Is there a clear continuum in Chinese cooking from ancient traditions to contemporary styles, or do you have the same sort of thing as in Europe where large-scale dynastic change often shifted how the palate was defined?
It’s a real mixture. There are some things that are stunningly continuous in Chinese history. For example, there’s a text from the third century BC called The Root of Tastes, written by a merchant called Lu Buwei. Lu records how the legendary chef Yi Yin lectured his king on cookery in the 16th century BC. The way Yi Yin describes the arts of flavour and the control of fire is something that’s still applicable today …. So you have some culinary techniques that go back more than 2000 years, for example the use of fermented soy products to bring flavour to food.
But then you also have massive historical shifts. One of the key moments in this respect was the late Ming, early Qing dynasty, when you had the arrival of new world food that transformed cuisines all over the world. In the case of China, the arrival of potatoes and sweet potatoes via Portuguese traders was one of the reasons that the nation was able to grow, because these foodstuffs made possible the cultivation of mountainous regions. Similarly, the chilli was first seen in China in the 16th century when it arrived in the eastern ports with the Portuguese traders. Inhabitants of the eastern provinces didn’t really develop a taste for it, but it found its way along the Yangtze to Hunan and Sichuan. It fitted in with the cosmologies of these regions, because there’s the idea in Chinese medicine that when the climate is very damp you need to eat heating foods to redress the balance of the body. In the past the Hunanese and Sichuanese had used things like ginger and other herbs, but suddenly the chilli appeared and suited them perfectly.