Friday, 30 April 2010

incomplete lists

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.


  1. Most people only go to Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong/Macau/Guangzhou/Shenzhen anyway.

    The traditional eight are: Anhui(安徽菜), Cantonese(广东菜), Fujian(福建菜), Hunan(湖南菜), Jiangsu(江苏菜), Shandong(山东菜), Sichuan(四川菜), and Zhejiang(浙江菜).

    Cantonese cuisine is straight-forward enough. Chaozhou and Hainan would be part of it, I would think.

    Shanghainese cuisine seems to be a mixture of Zhejiang and Jiangsu influences, characterized by salty, 'drunken' flavors, and use of seafood. ('Drunken' meaning ingredients were soaked in wine, vinegar or something else.)

    Pekingnese cuisine is a comstituient of Shandong cuisine, that on its own, has distinctive dishes like the duck. Shandong as a whole, though, has a very vegetarian palate, consiting of grains, vegetables, peanuts and vinegar. I think Mongolian hotpot has nothing to do with this, so I'm lost on that one.

    Hunanese and Szechuan are very distinctive, I remember my mother teaching me this. Hunanese are famous for making food 'dry hot', and Szechuan cuisine is 'spicy and numbing', if I should use the direct translations for the terms we Chinese use. It's hard to explain, but think of it like... Hunanese chefs use spices that produce a 'pure' hot taste, while Szechuan cuisine use more ingredients with their chili peppers, and it usually tastes more fiery than the Hunanese.

    Fujian and Anhui both seem to be caught right in between the other six, but as one who's grown up in a Chinese family, I can actually make out subtle differences between them, just as an English man or an American will know where food comes from in their different counties and states, once I take a look at some pictures of what they traditionally serve.

    Here's a forum that shows a lot more pictures of what food belongs where. Wikipedia, of course, provides more concise information.

  2. Thanks Michael. Of course, it occurs to me that having precisely eight different cuisines is no coincidence but is connected to the lucky properties of the number.

    The reason for having precisely seven metals is similar: coinciding with the so-called ‘seven stars’ (i.e., Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) all of which are visible to the naked eye and are the origin of the ‘magical’ properties of that number in the West. (Zinc is not one of the seven.)


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