

Such ancient classics as the Book of Songs (Shijing 诗经) and the Elegies of Chu (Chuci 楚辞) mention various foods and provide information on early Chinese food history, but lack specific information on how to prepare the foods. The best early example of Chinese food recipes in the received classics (as opposed to texts found in archaeological sites) occurs in the Book of Rites (Liji 礼记) by Dai Sheng 戴圣 (n.d., ca. first century bce). The material incorporated by Dai Sheng dates from as early as the fifth century bce and concerns Confucian ideas about ritual. The “Patterns of the Family” (Neize 內則) chapter describes eight meat delicacies eaten by the wealthy, each with details sufficient for the recreation of these ancient dishes. We read, for instance, how one delicacy was prepared from a suckling pig or young ram, which was gutted and stuffed with jujubes before being wrapped round with straw and reeds, plastered with clay, and baked. There is also a recipe for fried meatballs made with a mince of beef, mutton, and pork mixed with rice; another combines roasted dog liver wrapped in its own fat and rice fried with fat taken from the belly of a wolf (Huang and Needham 2000, 117–120; Chang 1977, 51–52; Anderson 2014, 131).

Daoist Recipes

Daoist writings contain some recipes that have often been overlooked by authors writing on Chinese food history, perhaps because they exhibit the aforementioned ambiguity between medical formulas and food recipes. One example is the second chapter of the Preface to the Five Most High Numinous Treasure Talismans (Taishang lingbao wufuxu太上灵宝五符序), which is comprised of seventy vegetable-based recipes aimed at achieving longevity. This text was compiled between the second and fifth centuries. The early details of its authorship are not known, but evidence suggests that a single scroll from the Later Han (25­–220 ce) passed through several stages of editing and expansion, becoming three scrolls by the fifth century. Key figures of Lingbao Daoism had a hand in this editing, including Ge Xuan 葛玄 (164–244 ce), Ge Chaofu 葛巢甫 (fl. 402 ce), and Lu Xiujing陆修静 (406–477 ce).

The medicalized diet represented by the recipes of this collection express Daoist anxieties regarding the human body, such as a belief in Three Worms (sanchong 三虫) that all human bodies were thought to host, which could only be expelled through a proper medical diet. The Daoist outlook on food and the human body was not entirely pessimistic, however, because they held that the human body could be not only healed of such worms, but even progressively improved until exalted states of bodily perfection were reached. Health, vitality, and longevity could be achieved through proper diet and exercises that harmonized and strengthened subtle energies.

Daoists celebrated certain foods and herbs for being most suitable for achieving these aims. Many of their recipes include one or more of several key ingredients: sesame, pine sap or the pine fungus fuling 茯苓 (Wolfiporia extensa), Sichuan pepper, dried ginger, and sweet flag (calamus). The Recipe of the Three Heavens of the Numinous Treasure combines all five of these ingredients and illustrates through the specificity of its methods the Daoist worldview, in which food, medicine, and magic are rolled up into one:

Five parts of sesame, four parts of pine resin, one part of [Sichuan pepper], three parts dried ginger, and three parts calamus.…A young unmarried man should pound the [ingredients]. Do not change the person. Each should be separately prepared. Carefully sift the five herbs. Each is pounded ten thousand times. The five herbs are each separately placed into red cups. All five cups should be set out in order on a red altar and left in the open air for one clear night.…mix with white honey or white grain-sugar. Afterwards, again pound thirty thousand times into pills the size of a wu tree seed.…At dawn turn towards the sun, prostrate with reverence, and swallow three pills. [Afterwards] say the prayer: ‘I desire to obtain longevity’. At sunset repeat the prostration while facing west…(adapted from Arthur 2013, 233; brackets mine)

Another recipe illustrates how even ingredients that today would be considered food were thought by Daoists to have miraculous efficacy when used in the correct way:

Sesame paste. Take on double liter (dou) of sesame paste and three half-pounds (jin) of scallion heads. On a low flame fry them in oil until the scallions are scorched to a bright yellow color. Strain this to get rid of any sediment. With wine ingest one cup (sheng) daily for one hundred days…your muscles and flesh will fill out and flourish. After two hundred days, the elderly will transform into young people.…After a long time of ingestion you will become a spirit immortal. (Arthur 2013, 235)

Some Daoists practiced a special dietary regimen that eliminated grain (pigu or bigu辟谷), based on theories that grain causes harm to the human body. They used seeds, vegetables, fruits, and herbs to replace grain in the diet. The Taiqing Scripture’s Method of Eliminating Grain (Taiqing jing duangu fa太情经断谷法, from the late sixth century but containing older material, outlines methods for achieving abstinence from agricultural grains such as wheat, millet, and rice, and it serves as another example of a text containing recipes for Daoist practitioners (Kohn 2010, 145–149).

