Lately I've been reading at a book called Peony in Love that I bought for myself last summer. I'm still waiting to be swept away by the story as I was with the author's previous book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Both books do, however, provide a unique insight into Chinese history and culture.
For example, both go into excrutiatingly detailed explanations of footbinding. I'll just skim over the facts here and say that the custom was practiced by binding the four smaller toes of the foot to the sole of the heel. Eventually, the arch of the foot would break. Girls were in danger of infection (due to toenails digging into the soles of feet) and even death (due to gangrene.) When the perfect size and shape foot was finally attained, it was known as a Golden Lotus. The tiny feet were prized as objects of beauty and eroticism. Go here and here to read more about footbinding.
On a lighter note, I also learned about two Chinese fruits. Carambola is actually another name for star fruit. This yellowish, waxy fruit is shaped like a puffy star and is used in sweet and savory dishes in China. Dragon’s eyes are small and round with a brown shell.Inside a whitish flesh surrounds a black pit, giving them the look of eyeballs. They are similar to lychees and are also known as longans. I would definitely try these!
I am still trying to find an explanation for See's list of eight 'tastes' served in foods at a banquet: "good, bad, fragrant, stinky, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter." What foods taste stinky? And the ultimate question: why would you want to serve them at a banquet?!
Ayto, John, ed. An A-Z of Food and Drink. Oxford University Press, 2002.
See, Lisa. Peony in Love. Random House, 2008.The New Food Lover’s Companion. Barron’s. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series.