Shopkeepers in China 900 years ago accidentally created restaurant food culture, and their achievement is listed among Life magazine’s 100 greatest achievements of the past millennium. Emily Zhou reports
IN OR ABOUT THE YEAR 1120 AD, a shopkeeper in the old Chinese city of Kaifeng had an idea. There were lots of merchants arriving from the southern city of Hangzhou regularly to buy and sell goods—and they constantly complained about the local food.
What if he sold home-style Hangzhou-style food to them? They’d be happy and he could make a dollar. The retailer realized that if his fresh, hot “southern style cooking” was popular, he could even provide a table and some stools, so they could spend time in his shop eating it, attracting the eyes of other visitors.
That’s what he did – and the rest is history. This unnamed retailer ended up inventing the concept of The Restaurant.
THE WORLD CHANGED
Several shopkeepers in Kaifeng started providing food, and a place to sit and eat it, and before long, there was a string of eateries in the central market streets of the city, selling a variety of dishes—and a corresponding string of restaurants sprang up many kilometers to the south, selling Kaifeng food in the streets of Hangzhou.
This became possible because cities like Kaifeng and Hangzhou were densely packed urban populations with more than a million inhabitants each, says the book Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants, by Elliott Shore and Katie Rawson. So, as trade built up between the two centers, as there were plenty of takers for “southern cooking” in the north and “northern cooking” in the south.
One caveat: For centuries, in many places in the world, there have been taverns where travellers can stop for a drink, and some likely served food, too. But it was likely that Kaifeng was the place where the modern-style dining out culture can be seen emerging, with an actual entertainment district with a choice of cuisines from multiple districts.
For the choices in Kaifeng and Hangzhou quickly multiplied. “You could go to a noodle shop, a dim sum restaurant, a huge place that was fantastically and opulently put together, or a little chop suey joint,” said Shore, an academic.
THE FOOD REVOLUTION
There are other world-shaking food-related developments worth noting at this time and in this place, Song Dynasty China. There was a clear growth in the amount of creative Chinese regional cuisine.
“The great Chinese culinary methods thrived from the Song Dynasty,” wrote E. N. Anderson in his book, The Food of China. “Chinese cuisines were still simple in the Tang Dynasty, but in the late Song period, some regional culinary techniques were basically formed. These regional cuisines pushed the development of Chinese food toward a new era. Although the palace cuisines were delicate and luxurious, the regional ones were much more creative.”
RESTAURANT AS THEATRE
A third development was the growth of restaurant service as theatre – with eateries showing off their presentation skills as well as their cooking one.
Researchers Shore and Rawson found a Chinese manuscript from 1126 which was the equivalent of a modern restaurant review, describing the process at a particularly theatrical dining place.
First, the menu was shared – not a written list, but an actual display of scores of actual dishes that patrons could look at.
Then the waiter would come to your table and ask for your orders.
He would then line up at the kitchen with the other waiters. When his time came, he would sing out your chosen list to the kitchen staff, known as the Pot Masters.
“This came to an end in a matter of moments and the waiter—his left hand supporting three dishes and his right arm stacked from hand to shoulder with some twenty dishes, one on top of the other—distributed them in the exact order in which they had been ordered,” the 1126 reviewer wrote. “Not the slightest error was allowed.”
Seeing the success of the restaurant business, other businesses for travellers sprang up too – including brothels, bars and hotels. Kaifeng’s dining district in 1120 sounds remarkably like Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district in the 1990s.
But there was a fourth development too – the emergence of the celebrity chef, the Gordon Ramsay of that period. And he was a she.
Household staff agencies emerged, providing cooks, servants, and craftsman for householders who could afford them. Details are found in a social record of the Northern Song Dynasty (left) called “Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital” (東京夢華錄) by Meng Yuanlao (孟元老).
“If citizens want to hire servants, craftsmen or cooks, housekeeping agents can help them,” he said. In the Southern Song Dynasty, the housekeeping agent industry improved more rapidly, with different agent organizations linking up over two centuries into a massive network.
There were also wedding planners, with separate groups with different functions. The Department of Tea handled beverages and reception, and the Department of Decoration took care of wall paintings, flowers and cleaning.
HIGH STATUS JOB
As the social system in Song Dynasty urban areas became more developed, a remarkable job came into being, known as the “cook maid”. If you imagine that the term implies an oppressed woman toiling in a greasy, smoky kitchen, think again. The job of cook maid quickly became a high status job. Girls would start training at the age of six and would be able to become independent earners after six or seven years, when they were 12 or 13.
Some of them had a wide range of skills, while others specialized in specific tasks. A famous anecdote begins with Cai Jing (蔡京), a wealthy minister notorious for corruption. After he was arrested and executed, one of his cook maids was hired by another wealthy family. “You cooked for the Cai family, so you can handle many fine cuisines, right?” said her new employer.
“No, I can’t,” said the maid with pride: “I did work in the Cai family kitchen, but my specialty was to shred green onions for stuffed steamed buns (包子).”
In other words, specializations as we see in modern haute cuisine restaurants, had already developed.
QUEEN OF THEM ALL
Some cook maids, especially those with pretty faces, became high earners who were difficult to manage, like today’s celebrity chefs. In another famous anecdote, a prefecture chief hired a famous and beautiful cook maid. He had to arrange for a comfortable carriage with four servants to bring her to work. Before she arrived, servants had to have already prepared the vegetables and other ingredients.
Madam Chef arrived, opened her box filled with shiny silver tools, and completed several dishes skillfully. After the meal, there were compliments from all the diners.
But after the employer saw the bill for the chef and the ingredients, he had to cancel the contract. “If she cooks for me every day, how much will it cost?” he lamented.
KEY STEP IN HUMAN HISTORY
One sad note: despite the fact that the Song Dynasty food revolution is appreciated by historians around the world, internet searches often present France in the 1800s as the location of the emergence of restaurants.
Still, academics and some publications do get it right.
To mark the millennium, Life magazine in 1998 decided to make a list of the 100 most influential events in human history – and they put the food revolution of Song Dynasty China at number 56 on that list, with a nod to the unnamed shopkeeper of Kaifeng, 1120 AD.
And restaurant lovers all over the world can acknowledge him next time they eat out. Hei fai-la! (Raise your chopsticks!)
Image at the top by Pooja Chaudhary/ Unsplash