Qiuligao, Autumn Cure-all
After a long summer, people may feel gloomy and restless in the fleeting autumn. Luckily, Beijingers can taste the fragrance of the autumn season in a cup of qiuligao, or autumn pear syrup.
In Beijing, it is cold in the winter, windy in the spring, and hot and humid in the summer. The autumn season is beautiful but fleeting, as if it could be over with a gust of wind. By the time the leaves turn yellow and begin to fall, autumn may already become only a word on paper or a memory. After a long summer, people may feel gloomy and restless in the fleeting autumn. Luckily, Beijingers can taste the fragrance of the autumn season in a cup of qiuligao, or ”autumn pear syrup.'' Qiuligao is a perfect way for Beijingers to keep fit in the autumn. As soon as this season arrives, queues begin to form to buy qiuligao at the timehonoured He Nian Tang and Tong Ren Tang establishments. Xin Yuan Zhai is a well-known company that sells plum syrup, which is a summer food, and has begun to offer autumn pear syrup also.
Qiuligao, also known as Asian pear syrup, is a traditional Chinese herbal remedy that dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618– 907). People knew that pears are good for the throat and lungs even back then. This natural throat demulcent and expectorant is an ideal cure for sore throats, coughs and hoarseness.
Pears are the main ingredient in qiuligao and are favoured by Chinese people in both southern and northern China. There are records of pears in ancient books such as Liji ( Book of Rites), Zhuangzi (an ancient Taoist text) and Shan haijing (Classic of Mountains and Seas). The most famous story is from Beimeng Suoyan (a collection of short stories) by Sun Guangxian (AD 901–968) of the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279). The protagonist in this story was an official suffering from a disease similar to diabetes. He often felt hungry and thirsty and became increasingly thinner. Liang Xin, a famous doctor, considered his illness incurable and suggested that he went back home as soon as possible to prepare for his funeral. Coincidentally, Zhao E, a doctor from Fu County in Shaanxi Province, was in the capital city and claimed to be good at treating difficult diseases when he heard about the official. Zhao E's diagnosis was the same as Liang Xin, except he did not consider it to be incurable. He stated: “When
symptoms appear, please eat some xiao pears (a type of autumn pear from northern China) or drink some pear juice.” The official rode home by horse and ate a lot of pears as prescribed. Shortly after that, he felt much better and gradually recovered. He expressed gratitude to Zhao E and told Liang Xin about his experiences. Liang Xin then met Zhao E, gave him some gifts and spread his medical methods and knowledge. Later, Zhao E was promoted, became a top official and was known across the country.
Pears are a great fruit. They are grown all over China and have many varieties. Kou Zongshi lived during the Song Dynasty and wrote Bencao yanyi (a book about Chinese medicine). It states that “pears shall be taken in the proper amount, because an overdose will harm the spleen, while a small quantity is insufficient for curing disease.” Miao Xiyong wrote a book called Bencao jingshu (another book about Chinese medicine) during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). It states that “when there is often pain or thirst, frequently eating pears can ease the symptoms.” Since the Song and Ming dynasties, the Chinese summarised the medicinal efficacy of pears, stating that pears can nourish the heart and lungs and relieve sore throats, coughs and drunkenness. Hence, pears are regarded as “ancestors of fruit.”
Hongloumeng (A Dream of Red Mansions) is known as “the encyclopaedia of Chinese feudal society.” Cao Xueqin, its author, is an epicure. There are many creative foods in this classic, including pears, which are indispensable. A shrewd woman named Xia Jingui is one of the characters and is jealous and unreasonable. Once, on his way to Tianqi Temple, a man named Jia Baoyu met a Taoist selling medical plaster. Jia asked whether this Taoist had a prescription for curing women's jealousy. The Taoist said, “There is no such plaster for jealousy, but there is a kind of medical soup which might take effect slowly.” He referred to it as “jealousy-healing soup.” It consisted of an excellent autumn pear with 10 grams of crystal sugar, five grams of dried orange peel and three bowls of water. It was to be heated until the pear is fully cooked and consumed each morning. Jia considered the formula too common to have an effect. The Taoist stated: “If one dose is not effective, then take ten; if it does not take effect today, then continue tomorrow; if she is not cured this year, then keep eating next year. These three ingredients are sweet and tasty and do no harm to one's health. She can take the therapy until she is even one hundred years old. When she is dead, she will no longer be jealous and the therapy will take effect.” Cao wrote this in a way that sounded like a joke. It also implied that food can change people's personality though. Modifying one's diet in various ways is an aspect of Chinese culture. Pears can nourish the lungs while dried orange peels can stimulate the appetite. Therefore, if one uses this “jealousy-healing soup” for an extended period, one may become more easy-going.