Recipes as Tools of Civilization: The Qimin Yaoshu

In received historical texts, the first major departure of a recipe collection from the context of medicine occurs in a sixth-century agricultural manual. While commonly thought of as an agricultural text (nongshu农书), the Essential Techniques of Civilization (Qimin yaoshu 齐民要术), literally translated as “Essential Techniques for Ordering the People,” represents a milestone in the development of Chinese recipe collections. This comprehensive manual of technical skills was compiled around 540 ce by Jia Sixie贾思勰, a scholar official from the area of present-day Shangdong Province who served as governor of Gaoyang (now Zibo) during the Northern Wei dynasty (Ren 1999, 864). It highlights the central importance of agricultural knowledge as a toolkit used by Chinese households to subsist off the land and to create the conditions for their flourishing. Jia’s work collects in one place the subsistence methods of his time, which were used to produce and process the materials that sustained life on Northern Chinese estates. His book includes information on various aspects of agriculture, sericulture, animal husbandry, food processing, and cooking (Huang 2000, 123–124).

The sections on food in the Qimin yaoshu contain richly detailed descriptions of techniques for making of salt, for fermenting alcoholic beverages, sauces, vinegars, for drying fish and making jerky from meats, as well as other things that today we would consider the domain of industrial food production. There are also extensive sets of recipes for cooked dishes of food, though the organization suggests that Jia Sixie saw food preparation and cooking as integral activities. A sample overview of chapters illustrates the encyclopedic breadth of information on food preparation: dairy products made from cow and sheep’s milk (Ch. 57), roasted meats (Ch. 80), prepared meats (Ch. 81), wheat flour breads and cakes (Ch. 82), cooked millet (Ch. 83), rice noodle (Ch. 84), apricot kernel pudding (Ch. 85), boiled grain (Ch. 86), meatless dishes (Ch. 87), pickled vegetables (Ch. 88), and malt sugar (Ch. 89). A complete translation of the table of contents can be found in Shih Sheng-han’s A Preliminary Survey of the Book Ch’i Min Yao Shu (pages 3–4).

Some of the language, techniques, and ingredients appear archaic from the perspective of modern Chinese culinary practices. The Chinese food historian Shi Shenghan, who annotated and translated to modern Chinese the entirety of the Qimin yaoshu, observes that the text contains many enigmatic foods that we poorly understand today, because their practice has been lost and we have only a few clues embedded in historical materials (Shi 2009, 835). Even foods that can be recreated with confidence produce results that are different from what would today be familiar Chinese cuisine. Endymion Wilkinson, a sinologist with a keen interest in Chinese culinary history, relates how, while living in Beijing, he served his guests dishes based on the Qimin yaoshu recipes, and most people did not think they were eating Chinese food (Wilkinson 2001, 289).

Not all the foods would seem exotic or unfamiliar. Many, in fact, are still widely prepared today, and some are so familiar as to not seem worthy of comment, until we realize that these recipes may be the first publication of foods that have become intimately connected with Chinese culinary practices and cultural identity. For example, the chapter on wheat flour products and cakes has two recipes that deserve comment. The dish shuiyin 水引 (“water-pulled”) refers to a kind of wheat noodle pulled to the thickness of a chopstick, sliced into segments, then stretched to the thickness of garlic chive before being dropped into boiling water. This is likely the first historical recipe for making noodles (Shi 2009, 931; Ren 1999, 864). Another recipe in the same chapter is called jiyazi bing 鸡鸭子饼 (“cake of the child of chickens and ducks”). Eggs are broken into a small bowl, salt is added, and the mixture is dropped into hot oil and fried into a circular “cake.” Could this be the first Chinese recipe for an egg omelette?

The Qimin yaoshu is the first Chinese recipe collection to have circulated widely and over a long period of time. It showcases a broad set of cooking methods, including some that were still new at the time, such as the use of stir-frying (chao 炒) for vegetable dishes and two ways to make leavened wheat pastries. As a widely circulated manual, this information on food preparation helped to establish an ancestral repertoire of techniques that informed the later development of a distinctive Chinese cuisine (Ren 1999, 864). Its influence on culinary practices lasted many centuries and reached as far as Japan.

The Recipe Collection as a Stand-Alone Genre in Song China

Following publication of the Qimin yaoshu, China was reunified under the Sui dynasty (581–618 ce) and achieved a high point of cultural and economic flourishing under the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce). Little remains of food writings composed during this time. We know from titles in catalogs that some intellectuals did make efforts to document food, but only fragments of these writings survived until modern times.

