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Food and Drink in Sung Dynasty China

What did people eat and drink during imperial Sung Dynasty China? Did they really enjoy human flesh?

Chinese cuisine is based on peasant cooking: for thousands of years, families have been struggling to put nourishing food on the table in conditions of famine, drought, earthquake and warfare. Consequently, just about everything than can be eaten was eaten – Chinese have very few taboos about what they enjoy eating, which is a fairly sure sign of hard times in the past. Since China occupies such a wide area of land, with great diversity of land cover and climate types, that means there is an almost unparalleled range of cereals, plants and vegetables available to Chinese cooks.

While the profusion of different items makes for an enormous range of culinary experiences, the cooking styles are comparatively few. Common spices used in the Sung period are, as they are still today, pimento, garlic, soy sauce and ginger. Whether stir fried, grilled, deep fried or steamed, ingredients are usually accompanied by some kind of combination of these common spices and condiments. That includes goose, pig, snails, dogs, mutton and two-legged mutton. Yes, the desperate times of some disaster led to cannibalism which inspired some people to become gourmets of human flesh and, in the Sung capital of Hangchow, there were some restaurants which specialized in providing human flesh. It is said that dishes featuring female flesh were different in taste than male flesh and there was certainly a big difference between tasty young flesh and the leathery meat from old people.

However, the majority of people fed three times a day on a diet of rice, pork and dried fish. These could be provided in the form of dumplings, ravioli or noodles in the interest of variety or mixed and fried with vegetables of whatever kind was available. No part of any animal was neglected – Marco Polo (whoever he might really have been) observed that Chinese people did not disdain any part and held no part either inedible or inappropriate. Visitors today are often surprised to be offered the beaks or feet of chicken and other birds.

Most people drank tea, as often as they could since boiling the water to make the tea was a sensible way to make the water safe to drink. An alternative beverage was rice wine, often spiced in a variety of ways to reflect local tastes. A few places produced wine made from grapes and, unlike the earlier Tang dynasty, this was no longer reserved for the Emperor’s table. However, it was not very popular beyond a few aristocratic circles. Still, unlike the poor people, the aristocrats could enjoy their wine at banquets of 40 or more courses, each one laid out in order in cooking texts of the time. Then as now, food could be used as a way of demonstrating worldly success and, indeed, status and face.

For more details, see Jacques Gernet’s Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-76 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), translated by H.M. Wright.

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