The geographical and climatic differences in China make it impossible to enjoy fresh pears at all times in all locations. Preserving pears became a challenge for gourmet food specialists. They had some creative solutions. This is how the practice of making pear syrup began to appear during the Tang Dynasty.
Cooking pears was popular during the Tang Dynasty. However, due to seasonal changes, pear dishes could only be made during harvest season. The Tang people invented qiuligao, which allowed people to get around seasonal limitations and enjoy the fruit all year round. Legend has it that Emperor Li Yan, who lived in the Tang Dynasty period, fell sick one day. He had dry mouth and heartburn. Li tried a variety of herbs, but nothing worked. The royal doctor and the courtiers were eager to find a cure for his disease. A Taoist who descended from Qingcheng Mountain claimed he had the right cure. He concluded that the emperor had an autumn dryness disease. He made a syrup using pears, honey and a few traditional Chinese herbs. The emperor drank the concoction and was cured of his discomfort. This story is recorded in Bencao qiuyuan, ( The Origins of Herbs), compiled by Zhao Qiguang during the Qing Dynasty. This is the earliest record of qiuligao.
In Bencao gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica) written by Li Shizhen of the Ming Dynasty, the autumn pear syrup is more detailed. Li Shizhen believed that it could alleviate heat, nourish the lungs, cool one's circulation, reduce phlegm and detoxify. Thus, it was considered the right cure for autumn dryness. This syrup is potent, reliable and delicious. Li also mentioned that pears can be eaten raw or cooked. "Eaten raw, pears can drive away excessive heat in the body, and taken as a dish, pears can provide elements that are lacking in the organs. Traditional Chinese medicine specialists agree that pears have a cooling effect, and cooked pears can nourish the body.
Qiuligao is a healthy autumn dish which used to be kept as a secret recipe in palaces. For more than a thousand years, from the Tang Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, it remained a classic dish. As the royal jelly, it was widely used in palaces and royal courts over different dynasties. It was only during the Qing Dynasty that palace doctors finally revealed the recipe to the public. It is said that Liu Enji, a master of traditional Chinese medicine and head of the royal doctors' team during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1661–1722), founded En Ji Tang, which was mainly engaged in the production and sale of autumn pear syrup. It instantly became popular across the country. Major pharmacies in the capital began to alter the original recipe and produced expensive autumn pear syrup. Having qiuligao in the autumn became popular in Beijing. When people fell ill and had a cold or cough, they would usually not go to doctors but instead have a diluted cup of qiuligao with warm water.
People in Beijing still have firm beliefs regarding the use of various foods to benefit one's health. They hate to wait for the seasonal offerings of En Ji Tang and other pharmacies. Pears are cheap and common. It is entirely feasible to make one's own autumn pear syrup. Housewives begin to make their own home-made qiuligao by stewing autumn pears, rock sugar, shredded ginger and dried tangerine peals. The stew is slowly simmered until it gets sticky, honey is added and a period is waited until the mixture is jelly-like. Children enjoy it when they come home from playing outside. A spoonful of autumn pear syrup can be put in warm water and consumed. It is good for their health and they develop fond memories of the sweet pear fragrance. Qiuligao is a favourite homemade drink of many.
In the afternoon on an autumn day, qiuligao may simmer on the stove, and its scent permeates the air. It is tempting, warm and comforting.