The next major recipe collections to reach us from the depths of Chinese history are from the Song dynasty, when recipe collections garnered enough interest to circulate on their own as a genre of writing. As with the Tang dynasty, Song China was remarkable for its high level of economic prosperity and cultural flourishing. In the Tang-Song transition, aristocratic privilege was largely replaced by a meritocratic bureaucracy, bringing new talent to the capitals and creating a new class of salaried bureaucrats. These bureaucrats and their families arrived from different parts of the empire, mingling with peoples displaced from their homes in the north, as first the Khitan Liao dynasty (907–1125) and then the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234) won land from Song control and pushed the northern Chinese population into a southern retreat.

Affluent and nostalgic for the tastes of home, urban dwellers stimulated the birth of a restaurant culture boasting regional cuisines, first in Bianjing 汴京 (now Kaifeng), the Northern Song (960–1127) capital, and later in Lin’an临安 (now Hangzhou), capital of the Southern Song (1127–1279). Historians know of this urban restaurant culture through such sources as Meng Yuanliao’s A Reminiscence of the Eastern Capital’s Dream of Splendor (Dongjing menghua lu东京梦华录), which records in great detail the culture of Kaifeng before it fell to the Jurchens.

In the new urban culture of Song China, sensibilities shifted. Woodblock print techniques were improved to the point that intellectuals could publish without help from the imperial court. More printed texts circulated than ever before in Chinese history, giving rise to a new print culture that was more permissive and inclusive that that of the late Tang. Intellectuals began to explore as connoisseurs everyday features of the cultural landscape, publishing natural history treatises (pulu谱录) on such specialized topics as bamboo shoots (sunpu笋谱), citrus fruits (jupu橘谱), and crab varieties (xiepu蟹谱), as well as on tea and alcoholic beverages. From within this intellectual milieu emerged the notion of a cookbook, menu, or treatise on food, which in late imperial China would be referred to as shipu 食谱or caipu 菜谱. In the Song, food writing emerged as a legitimate form of intellectual activity and came to stand on its own, outside of agricultural treatises or medical texts. One way that this was achieved was to integrate anecdotes and social values into recipes, creating a literary product that was more than a mere manual for cooking. Song recipe collections speak to a set of tensions that develop when cooking reaches a high level of sophistication: complexity vs. simplicity, artifice vs. the natural, urban vs. rural, haute cuisine vs. commoner fare, etc.

Not everyone in the Song empire had interest in the gustatory delights of the capital. The Vegetable Recipes from Benxin Studio (Benxin zhai shushi pu本心斋蔬食谱) can be read as a condemnation of urban food culture. Its authorship is traditionally attributed to Chen Dasou陈达叟, although evidence in the text itself suggests that Chen Dasou may have merely written down what was dictated to him by Old Man Benxin upon his visit to Benxin’s hermitage (if “Benxin” does not refer to Chen Dasou, himself). Information on the identities of these individuals is lacking, but the text appears to be a product of the Northern Song. Chen Dasou identifies himself as coming from Qingzhang 清漳(镇), a town that during the Southern Song was deep within Jurchen territory. The rural setting is fitting for a collection that presents twenty fully vegetarian dishes of simple and pure ingredients, dishes that were “free of tainting by the smoke and fire of the human realm,” as we are told in the brief introduction. Each dish is listed with an elegant name, a concise explanation, and a sixteen-character ode relating to the dish. The odes are based on Confucian and Daoist literary allusions. The explanations are so spartan that the twenty dishes can be seen as menu items rather than recipes. Boiled strips of tofu dipped into an unspecified flavoring, stewed vegetables, cakes of powdered rice firmed up with steam––the foods are meatless and simple, exemplifying a Confucian love of frugality and a Daoist embrace of nature. Despite the moral stance behind this text, the odes are filled with puns and a short conclusion tells the reader that the playful humor is intended.

The Pure Offerings of Rural Households (Shanjia qinggong 山家清供) of the Southern Song likewise promotes simple rural foods with the intellectual flare of a man of letters (wenren 文人). The compiler, Lin Hong 林洪 (late twelfth to mid-thirteenth century), was a southerner from Quanzhou 泉州 (Fujian). A poet of modest fame, he traveled around the Song empire for many years, visiting prominent intellectuals, sharing meals with them, and writing down recipes (see Nakamura 1995, 20–24). His collection is a personal record of the foods, personalities, and aesthetic moments that he encountered, providing a valuable glimpse onto the food habits of the educated elite living outside of the capital of Lin’an. Most of the dishes are more complex than those of the Benxin zhai shushi pu, but they are likewise predominantly vegetable-based and meatless. The collection is not strictly vegetarian, however, as some recipes are for wild animals such as palm civet, raccoon dog, and deer. Others use crab, fish, mandarin duck, and mutton fat. An ethic of avoiding meat is evident in some of the recipes, but in this regard Lin Hong appears to have been more flexible than some of his hosts. He lists 104 recipes, each with anecdotes telling us where they came from and how they are significant. Many of the dishes contain herbs and roots with therapeutic value, showing that people were in the habit of self-medicating with food. Interestingly, Lin Hong chose to avoid medical language in the title of his recipes, not adding fang 方 or even fa 法 (with one exception for a method for making a grain-based alcoholic beverage) and thereby distancing his recipe collection from the appearance of medical formularies. This may be deliberate on his part: he presents these recipes as dishes to be shared in rural hospitality, not as a diet therapy manual, even though many of the dishes are expressly therapeutic according to his descriptions. From Lin Hong’s anecdotes we learn that his hero is the great Northern Song intellectual Su Shi苏轼 (aka Su Dongpo苏东坡, 1037–1101), who wrote extensively about food and who probably provided Lin Hong with the sense of intellectual license that he needed to undertake this project. The recipes are sufficiently explained for the dishes to be recreated.

