Digital Existence is a new series in which we examine how technology and the internet are affecting the lives of people in China and beyond.
Amanda Lis Cooking video series is an informative walking tour through China’s millennia of food history, going from ancient sculleries to modern kitchens to recreate ancient Chinese dishes. Like many other emerging food vloggers, Li uses online video sharing platforms to document her culinary creations and discoveries.
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 6th centuries AD.
The recipe was documented in Qimin Yaoshu (齐 民 要 术), the most fully preserved collection of ancient Chinese agrarian texts, compiled during the Northern Wei Dynasty.
The video itself is part of Li’s 12-part series What did the ancients eat?. Li, one of the most popular food vloggers in China, with more than 2 million followers On the Chinese streaming site Bilibili, each episode recreates a dish from ancient China.
If you didn’t already know, Chinese cuisine is one of the oldest food cultures in the world, dating back to to the first millennium BC Chr.. Interestingly enough, you can still find some old recipes on the menus today, such as the world-famous Peking duck, which originated 600 years ago, and the Song Sao fish (西湖醋鱼) from Hangzhou, which dates from the 11th century AD. originates. However, many other dishes have disappeared over the years and only exist in old books.
Food vloggers like Li, however, dive into these archives and take inspiration from literature and TV dramas to revive long-forgotten dishes while telling the stories behind them.
Reviving old tastes
Li has collected more than a dozen cookbooks from ancient China, in addition to poems and other literary pieces that mention food by famous poets such as Su Shi and Du Fu.
She says that due to limited raw materials and primitive cooking techniques, many people think of old food plainly and simply. However, through her culinary experiments, she discovered that ancient people developed advanced cooking skills, a finding that she incorporates into the video series.
“I try my best to use original recipes and raw materials,” says Li. “The purpose of my video series is to show the audience what people in ancient China actually ate.”
Li creates lu at Chicken (炉 焙 鸡) in one episode, a simple chicken dish with rice wine and vinegar, she found the recipe for it in an old cookbook with the title Wu’s recipes (吴氏 中 馈 录). In the video, she dresses in Hanfu as if she were actually head chef Wu.
In a statement showing her incredible attention to detail, she tells us that she has an old style utensil called. wanted to use xuanzi (镟 子), which is mentioned briefly in the book to make sure the chicken was cooked in the most authentic way possible. Unfortunately, the cookbook didn’t explain what Xuanzi was, and Li was forced to search books and museum archives for a more accurate and detailed description of the item.
It turned out to be an alcohol warmer, as Li explains in her video, while showing a picture of Xuanzi in a Ming Dynasty textbook that she found.
In some parts of the country the utensil is still used today, but mainly as a metal pot for tofu preparation.
Li shares her journey to learn more about the Xuanzi in her video. “When I dig up whether a device exists, I can learn a lot about history and culture,” she says, explaining the usefulness of her search for more information about the device.
Chinese Drama TV Dinner
Food and television fans will know that Chinese historical dramas often include sumptuous, multi-course royal banquets. For example the 2018 drama Ruyi’s royal love in the palace contains so many food scenes that actors joked about how much time they spent memorizing the names of all the dishes.
Of course, you won’t see the actors cook these dishes from scratch, so food vloggers stepped in to fill that void and teach curious minds about these traditional dishes and how to prepare them.
Chen Cheng, another creator of bilibili foods, draws inspiration from some of her favorite childhood series, such as the 2009 Hong Kong TV series Beyond conscience and the 2011 Chinese drama palace.
Her most popular video is a replica of a lotus biscuit made in Beyond conscience. To make the dessert look like the dish highlighted on the show, she crowns it with gold shackles.
Hao Zhenjiang, also known as Chef Hao, is an award-winning chef who has presented his culinary creations at China’s state banquets. In 2019, he joined the hordes of online food vloggers and brought his culinary dreams to video streaming platforms: dishes out Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the four great classical novels of China.
Dream of the Red Chamber follows the rise and fall of a wealthy, aristocratic clan during the Qing Dynasty and provides insights into the social and political structures of China at that time. It also describes the foods and drinks consumed by elites during this period.
Hao’s Channel, Red Chamber Feast (红楼 宴 Honglou Yan), was created on Bilibili in 2019 with the help of producer Wang Jing and has attracted more than 150,000 subscribers.
“You can’t talk about traditional Chinese culture and food without mentioning it Dream of the Red Chamber. Some statistics show that a third of the book is related to food, ”the Red Chamber Feast production team told RADII.
Hao learned how to prepare the dishes mentioned in the novel 30 years ago when he was doing an internship in a restaurant in Beijing. Since then he has devoted his life to recreating all dishes Dream of the Red Chamber.
“The Red Chamber Feast is where we introduce traditional Chinese culture to the world,” says the production team. The broadcaster shows the process of making traditional dishes from the novel and television adaptations and explains the cultural implications of these dishes.
Because of this, the production team believes their videos are excellent learning resources. Among those who commented on the channel to show their appreciation for the videos are teachers who use them to help their students better understand the novel, high school students, and viewers who are encouraged to read or use the book reread.
“Our fans also suggest recipes and stories from the novel [for us to film] in the comments. There they also discuss the content. We learned a lot from our followers, ”says the team behind the channel, adding that the Internet offers Chinese youth a unique opportunity to learn about traditional culture.
“Video has become a new carrier of culture. It is convenient for more and more young people to participate [learning and sharing culture]“Says the production team.
A Song dynasty Food story
Chu Qiu (Social Media Handle), a Hangzhou-based e-commerce businesswoman, started a bilibili channel 2020 is dedicated to recreating traditional dishes from the Song Dynasty. This era of history offers a compendium of food 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 time-consuming, the Song emperors and scholars enjoyed challenging each other dou cha. ”
Dou cha (斗 茶 or ‘tea fight’ in English) was a popular activity in the Song Dynasty, where people fought to make the best tea with the nicest foam on top, the lightest color, and the best taste. You could even contextualize it as an old barista contest.
To learn more, Chu Qiu visited Jinshan Temple – the birthplace of Dou Cha – in Hangzhou, the capital of the southern Song Dynasty from the 12th century and today’s provincial capital of Zhejiang Province. She spent three months Learning and documenting the tea ceremony there.
Chu Qiu says she prefers recipes with stories, such as the seasonal dishes from the memoir The eastern capital (东京 梦华 录) and cookbook Shanjia Qinggong (山 家 清 供), both written during the Song Dynasty.
In one of her most popular videos, the has won more than 140,000 views, Chu Qiu created a multi-course 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 (屠 苏 酒) with Chinese herbs, and made noodle soup.
Even though many dishes no longer exist in her videos, she is pleased that some recipes can still be found in parts of modern China.
“Sometimes I see people say that they have seen certain dishes in their hometown, most of them from Guangdong or Fujian Province,” says Chu Qiu. “These are the moments when I realize that the legacy of traditional food culture is being kept alive.”
Video streaming platforms like Bilibili play an important role in this process, helping passionate Chinese foodies share their knowledge and research with a wider audience than ever before. Chu Qiu believes that the Internet will become even more important in maintaining and establishing connections between people and their culture and history.
“So many people are starting their own channels and even more are consuming digital media,” she says. “My experience with the internet will help me share my creative cooking ideas with more people.”
Cover photo courtesy of Amanda Li