Gluttons and Gourmands: Yuan Mei

March 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Like many of his Enlightenment-era contemporaries in France and England, Yuan Mei (袁枚: 1716 – 1798) was an ambitious polymath, by turns a civil servant, renowned poet, teacher, and gastronome. Born in Hangzhou, China, during the height of the Qing Dynasty, Yuan Mei quickly passed the scholarly examinations that ensured advancement in China’s rigorous civil service system.  (The recent hue and cry over the impact of standardized testing might make you think that this is a recent issue, but anxiety over testing and educational outcomes dates back thousands of years to the imperial examination system.)

Though he passed his first exam at age 11 and earned the highest academic degree (chin-shih) at age 23, his rise through the Qing bureaucracy was ultimately stifled by his failure to learn the Manchu language of the dynasty’s leaders. However, he apparently did well enough as a magistrate in the Jiangsu province to retire at a relatively young age to pursue his multitudinous set of interests from a cosseted place in his new home, a garden in Nanking known as Sui-yüan, or the Garden of Contentment. In Chinese antiquity, gardens were idealized as recreations of the natural world designed to foster self-cultivation and refinement, and Yuan hosted literary gatherings, students, and visits from leading thinkers and artists of the day at his estate.


In his Garden of Contentment, Yuan lived the life of a celebrated scholar-gentleman, displaying a curious and far-ranging mind; he was a leading poet of his day, traveled widely, wrote ghost stories, painted, authored funerary inscriptions to ensure a comfortable life, and despite his reputation for hedonism, was an early proponent of expanded educational opportunities for women. But in addition to his more widely known individualist poetry, Yuan’s name now lives on as a food critic and arbiter of cooking technique.

Despite the fact that he never cooked dishes himself, Yuan created a cookbook, Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (Suiyuan Shidan), that remains a curious and wonderful mixture of epicurean philosophy, opinions on ingredients and techniques, and a treatise on the proper approach to cooking. For more than 40 years, he collected recipes from his travels across China and recorded in sometimes too-meticulous detail the finer points of a lifetime of banquets and dinner parties. Upon tasting something that tickled his fancy, Yuan would quiz the chef and try to tease out the cook’s secrets. In spite of a world of rich and complex dishes available to a gentleman of the era, Yuan’s tastes tended toward simpler, sometimes even ascetic pleasures.

I always say that chicken, pork, fish and duck are the original geniuses of the board, each with a flavor of its own, each with its distinctive style; whereas sea-slug and swallows-nest (despite their costliness) are commonplace fellows, with no character – in fact, mere hangers-on. I was once asked to a party by a certain Governor, who gave us plain boiled swallows-nest, served in enormous vases, like flower pots. It had no taste at all…. If our host’s object was simply to impress, it would have been better to put a hundred pearls into each bowl. Then we would have known that the meal had cost him tens of thousands, without the unpleasantness of being expected to eat what was uneatable.

After such opulent feasts, Yuan later wrote, he preferred returning home to dine on a homely meal of congee, his appetite sated at last.

Western writers from French Orientalist Camille Imbault-Huart to British author Fuschia Dunlop have described Yuan Mei as a Chinese Brillat-Savarin. And his epigrams and careful instructions to the chefs and readers that followed him are biting but apt, much like the Frenchman’s Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste).

Thanks to more recent efforts to bring his gastronomical wisdom to a wider audience, his writing offers pearls of wit as well as impassioned entreaties to use fresh and locally sourced ingredients.

“A dish’s seasonings are like a woman’s clothing and jewelry. Even the most beautiful of women will look ugly when dressed in rags.”

“Foods are like people. They all have their own characteristics, and these must be embraced.”

“There are five flavors under heaven. Don’t bore your guests with just one.”

“A table of good food is 60 percent chef and 40 percent the person who bought the ingredients.”

“The more you pay for an ingredient, the more of it you should use.”

Some have placed Yuan Mei in a pantheon of the four great gastronomes of classical China. (The other members of the quartet—Su Dongpo (1037-1101), Ni Zan (1301-74), and Xu Wei (1521-93)—were also part of the learned, literati-scholar class.) But despite the long view of history, his pithy insights and reflections about cooking, and especially about the importance of appreciating the pure, natural flavors of ingredients, ring as true today as they did at the height of the Qing Dynasty.


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