Another collection traditionally attributed to the Song period, A Record of Madame Wu’s Cooking (Wushi zhongkui lu吴氏中馈录) is notable for bringing greater precision to recipes by including measurements (Huang 2000, 127). Unlike the Benxin zhai shushi pu and the Shanjia qinggong, this work is without anecdote or literary embellishment. It is simply a collection of recipes, many of which use meat, and has no introduction. Nothing is known about Madame Wu, other than that she lived in Pujiang 浦江 (slightly south of Hangzhou). Historical support for placing the text in the Song period is scanty and the history of the collection is still a point of disagreement among scholars. For example, because several recipes call for soy sauce (jiangyou酱油), some historians doubt that it is a Song work and suspect that it may even date to the early Ming. As late as the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), recipes use a fermented soybean sauce (jiang酱) similar to miso, and liquid soy sauce had not yet become commonplace (Nakamura 1995, 352–353). The extant text contains three sections: twenty-two meat and fish recipes (fuzha脯鲊, “dried meat and salted fish”), thirty-eight vegetable recipes, and fifteen sweets. The structure and wording of the sections suggests that the collection is probably incomplete, having lost sections with recipes for, perhaps, fresh fish and chicken dishes, and soups (Shinoda 1974, 156). Questions of dating aside, the collection gives us good information on the relative sophistication of cooking enjoyed by affluent members of society living near Hangzhou prior to the arrival of New World food products.

Tastes of the Northern Steppe Under the Yuan Dynasty

During the Mongol Yuan dynasty, recipe collecting further evolved in scale while continuing to reflect the trends of previous models. Medical, technical, and aesthetic aspects of food recipes each gained further legitimacy as large collections emerged within a hybrid Mongolian-Chinese cultural environment. Recipe collections of this period display heavy influence from Mongolian food practices. Mongolians held closely to their customary foods such as boiled mutton, despite the availability of Chinese alternatives. What is less clear to historians is the extent to which Chinese populations adopted the Mongolian dishes (see Mote 1977, 208–209, 253–258; Shinoda 1974, 197). Setting aside the problem of how much Mongolian food rubbed off on the Chinese, we can at least say with confidence that the recipe collections produced during the Yuan period would serve as important sources into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), even after Mongol rule had ended (Shinoda 1974, 216–217).

The most influential Yuan recipe collection is the Complete Collection of Essential Arts for Family Life (Jujia biyong shilei quanji居家必用事类全集), hereafter “Jujia biyong”, an encyclopedic manual for the home. Similar in design to the Qimin yaoshu, it is also similar in terms of the long-term impact that it had on other recipe collections. The section on food and drink remained a valued source of recipes in the Ming period. The name of the compiler is not known. Compared with Song recipe collections, the scale of this one is massive: thirty-two food and beverage chapters with recipes for soups, various beverages, fruits and their preserves, alcoholic beverages, vinegars, sauces, fermented beans, vegetable dishes, brined and marinated meat and fish, dried fish, various methods for cooking meat, Chinese Muslim (huihui 回回) foods, Nuchen (ancestors of the Manchu) foods, moist wheat flour foods (noodles), dry wheat flour foods (breads), snacks and pastries, vegetarian dishes, dairy products, and products assembled from starches (Shinoda 1974, 198–216). Many of the recipes come from Mongol and other sources, adding cultural diversity to Chinese cooking repertoires. Yet another value of this work is that it records recipes from the Song period for which the name but not the recipe had appeared in earlier sources (Ren 1999, 874–875).

