The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan’s terrifying reputation extended to the atmosphere in his banqueting hall, where from a raised dais the great man – so large that he could barely stand up by his mid-60s – loomed over a noisy vassal throng. The task of feeding Kublai’s prodigious appetite fell to a select group of noblemen whose noses and mouths were stuffed – claimed Marco Polo – with "fine napkins of silk and gold", lest a stray breath or snort contaminate his victuals.
Displays of power
So one can readily imagine the quality of the silence that must have descended upon this scene when a group of visitors from a far-off western region by Lake Baikal politely declined the great honour of mutton from Kublai’s own table – on account of his food being "unclean". Mongols killed their animals by piercing their sides and thrusting in a hand to grasp and stop the heart, preventing the blood from flowing away and so preserving it for the feast.
These visitors were Muslim, and such meat was very far from halal. Henceforth, announced an infuriated Kublai, anyone failing to kill their sheep in the proper Mongol way would themselves be slaughtered. Such pronouncements were displays of power (and pique) rather than rules likely to be followed to the letter. But moments like these show how food – and the meals, manners and morals that attend it – can offer an enticing way into a country’s history and culture.
This is the premise of Jonathan Clements’ The Emperor’s Feast. Tracking the development of Chinese cuisine across thousands of years of recorded history, the book tells us a great deal about China’s regions and religions, its natural environment, its political highs and lows, and the lives of its people.
We encounter, early on, the discerning and balancing of five flavours – sweet, sour, bitter, acrid and salty – to match the five elements of traditional Chinese philosophy. Food, drink and philosophy later intermingle in Chinese Buddhism, yielding decades of angst-ridden discussion about when it might be acceptable to put meat on the menu and helping in time to popularise tofu and tea.
Neither has an entirely appetising backstory. The word "tofu" comes, via Japanese, from the Chinese word for "rotten beans". And the first cup of tea is said to have been made by the Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma, who became so frustrated at his own drowsiness during meditation that he ripped off his eyelids and brewed them in a cauldron of hot water. Monks did indeed drink tea (made from actual tea leaves, not eyelids), in order to help them stay awake.
Politics is, at its most elemental, about food, and Clements shows us how. An adviser to the founding emperor of the Han dynasty warned him that feeding the people was a sacred duty. Mao Tse-tung infamously failed in that endeavour, plunging China into famine.
China’s international relationships, too, have long had food at their core – and nothing could stop the proliferation of "Chinatowns" across the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact the ever-canny Henry Kissinger confessed, following a visit to China in the summer of 1971, that after a dinner of Peking duck he would "sign anything".
Moments and nuggets like these are where The Emperor’s Feast most sumptuously delivers. It is not quite the "history of China in 12 meals" that its subtitle proclaims, it does not feature 12 distinct "meals" in the sense of turning-point historical occasions, and it is a little light – perhaps sensibly so – on big-picture interpretation.
The Daily Telegraph