Asian Food Folklore
Like all countries, China, India and Thailand have their own folk tales. This one tells how the phoenix brought salt to China.
The Treasure of the Feng-Huang (Phoenix)
Once upon a time in China, a poor peasant man was working hard in the marshy fields. He stopped to stretch and as he looked up he was amazed to see a phoenix in amongst the reeds. The phoenix is a magnificent bird with tail feathers as brightly-coloured as a peacock's and a scarlet-red breast and head.
There is an old saying that where a phoenix is seen, treasure will be found. The poor peasant was very excited and ran towards the bird but, of course, the phoenix flew away.
The peasant was undeterred and started to dig where the phoenix had been, saying, 'There must be treasure here!' He dug and he dug but all he could find was earth. 'Then this must be the treasure,' he said, shaking his head in puzzlement.
He went straight home to tell his wife and to show her the treasure. 'Look,' he said, 'holding out the clod of earth. I have brought you treasure!''How can it be treasure?' his wife asked. 'It's just earth.''I don't know,' said the poor peasant, 'but the phoenix was standing over it so it must be.'
It was the law of China that any treasure that was found belonged to the emperor, so the peasant packed up the clod of earth, put on his best clothes and went to see the Chinese Emperor. When he told the guards that he had treasure he was allowed into the Emperor's presence. He bowed down and the unwrapped the earth. 'See, sir, what treasure the phoenix revealed to me!'
The Emperor was very angry, thinking that the man was trying to make a fool of him, and he had the man arrested and executed.
The parcel of earth was left on a shelf in the kitchen.
Some time later, one of the Chinese Emperor's cooks was taking a bowl of soup that he had prepared to the Emperor and, as he was passing the shelf, a little of the earth fell into the soup. The cook began to panic and was about to go back to get a fresh bowl when the Emperor shouted that he wanted his soup immediately. The cook had no choice but to serve his master straightaway.
When the Emperor tasted the soup, the cook cowered, expecting him to be angry but, instead, the Emperor beamed. 'This is the best soup I have ever tasted! What have you put in it?'
The cook explained about the earth and China's Emperor demanded that it be brought to him. He dug his fingers in the soil and found, sticking to them, tiny white grains. 'This must be the treasure the phoenix was telling the man of,' he said, for he recalled the peasant's story.
The Emperor was very sorry that he had treated the peasant so unjustly and he put the peasant's son in charge of the land where the phoenix had been seen, where they now started to mine for salt.
And thus it was that the phoenix was responsible for introducing salt to China.
In India rice is not only a staple of the diet, it also has symbolism.
- It's said that cooked rice should be like brothers: the grains should be close but not stuck together.
- Throwing rice at weddings symbolises fertility or, more often today, prosperity.
- The first food offered by a bride to her husband is rice; it's also the first solid food given to young babies, sometimes by a Buddhist priest.
The New Year begins in April and is celebrated at Songkran, a festival that largely involves throwing water! But it was also tradition to serve at banquets a special flower-scented rice dish that involved great care in the making. Every grain of rice was first checked to make sure it was in perfect condition.