Begun in the Song but not published until the Yuan period, the Record of Miscellanies (Shilin guangji事林广记) is an encyclopedic anthology of quotations from other works with a notable section on food and drink. The Shilin guangji is valuable for having been compiled in the south of China, in contrast with the northern emphasis of the Jujia biyong. Climatic differences between the arid north and the water-rich south have caused the major patterns of Chinese food culture to always evolve separately in the north and the south. Like the northern Jujia biyong, the Shilin guangji provides recipes for products such as grain-based wines that are otherwise known only by name. The idiosyncrasies of the literary style and poor organization have resulted in this set of recipes garnering relatively less attention from scholars (Shinoda 1974, 218–219).

Presenting a medical approach to food, the Essentials of Diet (Yinshan zhengyao 飮膳正要) integrates the ideas of Chinese diet therapy literature with Mongolian knowledge and dietary practices. Compiled by Hu Sihui 忽思慧 (early fourteenth century), a dietary physician appointed by the Yuan court, the collection contains essays on medical theory concerning diet, sections with recipes, and sections with medical characterizations of various foodstuffs, including, for example, domesticated and wild animals. The entire collection has been admirably translated and analyzed by Paul Buell and Eugene Anderson in their book, A Soup for the Qan.

The Dietary System of the Cloud Forest Hall (Yunlintang yinshi zhidu ji云林堂饮食制度集) is a set of recipes compiled by Ni Zan倪瓒 (1301–1374), an educated Chinese man who by the end of the Yuan had gained fame as a landscape painter. The recipes, just over fifty and without introduction, were collected in or near his hometown of Wuxi无锡 (in present-day Jiangsu), and thus have value for understanding the history of food in this region. For example, there are many recipes for fish, shrimp, crab, and shellfish (and one for jellyfish), but only six are for meat and they are all pork. Mutton is absent. The collection has recipes for wild vegetables and flour products, but no mention of rice or congee, suggesting that a portion of the collection may have been lost (Shinoda 1974, 225–226). What did survive shows a tendency to use sweet flavors, a trend that has continued in the food of the region even to the present (Ren 1999, 875). The collection has been translated to English (Anderson and Mair 2005).

Building Upon the Past in the Ming Dynasty

After many tumultuous years spent wresting power from the Mongol rulers, the culturally Chinese Ming dynasty established a new political order in the fourteenth century. Political tensions continued to trouble Ming society for some time, stifling literary output at the start of the period. Recipe collecting had reached a high level of maturity in the Yuan, so compilers of Ming recipes had a tendency to look back to Yuan models for inspiration, often copying old recipes into new works and then building these up with additional material.

The first major Ming recipe compilation, the Capacity with Humble Chores (Duoneng Bishi 多能鄙事) by one of the ministers who helped found the Ming dynasty, Liu Ji刘基 (1311–1375), is largely extracted from the Yuan Jujia biyong, with very little original work. Similarly, the Profound Book of the Slender Hermit (Quxian shenyin shu臞仙神隐书) by Zhu Quan朱权 (1378–1448), seventeenth son of the founding emperor of the Ming, likewise borrows heavily from the Jujia biyong (Shinoda 1974, 245–247). In 1456, Emperor Daizong of the Ming dynasty even ordered the Yinshan zhengyao carved again to woodblocks for reprinting (Shinoda 1974, 251). Thus, recipe collecting became in the Ming a cumulative tradition, with older works still circulating and later collections often repeating recipes from earlier collections.

Despite the tendency to borrow heavily from predecessors, Ming compilers did sometimes add new recipes alongside the existing ones and Ming authors produced many writings that fill out our picture of Ming food practices. The best descriptive sources include travelogues and popular literature, especially the erotic Ming novel The Golden Lotus (Jinpingmei 金瓶梅), which is overflowing with minutely detailed descriptions of Ming foods. In the field of medicine, Li Shizhen李时珍 (1518–1593) contributed to understanding the therapeutic potentials of foodstuffs as part of his massive revision of knowledge on Chinese medical materials; his Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu本草纲目) was completed in 1578 (Anderson 1988, 105–106; Anderson 2014, 250–251). Literary activities increased in quality and quantity during the sixteenth century, leaving us a rich set of sources for understanding Ming food cultures, even if the underlying motivation behind recipe collecting remained compilation rather than innovation.

With a preface from 1504, the Cultivation of Life in the Song Clan (Songshi zunsheng 宋氏尊生) is the food and beverage section of the family code (jiagui 家規) for a prominent family in Jiangsu. The Songshi zunsheng mostly deals with alcoholic beverages, vinegars, sauces, and fruit preservation, omitting dishes for the table. Showing a similar pattern of borrowing from previous works, it nonetheless contains a wealth of information on local Jiangsu recipes, integrating these with methods from the north of China (Shinoda 1974, 251–252).

