A gentleman’s diet

He ate high-quality rice and finely-cut meat. If the food was rotten or rancid, if the fish wasn’t fresh, and if the meat was spoiled, he didn’t eat it. If the food was off-color, he didn’t eat it. If it smelled bad, he didn’t eat it. If it was undercooked, he didn’t eat it. If it was not served at the proper time, he didn’t eat it. If it was not cut properly, he didn’t eat it. If it was not served in its proper sauce, he didn’t eat it. Even if there was plenty of meat, he didn’t eat more meat than rice. As for wine, however, there was no limit as long as he remained sober. He didn’t consume wine or meat bought from the market. He was never without ginger when he ate, but used it only in moderation.

As with most of the chapters in Book 10 of the Analects, it’s not clear whether this passage refers to Confucius in particular or the habits of a gentleman in general.

What is remarkable here is the close attention paid to making sure that the food is fresh and properly prepared. It reads almost like a series of best practices or health and safety guidelines that could be just as easily applied today – the only difference being that we enjoy the benefits of owning refrigerators, cookers, microwave ovens, and other modern appliances.

Naturally, such rules were observed only when cooking for the well-off. The poor had to make do with whatever food they could get hold and no doubt suffered much more from food poisoning, diarrhea, and other related ailments. How depressing that over 2,500 years later a large proportion of the world’s population still faces the same problems despite our advanced agricultural techniques and food storage distribution technologies.

Moderation was the key to a gentleman’s diet: a virtue that we would do well to apply more strictly today to combat the onward march of obesity.

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