The Rise of Female Chefs in Ancient China: From Imperial Kitchens to Serving the Elite

Illustration of a beautiful chinese young woman holding a tray with a tea set.

Though the profession has always been dominated by men, there were also skilled female chefs in ancient China. (Image: Elena Mikhaylova via Dreamstime)

Chinese cuisine has a long history. In order to prepare delicious dishes, chefs must possess superior skills and a good foundation. Generally speaking, women are the ones responsible for cooking three meals at home, but chefs in restaurants and hotels are mostly men. This was also true throughout China’s history, although there were exceptions.

Most famous chefs in ancient China were men. For example, Peng Keng during the time of Emperor Yao (2356 to 2255 B.C.), Yi Yin during the time of Emperor Shang Tang (1649 to 1549 B.C.), Yi Ya in the Spring and Autumn period (770 to 476 B.C.), and Zhuan Zhu in the late Spring and Autumn period of Wu State (584 B.C.) were all men.

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The Paragon of Cooking

Yi Yin was regarded as the ancestor of Chinese cuisine. He was originally a slave of the emperor’s wife before becoming a chef to the emperor himself. Yi Yin didn’t want to be a slave for life, so while preparing meals for Shang Tang, he seized the opportunity to share his analysis of current affairs. Shang Tang was so impressed he eventually made Yi Yin the prime minister. Yi Yin later helped Shang Tang conquer the Xia Dynasty and became a famous prime minister of his generation. He also imparted his culinary art and was called the Paragon of Cooking.

Male chefs dominated

The Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 256 BC) established its capital in Luoyang. The imperial family employed around 2,000 kitchen staff, but there weren’t any women directly involved in cooking. Although the culinary culture of Luoyang flourished later during the Eastern Han Dynasty and Wei Jin Dynasties, drawings of banquets and kitchens excavated from the tombs showed mostly male chefs at work.

The imperial family employed around 2,000 kitchen staff, but there were not any female chefs directly involved in cooking.
The imperial family employed around 2,000 kitchen staff, but there weren’t any women directly involved in cooking. (Image: Lei Su via Dreamstime)

Although historical records show that the majority of chefs were male, it doesn’t mean there weren’t any female chefs at all. Female chefs did exist during the Song Dynasty, and they were not unskilled kitchen workers. These lady chefs were masters of the four arts (playing the zither, playing the strategy game known as Go, writing calligraphy, and painting). They were well-trained, elegant, and experienced chefs who specialized in serving the rich and famous.

Female chef in the Song Dynasty

A Song Dynasty book, Jiang Xing Za Lu, recorded the story of a lady chef that stood out from chefs in other periods.

According to the story, the governor of a province retired from his post and moved back to his hometown. He recalled he was once invited to an official’s home in the capital for a meal and every dish served was delicious. He found out the official had hired a lady chef to prepare the meal.

The retired governor wanted to hire a lady chef and treat his friends and family to a delicious meal too, so he wrote to a friend in the capital to get his help finding a chef. His friend wrote back: “There are lady chefs here, but no one wants to travel long distances.”

The old governor was disappointed, but he soon received a second letter. His friend wrote: “I found a chef for you. She is 20 years old, pretty, and educated. And her cooking skills are exquisite.”

He was happy upon receiving the news and waited every day for the arrival of the chef. She finally arrived at his hometown one month later, but she didn’t go to his house right away. She chose to stay at an inn about 1.5 miles away.

She wrote a letter complimenting the governor and politely asked him to send a warm palanquin to pick her up, as was only proper.

The governor immediately sent people carrying a palanquin to welcome her. When she arrived, everyone checked her out and noticed she was indeed different from a commoner. She wore a beautiful dress and her manner was elegant. The old governor was very pleased and looked forward to a delicious meal the next day.

He told her the next day: “Just prepare a meal with five dishes and five bowls of rice.” She wrote down a list of ingredients and gave it to the governor. He was surprised by what he saw: for a dish using lamb’s head meat, she required 10 lamb’s heads and five pounds of green onion. He didn’t want to turn down her request since it was the first time he had employed her, so he had a servant buy the items according to the list.

The governor was surprised that the chef asked for a whole five pounds of green onions to make one dish for the meal.
The governor was surprised that the chef asked for a whole five pounds of green onions to make one dish for the meal. (Image: Carmen Steiner via Dreamstime)

After the ingredients were prepared, the lady chef put on a plain top and flowery skirt. She directed the maids to open her culinary tool chest containing kitchen knives, a cutting board, pots, and pans. She also brought with her fine silver cutlery for the table and the bright shiny appearance earned much praise.

Once everything was set up, she gently rolled up her sleeves, revealing a shiny silver bracelet on her soft and delicate wrist. She chopped the vegetables and meat in a skillful and experienced manner and only used about 20 percent of each ingredient. For example, after the lamb was blanched in boiling water, only two pieces of meat on the face were used and the rest was discarded. After the green onion was quickly blanched in hot water, only the tender part in the center was kept, and the rest was thrown away.

Someone asked her why she was throwing so much out and she said: “Only the best is kept for the people of high rank.”

A dish made from the best ingredients certainly won the praises of the guests. Their unanimous comment “it’s so fragrant and flavorful” made the governor look good, albeit at a high cost.

The lady chef said the next day: “Yesterday’s meal was a test, and I’m glad your guests enjoyed it. I’d like to be compensated as is customary.” The governor didn’t understand her, so she explained: “One of the rules in our profession is to be compensated according to past practices. We are paid a string of 10,000 cash coins and 24 bolts of silk for large banquets, and half of that for a family meal.”

Although the governor thought it was expensive, he had no choice but to pay her accordingly. He complained under his breath: “For someone like me who is not rich and powerful, I should not hire chefs and hold large banquets like this on a regular basis.” The real reason was that the cost of the lady chef was too high for him. Shortly after, the old governor sent the lady chef home.

The story of this graceful, elegant, and skillful lady chef has shattered the stereotypical image of chefs in ancient China. It also showed the culinary culture of the Song Dynasty had reached a high level, and produced female chefs with superb skills who served the rich and famous.

Translated by Elaine

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