The Ideas Left by Yi Ya (Yi ya yiyi 易牙遗意) illustrates the complexity of dating some Chinese recipe collections (for information on Yi Ya, see Sterckx 2011, 74–76). The compilation is attributed to Han Yi韩奕, who is thought to have lived during the end of the Yuan and start of the Ming. The extant text, however, does not have a preface by him, so we do not know when it was completed and began circulating––or even if the attribution is accurate. Zhou Lüjing 周履靖 (n.d.) included it in his large collection of reprints, the Yimen guangdu夷门广读, which was published during the Ming Wanli reign, between 1573 and 1610. Like other Ming recipe compilations, the Yi ya yiyi has some overlap (fifteen out of 155 recipes) with the Jujia biyong, but the phrasing in the recipes is so different as to suggest another source, or sources. On the other hand, the Yi ya yiyi also contains recipes copied directly from the Wushi zhongkui lu (Shinoda 1974, 254–255). Although dating remains a problem, the collection has much historical value and contains many refined and elaborate recipes, such as a recipe for carp, daidong jiangcu yu带冻姜醋鱼, with a total of sixty-seven procedures! The food of this collection represents the cooking of affluent households, and as a collection it stands on its own, rather than constituting part of a larger work (Ren 1999, 876; Shinoda 1974, 258–260).

Perhaps the most representative recipe collection from the Ming period is the Notes on Food, Drink, and Medicines (Yinzhuan fushi jian饮馔服食牋), compiled by Gao Lian 高濂 (1573–1620), a famous dramatist and poet. This is the culinary section of his larger work, the Eight Discourses on the Cultivation of Life (Zunsheng bajian尊生八笺) (Huang and Needham 2000, 130). With sections ranging from conventional foods and beverages to Daoist elixirs, in 432 headings, the collection is extremely rich. Gao Lian frames his recipes by means of an overarching theoretical concern with nourishing life (yangsheng养生), that is, with maximizing one’s vitality through careful use of food and medicine. He makes little distinction between medical and culinary recipes, and he intersperses theoretical statements with the recipes. The section on tea contains no recipes at all, only discussion. This in no way diminishes the value of the collection for culinary use, as reflected in the ninety-one recipes for wild vegetables, the fifty-eight recipes for sweets, the thirty-eight recipes for congee, and so forth. In contrast with the elaborate food of the Yi ya yiyi, this collection reflects a rural and more moderate approach to food, similar to that of the Song-period Shanjia qinggong (Ren 1999, 880–881).

Almost all of Gao Lian’s collection is drawn from earlier works stretching as far back as the Wushi zhongkui lu. There is virtually no original material. As with other compilers, Gao Lian copied recipes without attribution to the original sources, such that his readers would have had no way to know if the recipe was new or old, his original, or something collected elsewhere. Today we would call this plagiarism, but in Ming China this was the common practice for recipe collecting. Without the pioneering research of the Japanese food historian Shinoda Osamu, who took the time to compare recipes across different collections, we might assume more innovation than was actually taking place at the time. Readers of these Chinese recipe collections need to keep in mind that the presence of a recipe in a compilation does not necessarily mean that anyone of the time was preparing it, since it could merely have caught the attention of a scholar poring through a centuries-old recipe collection, and been included on a whim. We do well to remember that recipes are prescriptive, and not descriptive of actual historical practice (Shinoda 1974, 256–257).

That recipes contained within an encyclopedic work such as Gao Lian’s Zunsheng bajian would be copied and not collected anew makes more sense if we consider that such works resemble the Chinese “category book” (leishu类书), a literary genre of encyclopedic anthologies, topically organized. Such works are compilations made from existing sources, not newly authored works. Popular encyclopedias from the mid to late Ming (sixteenth to seventeenth centuries) show this trend as well, providing sections on foods and beverages that copied recipes from pre-existing sources. Examples include the Essential Preparations for Family Life (Jujia bibei居家必备) and the Illustrated Compilation for the Convenience of the People (Bianmin tuzuan 便民図纂). Another popular encyclopedia, the Erudite Topical Compilation (Bowen leizuan博闻类纂), has relatively more historical value for the study of recipes, since it relies less on earlier collections (Shinoda 1974, 260–261).

Integrating New Foods and Flavors in the Qing

Sweet potatoes arrived to Fuzhou, China, by 1593, in the late Ming (Shinoda 1974, 235). Toward the end of the Ming period and into the Qing (1644–1912), various New World crops entered China and were gradually integrated into agricultural practices. The sweet potato, which could grow in areas that rice could not, supported rural populations and came to symbolize the food of the poor. White potatoes gradually became abundant, and tomatoes appeared in the late nineteenth century. Maize became important as animal feed, especially, but also for human consumption. Peanuts provided a new source of protein and oil, and served as a new flavoring. Chili peppers joined other spicy flavorings and became the pepper of choice in several regional cuisines. Over the course of the Qing period, the food supply shifted region by region as agriculturalists adopted the new crops, affecting local eating practices (Anderson 1988, 115–116; Anderson 2014, 247–248).

