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.
Though it seems clear that the ferments were developed in the context of alcohol production, they have turned out to be useful in a wide variety of other food processes, especially preparation of the bewildering variety of soybean, vegetable, meat, and fish preserves and sauces which are so important in Chinese cuisine. 'The enzymes present [in ferments] that are relevant to food processing include amylases that hydrolyse starch to sugars, proteinases that hydrolyse proteins to peptides and amino acids, pectinases that hydrolyse pectin to uronic acids, and lipases that hydrolyse fats to glycerol and fatty acids' (p. 593).
H. T. Huang is a distinguished biochemist as well as being deeply learned in the Chinese tradition, and he shares with Joseph Needham a penchant for 'brass tacks'. The sentence quoted just above is rather more abstruse than most of his technical explanations, but readers should be prepared for some tough biochemistry here and there. A good part of the book consists of long translations of Chinese recipes and descriptions of industrial processes, followed by technical exegesis. Translations are in any case rarely easy to read, and Huangs's technical explanations are often demanding, but the reader who perseveres will find the book rewarding.