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Cookbooks 10: F.T. Cheng, or Cheng Tien-hsi, or Zheng Tianxi.

10. Dr. Cheng (1884-1970) was a lawyer, a judge on the International Court of Justice in the Hague and the last ambassador of the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) to the United Kingdom. It seems he wrote this book, first published in 1954, to pass the time when he was nearing 70. My copy is dotted with Athenaeum date due stamps up to December 1983, before being given to me as gift in 1985 by Elizabeth Wade, who writes in a covering note that she found it in a library sale. Although Dr. Cheng’s book contains recipes, its intention is to explain Chinese attitudes to food, often pointedly to Westerners uninformed about regional variations and traditional manners. In fact, the large Chinese characters on the title page and jacket mean ‘A Thesis on Living’. Sub-headings in the chapter ‘Hints on Cooking’ hint also at the Chinese approach to the kitchen: ‘Rule of Symmetry’, ‘Secrets in Steaming’, ‘The Three Stages’, ‘The Two Ways’. It could be an introduction to Confucian Philosophy. Every page produces marvels. What is good cooking? “When you see it, you like to smell it; when you smell it, you like to taste it; when you taste it, you like to swallow it; and when you have swallowed it, you feel satisfied and gratified.” (page 39) Of dining as an art he writes, “To eat hurriedly is not to enjoy a good meal. A great number of dishes in suitable proportion, several at proper intervals, prolongs the enjoyment and gives more opportunities for conversation.” (page 136) Experienced and civilised, the closing chapter is entitled ‘A Discourse on Tea’ and includes the following further instructions on how the Chinese make tea. These are the closing words of Dr. Cheng’s book, copied here without further comment. The ‘higher authority’ mentioned in the final sentence is footnoted ‘Physiology of Taste’, by Brillat-Savarin.

The other conditions in making tea are:
1.     Teapot.
Silver or other metal teapots should, if possible, be avoided, and this is essential in making really good China tea, particularly “Cliff tea”. Use therefore a porcelain or earthenware teapot. It should be thoroughly rinsed and warmed with boiling water before the tea is put in.
2.     The Kettle.
Though this is not so important as the teapot, an earthenware one is preferred. In any case, it should be thoroughly rinsed before the water is put in. Any stale water allowed to remain, not to say anything else, would make the tea taste different.
3.     The Water.
Water to tea, like water to coffee, is a most important element; for after all, tea is only water flavoured with tea leaves. If the water is not pure or fresh, the tea is more than half spoiled. In China connoisseurs of tea are so particular that they would go for a couple of miles to fetch water from a spring. In any case, if the water is drawn from a tap it should be allowed to run for a while before it is used. Have it boiled to the bubbling point, pour it into the teapot, stir it once round with a clean spoon, and let it stand for about three minutes before it is poured out. If any tea leaves are seen floating in the teapot, this means that the water has not really been boiled to the bubbling point.

Any other observations? Yes.
1.     Warm the teacup with hot water before the tea is poured in, especially when “Cliff tea” is drunk. The idea is the same as cooling the champagne glass with a piece of ice before the champagne is poured in.
2.     Pour the tea into the hot cups half full; for instance, from 1 to 4 (assuming there are only four cups) and then reverse the process by filling them up from 4 to 1, this is to make the tea taste even.
3.     Don’t continue to pour tea into your guest’s cup unless he desires it. Tea not immediately drunk after it has been poured into the cup does not taste good. But don’t throw away the tea left in the teapot, if it is China tea; for China tea, after it has been made and kept in a cool place, tastes perfectly good within 12 hours. All to be done is to have it warmed up without the leaves.
4.     Keep your tea separately away from other things, because tea is very sensitive in nature and can be easily affected by contact with other things. Very often Chinese travelling to Europe or America have their tea packed in their luggage and afterwards find, to their regret, that the tea is spoiled.
5.     Don’t keep your tea indefinitely like treasures. The finer the tea, the sooner it should be used and enjoyed. Unlike wine it does not improve with age, except Yunnan tea.

As every feast has its end, so does tea, and so does a book. But a really good meal with delightful company and interesting conversation lingers in one’s memory. It is one of those pleasures of life that makes life worth living and inclines one to be at peace with the world. To conclude, according to a higher authority, good living is very far from being injurious to health and, all things being equal, gourmands live much longer than others.


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