Under the Manchu government of the Qing dynasty, literary activity flourished. Scholars continued to take interest in writing about food, and compilers of recipes looked to the past for models, as they had in the Ming. The Secrets of Exemplary Foods (Shixian hongmi食宪鸿秘) and Gu Zhong’s顾仲 (n.d.) Small Treatise on Nourishment (Yang xiaolu养小录) both drew upon Gao Lian’s Yinzhuan fushi jian and other earlier works as sources of recipes, while also adding original material. The Shixian hongmi, attributed to Zhu Yizun 朱彝尊 (1629–1709) but thought by some scholars to be the work of Wang Shizhen王士祯 (1634–1711), describes 450 recipes, including some with exotic ingredients such as bear paw and others for vegetarian faux meat dishes (Huang 2000, 130–131; Ren 1999, 885; Shinoda 1974, 325).

One set of recipes from the middle of the eighteenth century is valuable for being personally collected by the compiler, who also tried out the recipes in his own kitchen. The Memoir from the Garden of Awareness (Xingyuan lu醒园录) contains 139 recipes collected by the government official Li Hua’nan 李化楠 during his travels in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang region (eastern China south of the Yangzi River). His son, Li Tiaoyuan李调元 (1734–1803), an accomplished scholar and literary critic, edited the collection, wrote an introduction, and published it for his father. Only one recipe is familiar material that may have come from an earlier collection; otherwise the recipes are original (Huang 2000, 131; Shinoda 1974, 328–330). Thirty-eight recipes are from Sichuan, yet none of these yet utilize the spicy and numbing (mala 麻辣) flavor combination for which Sichuan cuisine is famous today. Chili peppers reached Sichuan in the eighteenth century, but at first the plants were treated as ornamentals and did not immediately catch on as a culinary ingredient (Wilkinson 2015, 457).

The most famous extant collection of recipes from the Qing period––if not for all periods of Chinese history––is by Yuan Mei 袁枚 (1716–1797), who one food historian describes as “the great eighteenth-century poet, literateur, and hedonist, who delighted in beautiful young people of both sexes as well as in food and drink.” He is also compared with the great French gastronomist, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (Anderson 1988, 120). His Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (Suiyuan shidan随园食单), published in 1792, contains a general discussion on cooking practices to avoid or adopt and descriptions of over three hundred recipes. Yuan Mei does not discuss food processing, but instead focuses on food for the table. His collection, translated to vernacular Chinese, is still popular in China today (e.g., Chen Weiming 2010). An English translation is also available as Recipes from the Garden of Contentment: Yuan Mei’s Manual of Gastronomy (2017).

Less well known than Yuan Mei’s work, The Harmonized Cauldron (Tiaoding ji调鼎集) is nonetheless the most comprehensive and magnificent collection to appear in the Qing. Historians disagree on the timing of its appearance. At least part of it may have begun circulating from the middle of the eighteenth century, but other parts do not seem to have been known until a century later. Some recipes are identical with ones in the Suiyuan shidan, raising questions regarding which compiler borrowed from the other. Anonymous and mysterious, the collection is also massive, describing about 2,700 recipes, including many on food-processing techniques. Despite its size, its organization is clear and allows easy searching based on the main ingredient. It includes recipes from a broad geographic range that includes most of eastern China, as well as Guangdong, Henan, Shaanxi, and the northeast provinces (Huang 2000, 131; Ren 1999, 889).

Modern Resources on Chinese Recipes

Recipe collecting in the Qing and post-imperial China produced an abundance of publications, which for lack of space cannot all be covered here. Notable trends after the Qing period include an interest in home cooking and also some vegetarian recipe collections, such as the Brief Outline of Vegetarian Foods (Sushi shuolüe素食说略) compiled by Xue Baochen薛宝辰 (1850–1926).

This survey of recipe collecting in China has touched on the major works of Chinese culinary history, but has left out some specialized genres, such as collections dealing with wine (jiupu酒谱), tea (chapu 茶谱), and congees (zhoupu 粥谱). Also passed over are texts on dietetics that fall more on the medical than culinary side of recipe collecting, and recipes embedded in the published writings of prominent intellectuals, such as Su Shi (1037–1101) of the Northern Song.

