Food and Wine Frescoes from the Wei and Jin Tombs

Desert Near Wein-and-Jin Tombs, 2012
Desert Near Wei-and-Jin Tombs, 2012

In an inhospitable area between the Gobi and the Taklamakan Deserts northeast of Jaiyuguan, China a time capsule was buried almost 2000 years ago. Underneath the treeless, grey sand that blankets the region today are a series of over 1000 tombs from the Wei-and Jin period (265-420 ACE). The walls of the tombs are decorated with frescoes that depict details from everyday life in a land that was temperate, fertile and teaming with life. Images of farming, hunting, animal husbandry, cooking, feasting, and playing musical instruments adorn the walls; there is even an image of China’s early pony-express mail delivery that shows a galloping horse and a man carrying a letter in his hand with an urgent look on his face. Paintings filled with the nuances from the everyday lives of the people who lived near one of China’s main Silk Road corridors in the remote hinterlands of the dynasty.

Many of the frescoes have to do with gathering or preparing food. The one depicted below shows a woman and a girl picking mulberries or mulberry leaves. The fruits could have been used to make jams, juice, sauces, desserts or wine; or they could be dried and eaten like raisins. The leaves could have been used to give a sour flavor to food and salads, used to make tea, used as anti-inflammatory medicine, or if of the correct species to feed hungry silk-worms and provide a place for the metamorphosis of next season’s egg-laying moths.

Mulberry Picking
Mulberry Picking

The girl is wearing wearing ribbons and both she and the adult female have short hair which identify them as from the Qiuci ethnic group. The Qiuci were Indo-European settlers in ancient China who spoke an Indo-Iranian dialect, traded on the Silk Road, and eventually became part of the early Uyghur empire. Many historians believe that they arose from the people who first brought Buddhism into China from India and Pakistan. Given the Indo-European roots of the Qiuci, the mulberry leaves could have been used as a flavoring for bread, as is done in some Indian parathas today.

Cooking
Cooking

The second fresco presented here show servants preparing a meal. The head cook is picking meat from bones on a board to the right. Possibly recycling meat for another meal from uneaten parts of a roast, or preparing bones for soup. Mutton is hanging from hooks on the ceiling to age, and another cook is stirring a pot to the left. In the foreground and background there appear to be steamer trays lined with dumplings or buns.

Warming Wine
Warming Wine

The third fresco shows a maid warming wine. She holds a tray with cups in her right hand and with her left she reaches for a ladle to fill the cups with wine from the warmer. Grape and raisin production and wine-making is an ancient industry in Xinjiang and Gansu and this painting shows the popularity of wine in the Wei and Jin Dynasty.

Dining on Kebaba
Dining on Kebabs

The last painting shows two men having dinner together. The man to the left is the host of the meal and perhaps a noble because he is sitting on a low-bed or a couch. His guest is someone of relatively equal importance because he is depicted at the side of the host and more or less the same size as the host (other frescos denote a marked difference in the size between master or mistress and their servants). The guest proffers a large trident-like skewer with bite-size bits of meat on it – kebabs. Although evidence for kebab eating goes back to Akrotiri, Greece in the 17th Century BCE, and possibly earlier to Ancient Mesopotamia, this fresco gives a solid date range to the food in western China at almost 2000 years ago. Introduced to China by Indo-Europeans coming across the main track of the Northern Silk Road (the Uyghur word is kewap), kebabs are now enjoyed all across China.

Many other images are captured in the tomb paintings: dancing, raising chickens, a Bactrian camel on a lead, and herding horses. To preserve the paintings, only one or two tombs are open to the public at a time and different tombs are open on a rotating basis to allow for repeat visits. One has to descend almost 30 meters beneath the arid surface to enter the cool, damp rooms of the tombs to view the frescoes, but it is a unique way to experience life in ancient China. Where there is now barren desert, there were rich farms, pastureland, and trading posts teaming with travelers and traders, moving goods, ideas and culture around on the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photos from postcards of the Wei and Jin Tombs by Laura Kelley (photography is not allowed in the tombs)).

On Earth, there is Donkey Meat

天上龙肉,地上驴肉
In Heaven there is Dragon Meat, and
On Earth there is Donkey Meat

That is the saying in Northwest China, in Gansu province and the bordering areas of Xinjiang, Qinghai, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Donkey is revered as the earthly equivalent to dragon meat, and it is widely sought after and enjoyed by many.

Donkey with Yellow Noodles

Donkey meat is also available in Beijing, Shanghai and most big cities in between, but Gansu is the epicenter of donkey cuisine and where the most delicious dishes can be found. I sampled several donkey dishes, but by far the most delicious was the Donkey with Yellow Noodles (lurou huangmian) had in Dunhuang and pictured here.

The meat is tender, sweet and delicious. It tastes nothing like pork or beef. For obvious reasons, it does taste a little like horse, only it is sweeter and more tender, and like horse and many hoofy game meats it is also low in fat and high in protein. In addition to tasting good and being a healthy meat, it is also, very inexpensive, which I am sure adds to its popularity. The strips of charchuterie donkey meat for dipping are a little plain, the sandwiches and burgers are too ‘bready’ and the starch interferes with the great flavor of the meat (I favor buffalo steaks over burgers any old day as well), but for this wandering girl, the donkey with yellow noodles was just right. Another thing I like about the dish, was that it was a very “Asian” way to enjoy the dish.

I haven’t fully reconstructed this recipe yet, but my notebook reads: “Lots of sliced garlic, a bit of chopped ginger, spring onions and chilies are stir fried in sesame oil for a few minutes. Mixed vegetables (carrots, sweet red pepper, tomato) and mushrooms are added and sauteed until tender. Toss and add light soy and rice wine (Shaoxing) with a bit of cane or brown sugar and stir. Add tofu (if desired). Some mustard greens are added into the fray and then the precooked donkey slices. Cover and cook to warm. Drain noodles, toss with a light coating of sesame oil if desired. When greens are tender but still bright green and meat warm, remove wok from the heat and serve.” In the restaurant, the noodles were tossed with the meat and vegetables before service and served with chilies marinated in oil and a strong, dark vinegar. Don’t be afraid – its delicious!

Yakitori-like Donkey Kebabs

Another way that I tried and really liked donkey was as donkey kebabs on the street. These are tiny little rib kebabs. Little mouthfuls of meat that are more like Yakitori than like a large Turkic-derived kebab. And the ones I had had been marinating in chilies and sugar and soy and had a light chili paste coating on them. This offset the usually sweet taste of donkey and made it sweet and spicy at the same time. Sort of a teryaki-like taste but hotter and richer – really good!

As evident in the opening saying, the donkey is revered in Chinese culture – and not only for their taste. The donkey is revered in poetry and painting as the animal that carries the wandering poet or artist on his journeys.

Caught In Drizzle At Sword Gate Pass
Lu You 1125-1210

Traveling clothes, dust caked, wine stained,
Journeying far, overwhelmed by grief.
In this life what am I?
only a poet
straddling a donkey
Entering Sword Gate in a drizzling rain.

These journeys are crucial to artist’s ability to create because they provide him the experience of the world from which his art flows. Sometimes they carry the artist away from his worldly disappointments in the city and into the more spiritual realm of nature and art.  In other world views, the donkey is one of Kali’s mounts and in the Christian faith, guess who carried the holy family to Bethlehem and into Egypt? A beast of burden, yes.  But also something much more.  Something to think about if you venture east and try some donkey delicacies. (Words by Laura Kelley.  Photo of Donkey Meat with Yellow Noodles by Laura Kelley; Photo of Yakitori-like Donkey Kebabs by Xiye @ Dreamstime.com).