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Yi Yin and Chinese Cuisine

yi yin
The Portrait of Yi Yin

Yi Yin(伊尹) was the first prime minister of Shang(商, one of three earliest periods in Chinese history), established by Tang(汤), so in Chinese history, Shang also widely called Shangtang. But at the time, the formal title of prime minister was A Heng(阿衡, equates Zai Xiang, or prime minister, later). Yi Yin, in accordance to the general understanding, surely is the combination of surname and first name, but actually it is not at all. Yi is his first name, and Yin actually is his position name. Yi Yin was an orphan was presented to the king when discovered by a woman from Youxin phratry. King transferred him to a royal kitchener. Yi Yin was brought up under the care of this kitchener. Meanwhile, Tang searched widely for talents and heard of the great brilliance of Yi Yin, and he requested Youxin phratry to let Yi Yin go to help him, but Youxin phratry refused. But Yi Yin in mind was willing to serve Tang. Tang came up with an excellent idea that he requested to marry the daughter of King of Youxin phratry, and the king was rejoiced and sent Yi Yin as the accompanier to Shang, and this was the first time of meeting between Tang and Yi Yin.

The dialogue of Tang and Yi Yin as well as Yi Yin’s excellent response and extension from cooking are undoubtedly legendary. The historian summarized this story as burdening the heavy Ding-type cooking utensil, Yi Yin advised Tang by means of tasting and cooking, and helped Tang get the Truth of King(负鼎俎,以滋味说汤,致于王道). After getting the assistance from Yi Yin, Tang followed the formal rite for giving sacrifice to the heaven and bathing for respect. He lighted up the torch fir national rite, and painted his own body with blood of the sacrificing animals to show the magnificence. The next day, Tang held the governmental meeting to meet Yi Yin. And Yi Yin suggested Tang via cooking. Hearing this discussion, Tang asked him” Can I get these delicacies?” Yi Yin replied:” Your state to small to get them, and they will be available if you handle the whole country”. In sequence, he started his long talk, and the main idea of this talk was summarized to be” no matter how bad the cooking ingredients are, it can be the delicious as long as we use the right method” .

Yi Yin said that: Five tastes and three conditions (five tastes: salty, bitter, acid, sweet and hot, three conditions: water, wood and fire) as well as nine boiling and nine changes are all modulated by fire. Sometimes, the fire should be the fierce and powerful, and sometimes it should be mild. If we understand this measure, the smelliness could be removed and then the taste of delicacy will be better. The chef must understand how to use five tastes together, and know the exact amount of each of them. Surely the difference is not so obvious, but the relevant principle is the must. We have to know the change of five tastes in Ding. Such a change can not be spoken out, but we should know it in mind, which should be like we practice shooting and driving, and also like the change of Yin and Yang as well as the operation of four seasons. Therefore, the taste can lasts and does not go bad, cooked but not overdone, sweet but not so strong, acid but not overdone, salty but not too slight, hot but not too hard, light but not week and fat but not oily.

This comment attracted Tang deeply, and Tang assigned him as the prime minister. Since then, Yi Yin became the first man became premier from the identity of slave in Chinese history. Yi Yin administrated the government and the whole country developed quickly. After Tang passed away, Yi Yin continued to be the prime minister of Kings Bu Bing(卜丙) and Zhong Ren(仲壬). After Zhong Ren died, Tai Jia(太甲) was enthroned, and he was quite tyrannical and disobeyed the laws that Tan made, and Yi Yin exiled him to Tonggong. During his three years of exile, Yi Yin helped him administrate the country till Tai Jia regretted and returned to kind-heartedness. Yi Yin fetched and took the administration back to him. After Tai Jia died, his son Wo Ding(沃丁) was enthroned, and Yi Yin died during his position of prime minister. Yi Yin assisted five rulers in governing a country. He was a historically famous prime minister and kitchener, especially, his idea of administrating the country like cooking a dish(治大国若烹小鲜) becomes a classical principle in Chinese history.

Yi Yin deserves the honor of the Saint of Cooking. Yuan Mei(袁枚), a famous literator and gastronomist in Qing Dynasty once commented:” a table of dishes are welcomed based on 6/10 talents of kitcheners and 4/10 from the ingredient operators, and Yi Yin had both of them”. According to some historical records, the representative of his dishes was Swan Soup. Tang was quite happy after tasting his soup. The swan has the natural white, and a fly can be over thousands of miles, and its flesh and soup are quite good for the internal organs or Zang and Fu. Currently, in region of Canton, it is still the valued dish. The theoretical works of Yi Yin themed with cuisine was Tang Ye Jing(汤液经, The Soup Sutra) other than his famous historic words, Yi Shun(伊训, The Lecture of Yi Yin ). Yi Yin had a deep research on the herbs as well as the food hygiene.







More Details in Four Pioneers of Chinese Cuisine Culture





Writer: David from Seeraa International
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