Several modern publications are especially helpful for the study of Chinese recipes. The publisher Zhongguo shangye chubanshe中国商业出版社issued in the 1980s some well-edited reprints of historical recipe collections, under the series title Zhongguo pengren guji congkan中国烹饪古籍丛刊. Some of the volumes in this series include translation into modern Mandarin Chinese and extensive notes on the original text. A useful overview of all aspects of Chinese cooking that includes a section with historical recipes is the Chinese Food Canon (Zhongguo shijing中国食经), a corporate work from 1999 with Ren Baizun 任百尊 as chief editor. This work presents a selection of famous recipes for stews, meat, and fish dishes first by historical period (pp. 341–397) and then by geographical region (pp. 397–482). A second selection of recipes covers starch-based dishes such as noodles and breads, first by historical period (pp. 483–503) and then by region (pp. 503–583). These recipes include examples from some of China’s minority groups. A reference work with an even larger selection of reproduced recipes is the Dictionary of Chinese Cooking (Zhongguo pengren cidian中国烹饪词典), a corporate work with Xiao Fan萧帆as chief editor. In addition to functioning as a dictionary, it also lists around five thousand recipes by historical period, as well as over four hundred recipes from Chinese minority groups (Wilkinson 2015, 464–465). A collection of celebrated recipes that is more practical than scholarly is the 2008 Dictionary of Famous Chinese Dishes (Zhongguo mingcai cidian 中国名菜辞典), edited by Li Zhaoxia 李朝霞, which contains about three thousand recipes organized by major ingredient.

Further Reading 

  • Anderson, E. N. (1990). The food of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Anderson, E. N. (2014). Food and environment in early and medieval China. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Anderson, E. N., & Mair, Victor. (2005). Ni Zan, Cloud Forest Hall collection of rules for drinking and eating. In Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, & Paul R. Goldin (Eds.), Hawai’i reader in traditional Chinese culture (pp. 444–455). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Arthur, Shawn. (2013). Early Daoist dietary practices: Examining ways to health and longevity. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  • Buell, Paul D., & Anderson, E. N. (2010). A soup for the Qan: Chinese dietary medicine of the Mongol Era as seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan zhengyao: Introduction, translation, commentary, and Chinese text (2nd Rev. Ed). Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.
  • Chang, Kwang-chih. (Ed.). (1977). Food in Chinese culture: Anthropological and historical perspectives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Freeman, Michael. (1977). Sung. In Kwang-chih Chang & E. N. Anderson (Eds.), Food in Chinese culture: Anthropological and historical perspectives (pp. 141–192). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Harper, Donald J. (1997). Early Chinese medical literature: The Mawangdui medical manuscripts. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Huang, Hsing-Tsung. (2000). Biology and biological technology: Fermentations and food science (Vol. 6, Part V). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kohn, Livia. (2010). Daoist dietetics: Food for immortality. Dunedin, FL: Three Pines Press.
  • Lo, Vivienne, & Barrett, Penelope. (2005). Cooking up fine remedies: On the culinary aesthetic in a sixteenth-century Chinese Materia Medica. Medical History, 49(4), 395–422.
  • Mote, Frederick W. (1977). Yüan and Ming. In Kwang-chih Chang (Ed.), Food in Chinese culture: Anthropological and historical perspectives (pp. 193–258). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Nakamura Takashi 中村喬. (1995). Chūgoku no shokufu 中国の食譜. (594). Tokyo: Heibonsha.
  • Ren Baizun 任百尊. (Ed.). (1999). Zhongguo shijing 中国食经. Shanghai: Shanghai wenhua chubanshe.
  • Shinoda, Osamu 篠田統. (1974). Chūgoku shokumotsu shi 中国食物史. Tokyo: Shibata Shoten.
  • Shi Shenghan 石聲漢, & Jia Sixie 賈思勰. (2009). Qimin yaoshu jin shi 齊民要術今釋. Beijing: Zhonghua shu ju.
  • Shih Shenghan 石聲漢. (1958). A preliminary survey of the book Ch’i Min Yao Shu. Peking: Science Press.
  • Sterckx, Roel. (Ed.). (2005). Of tripod and palate: Food, politics and religion in traditional China. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Sterckx, Roel. (2011). Food, sacrifice, and sagehood in early China. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Waley-Cohen, Joanna. (2007). The quest for perfect balance: Taste and gastronomy in Imperial China. In Paul Freedman (Ed.), Food: The history of taste (pp. 98–133). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Wilkinson, Endymion P. (2001). Chinese culinary history. China Review International, 8(2), 285–304.
  • Wilkinson, Endymion P. (2015). Chinese history: A new manual (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
  • Xiao Fan 萧帆. (Ed.). Zhongguo pengren cidian 中国烹饪辞典. Shanghai: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe.
  • Yao Weijun 姚伟钧: Liu Pubing 刘朴兵: & Ju Mingku 鞠明库. (2011). Zhongguo yinshi dianji shi 中国饮食典籍史. Zhao Rongguang 赵荣光. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe.
  • Yuan Mei 袁枚. (2017). Recipes from the garden of contentment: Yuan Mei’s manual of gastronomy (Sean J.S. Chen, Trans.). Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.