Cooking up Fine Remedies: On the Culinary Aesthetic in a Sixteenth-Century Chinese Materia Medica

Cooking up Fine Remedies: On the Culinary Aesthetic in a Sixteenth-Century Chinese Materia Medica

By Vivienne Lo and Penelope Barrett

Medical History, Vol. 49:4 (2005)

Introduction: In sixteenth-century Europe, Thomas Cogan (1545–1607), Andrew Boorde (1490–1549) and Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577–1644) ranged themselves on opposing sides in a debate as to the value of the arts of the kitchen for the learned physician. For those physicians committed to Galen’s therapeutics, a correct daily regimen was essential preventive medicine. Boorde believed that “A good coke is halfe a physycyon. For the chefe physycke (the counseyll of a physycyon excepte) doth come from the kytchyn”, and Cogan referred to “cunning Cookes, or to the learned Physitian, who is or ought to be a perfect Cooke in many points”. For the Helmontians, who preferred a medical system based on the chemical efficacy of simples, “the huckstery of the kitchin” was the base recourse of physicians “destitute of remedies and knowledge”.

Meanwhile in Hubei province, central China, the physician and naturalist Li Shizhen (1518–1593) was finding satisfaction and status in compiling a materia medica with a distinctive culinary aesthetic. Though many basic medical interventions were beneath the Chinese scholar physician, whose physical contact with his patient might be limited to taking the pulse, experimentation with remedies and recipes was well within the remit of the élite practitioner. Of the 1,898 drugs and 11,096 prescriptions in Li Shizhen’s monumental Bencao gangmu (Systematic Materia Medica), he claims to have personally collected a total of 8,161, many of which demonstrate appreciation and flair for fine food. But Li Shizhen was no menial kitchen empiric.

The pursuit of zhi wei (perfect flavour, or “sapor”) was a key to social and political mastery in China—on the one hand as an analogy for good governance, and on the other to nourish the sage-ruler’s own body as a conduit for Heaven’s will. Lüshi chunqiu (Mr Lü’s Spring and Autumn), an encyclopaedia compiled under the auspices of Lü Buwei (290–235 BCE), minister to the King of Qin, tells the story of one Yi Yin . The King of Qin himself was destined to become first emperor of China in 221 BCE, and Lü Buwei was therefore at the epicentre of power in the third century BCE. Yi Yin is a semi-legendary figure, often described as a chef, who became minister to the first king of the Shang (1600–1045 BCE) on account of his culinary finesse. After engaging Yi Yin as an advisor, the sage ruler Tang performed a ritual purification with a burning torch and smeared his new recruit with the blood of a sacrificial pig. The next day in an inaugural speech, Yi Yin explained how, through delicate blending of the five sapors and feats of culinary alchemy, he could achieve zhi wei, a skill he likened to the “subtle arts of archery and horsemanship, the products of mixing Yin and Yang”. For “when the inner self is complete, the [position of] Son of Heaven is complete. When the [position of] Son of Heaven is complete, the perfect sapors are supplied.”

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