Fermentations and Food Science in China — Joseph Needham’s Magnum Opus and Ancient Probiotics

Ecological Balance and Fermentation
Ecological Balance and Fermentation

If I had an extra $280.00 to my name, this is the book I’d buy (thanks to Rachel Laudan for pointing it out to me several months ago, at which time I received the book through an inter-library loan thanks to the University of Virginia library).  And in a recent discussion on the ASFS listserv about soy sauce, the title popped up innumerable times — goes to show you that fermentation/probiotics is some sort of hot stuff, only we just haven’t latched 100%  onto the thought yet.

Travel channel’s correspondent, Andrew Zimmern, presented a terrific episode  the other day on the Travel channel about traditional fermented food products in Russia. That show, and this book (the bibliophile’s equivalent of a mink stole), really whetted my appetite for the subject of fermentation. Not to mention the fermented foods of Africa (see my post on fermented dawadawa — and that’s just like the sugar crust on the crème brulée — there’s more where you dig deeper).**

So what’s this fantastic book?

H. T. Huang, Science and civilisation in China. Volume 6: Biology and Biological Technology. Part V: Fermentations and Food Science. Joseph Needham, ed. Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xxviii + 741. ISBN 521-65270-7  (hardback).

And here’s an excerpt from a review of this tome:

Review for British Journal of the History of Science
Donald B. Wagner
10 September 2004

This volume, the 21st to appear in Joseph Needham’s Science and civilisation in China, is primarily concerned with the many Chinese food technologies which involve fermentation. These include the preparation of alcoholic drinks; soybean products such as bean curd and soy sauce; green, red and black tea; malt sugar; and a variety of preserves and sauces. It also considers briefly a number of related issues, including Chinese approaches to nutritional deficiency diseases.

The context in which these technologies have been used is covered in a 100-page introduction to the food resources and culinary system of ancient China. This section is largely concerned with the classical period of Chinese history, up the the end of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220), and slights somewhat the changes which have come later. It is nevertheless a valuable concise introduction to the things the Chinese eat and the ways in which they prepare and eat them.

The section on alcohol production is also an introduction to what H. T. Huang in his conclusion calls ‘the wonderful world of the grain moulds’ (p. 592). This refers primarily to a range of remarkable products called chhü (in the Wade-Giles transcription, ch’ü, in Pinyin, qu). The word is often inaccurately translated ‘yeast’; Huang uses the translation ‘ferment‘ (always italicized). These are made by the controlled exposure of cooked grain to organisms naturally present in the environment, and modern analyses indicate that ferments contain a wide variety of moulds, yeasts, and bacteria (pp. 280, 592). In Chinese methods of preparing alcoholic drinks from grain (‘rice wines’), a ferment provides both fungal enzymes for saccharification of starch, and yeasts to produce alcohol from sugar. It is possible that in early China the Western method of producing beer was used, with sprouted grain (malt) providing enzymes for saccharification and fruit yeasts to produce alcohol, but the use of ferment for these purposes has been standard in China since the late Han period.

Another point I’d like to make about this unbelievable book is that the Chinese characters for various words are included, a point that will go over the heads of most readers, but for the true scholar of Chinese food history, a veritable treasure trove of meaning.

I believe works like H. T. Huang’s can serve as a model for studying the same issues in many other areas of the world.

**For the next few weeks, I am going to be on a “working vacation,” so my posts will be somewhat more abbreviated. I will still provide you with something substantial to chew on, though!