On one level, I hate to be provided with incomplete information, but on another I view it as a challenge to come up with the missing data. An example will explain what I mean: a few years ago, I read that seven metals were known in antiquity, but the author neglected to enumerate what these metals were. Consequently, I set about working out the list for myself (using the internet is too easy and is certainly no challenge).
Gold was probably known to prehistoric societies, because it occurs in its native form (i.e., as pure metal) in streams and rivers; copper also occurs in native form and with tin is used to make the alloy bronze; silver is referred to in the biblical book of Genesis; lead was produced in Egypt as early as 3500 BC; and without iron there would have been no Iron Age. But that is only six metals. What was the seventh? Cinnabar (mercury sulphide) has also been known since the Stone Age, although it was probably used principally as a colouring agent in pottery, but mercury is easily extracted by heating, and it also occasionally occurs in native form. However, brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) was produced by the Romans for use in coinage and jewellery, having been produced accidentally, like bronze, at least two millennia earlier. Unfortunately, that brings the total to eight, so it is likely that the now forgotten author got it wrong. Alternatively, perhaps mercury was discounted because it is liquid under normal conditions and is therefore not a ‘real’ metal.
At this point, you may be wondering what all this has to do with my recent visit to Beijing. Here is the explanation: while checking out possible eating options in the neighbourhood of our hotel, we came across a Szechuanese restaurant. We were looking for somewhere to sample traditional Pekingese dumplings, so I picked up a promotional leaflet for future reference. Inside, I came across the following statement: “Sichuan cookery is one of the eight well-known Chinese cuisines”.
Now you see the problem. What are the other seven? The leaflet didn’t say. As with the metals of antiquity, it is easy to add the first few to the list: Cantonese, Shanghainese, Pekingese; but then it becomes harder. The four listed so far are distinct in style and ingredients, and other regional cuisines are too similar to these main archetypes to be considered completely separate. For example, there are many Chiu Chow restaurants in Hong Kong, but this style, which originates in the city of Shantou (formerly known as Swatow) in eastern Guangdong province, is only subtly different to Cantonese. I’ve eaten in a Hunanese restaurant in Hong Kong, but from that brief impression the food is similar to that of Sichuan. The Mongolian hot pot is a popular winter dish in Hong Kong, but I’ve no idea what else originates in that region, and Hainan chicken is the only dish I’ve sampled that comes from the large island off China’s south coast.
Anyway, I’ve managed to come up with eight, although whether I’ve listed the eight that the anonymous author of the Szechuanese restaurant’s leaflet had in mind is unlikely. Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of Chinese food than mine can come up with a more authoritative list.