Chinese cuisine

Food bloggers revive ancient Chinese dishes


Digital Existence is a new series where we explore the impact of technology and the internet on the lives of everyday people in China and beyond.

that of Amanda Li cooking video series is an informative walk through millennia of Chinese food history, moving from ancient backyards to modern kitchens to recreate ancient Chinese dishes. Like many other emerging food vloggers, Li uses online video sharing platforms to document his culinary creations and discoveries.

Li “travels back in time” between ancient and modern times in his cooking videos. Screenshot via Bilibili

In an episode released in January 2020, she makes a noodle soup called bo tuo (馎 饦), a typical breakfast dish for monks in China from the 5th to the 6th century CE.

The recipe has been documented in Qimin Yaoshu (齐 民 要 术), the most fully preserved collection of ancient Chinese agricultural texts, compiled during the Northern Wei Dynasty.

The video itself is part of Li’s 12-episode series What did the ancients eat. Li, one of the most popular food vloggers in China, with more than 2 million subscribers on Chinese streaming site Bilibili, recreates a dish of ancient China in each episode.

ancient chinese cuisine amanda li noodle soup

Li makes a noodle soup called bo tuo, a common breakfast dish for monks in China from the 5th to the 6th century CE. Screenshot via Bilibili

If you didn’t already know, Chinese cuisine is one of the oldest culinary cultures in the world, dating back to in the first millennium BC. Interestingly, you can still find old recipes on menus today, such as the world famous Peking Duck, which originated 600 years ago, and the Song Sao Fish from Hangzhou (西湖醋鱼), which dates back to the 11th century AD. However, many other dishes have disappeared over the years and only exist in ancient books.

However, food vloggers like Li are tapping into these archives and drawing inspiration from literature and television series in an attempt to revive long-forgotten dishes while telling the stories behind them.

Revive old tastes

Li has collected over a dozen cookbooks from ancient China, in addition to poems and other literary texts that mention the food of famous poets Su Shi and Du Fu.

She says that many people think ancient food is simple and straightforward due to the limited number of raw materials and primitive cooking techniques. However, through her culinary experiences, she found that people in ancient times developed advanced cooking skills, a discovery that she tries to incorporate into the video series.

“I do my best to use original recipes and raw materials,” Li says. “The purpose of my video series is to show the public what people actually ate in ancient China.”

Li recreates lu bei chicken (炉 ç„™ 鸡) in one episode, a simple chicken dish cooked with rice wine and vinegar, the recipe of which she found in an old cookbook titled Wu’s recipes (吴氏 中 馈 录). In the video, she dresses in Hanfu, as if she is actually Chief Wu.

In an explanation showing her incredible attention to detail, she tells us that she wanted to use an old-fashioned utensil called xuanzi (镟 子), which is mentioned briefly in the book, to ensure that the chicken has been cooked in the most authentic way. Unfortunately, the cookbook did not explain what xuanzi is, and Li was forced to peruse the books and archives in the museum for a more accurate and detailed description of the object.

It turned out to be an alcohol heater, as Li explains in her video showing a photo of xuanzi in a Ming Dynasty textbook she found.

ancient chinese food amanda li xuanzi

In a Ming Dynasty elementary school textbook, Li found a drawing of xuanzi. Screenshot via Bilibili

ancient chinese food amanda li xuanzi alcohol

Pour alcohol into the xuanzi, which floats on hot water, to warm it up. Screenshot via Bilibili

The utensil is still used today in some parts of the country, but mainly as a metal pot for making tofu.

Li shares his journey to discover and learn more about xuanzi in his video. Explaining the benefit of her finding more information about the utensil, she says, “By finding out if a utensil exists, I can learn a lot about the history and culture.”

Chinese Dramatic TV Dinners

Fans of food and TV shows will know that Chinese historical dramas often feature lavish multi-course royal banquets. For example, the drama of 2018 Ruyi’s royal love at the palace includes so many food scenes that the actors joked about the time they spent memorizing the names of all the dishes.

Of course, you won’t see the actors making these dishes from scratch, so food vloggers stepped in to fill that void, teaching curious minds about these traditional dishes and how to prepare them.

Another creator of Bilibili food, Chen Cheng, is inspired from some of his favorite childhood TV shows, such as the 2009 Hong Kong TV series Beyond the realm of consciousness and the Chinese drama of 2011 Palace.

His most popular video is a recreation of a lotus pastry featured in Beyond the realm of consciousness. To make the dessert look like the dish featured in the show, she tops it with golden hawkers.

Chen Cheng fry his pasty creation in hot oil. GIF via Bilibili

Hao Zhenjiang, also known as Chef Hao, is an award-winning chef who showcased his culinary creations at Chinese state banquets. In 2019, he joined the hordes of online food vloggers and brought his culinary dreams to video streaming platforms: recreating dishes from Dream of the red room, one of the four great Chinese classical novels.

Dream of the red room follows the rise and fall of a wealthy aristocratic clan during the Qing Dynasty and provides insight into China’s social and political structures at the time. It also details the food and drink consumed by the elites during this time.

Chain of Hao, Red Chamber Feast (红楼 宴 Honglou Yan), was created on Bilibili with the help of producer Wang Jing in 2019 and has attracted over 150,000 subscribers.

“You can’t talk about traditional Chinese culture and food without mentioning Dream of the red room. Some statistics show that food-related content is one-third of the book, ”the production team behind Red Chamber Feast told RADII.

Hao began learning to prepare the dishes mentioned in the novel 30 years ago when he did an internship at a restaurant in Beijing. He has since dedicated his life to recreating all the dishes of Dream of the red room.

“Red Chamber Feast is where we present traditional Chinese culture to the world,” the production team said. The channel shows the process of making traditional dishes from the novel and TV adaptations and explains the cultural implications of these dishes.

old chinese kitchen red room

In a video, Chef Hao recreates an eggplant dish described in detail by the author of the classic novel. Screenshot via Bilibili

As a result, the production team finds their videos to be great learning resources. Among those who have commented on the channel to show their appreciation for the videos, there are teachers who use them to help their students understand the novel better, high school students and viewers encouraged to read or re-read the book.

“Our fans also suggest recipes and stories from the novel. [for us to film] in the comments. They also discuss the content there. We have learned a lot from our subscribers, ”says the team behind the channel, adding that the internet has provided young Chinese people with a unique way to learn more about traditional culture.

“Video has become a new vector of culture. It is convenient for more and more young people to participate in [learning and sharing culture], specifies the production team.

A Song Dynasty Food story

Chu Qiu (social media manager), an e-commerce businesswoman based in Hangzhou, launched a Bilibili channel in 2020 dedicated to the recreation of the traditional cuisine of the Song Dynasty. This time in history offers a collection of culinary and culinary arts, such as tea ceremonies.

“[Tea ceremonies] are a fantastic – romantic – way to make and drink tea, ”says Chu Qiu. “Although it was complicated and long, the Song emperors and scholars loved to challenge each other for dou cha. ”

Food vlogger

Chu Qiu is an e-commerce businesswoman and food blogger based in Hangzhou. Image via Chu Qiu

Dou cha (斗 茶, or “tea fight” in English) was a popular activity during the Song Dynasty, where people competed to make the best tea with the finest foam on top, the brightest color and the best tea. better taste. You could even contextualize it as an old barista competition.

To learn more, Chu Qiu visited Jinshan Temple – the birthplace of dou cha – in Hangzhou, the 12th-century capital of the Southern Song Dynasty and the current provincial capital of Zhejiang Province. She spent three months learn and document the tea ceremony the.

Chu Qiu says she favors recipes with stories, like seasonal dishes from memory The capital of the east (东京 梦华 录) and cookbook Shanjia Qinggong (山 家 清 供), both written during the Song Dynasty.

In one of his most popular videos, which won over 140,000 views, Chu Qiu recreated a multi-course Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner from the Song Dynasty. As part of this process, she selected recipes from books, bought raw materials from local vendors, brewed Toso liqueur (å±  苏 é…’) with Chinese herbs, and made noodle soup.

Chu Qiu’s delicious and traditional New Years Eve dinner. GIF via Bilibili

Even though many of the dishes featured in her videos no longer exist, she is happy to see that some recipes can still be found in parts of modern China.

“I sometimes see people say that they saw certain dishes in their hometown, most of them from Guangdong or Fujian province,” says Chu Qiu. “These are the times when I realize that the legacy of traditional food culture is being kept alive.”

Video streaming platforms like Bilibili play a vital role in this process, helping passionate Chinese foodies to share their knowledge and research with a wider audience than ever before. Chu Qiu believes that the Internet will become even more essential for preserving and connecting people, their culture and their history.

“So many people are launching their own channels, and even more are consuming digital media,” she says. “My experience with the Internet will help me share my ideas for creative cooking with more people. “

Cover image courtesy of Amanda Li


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