Hell's Kitchens

Tomb-Sweeping Festival is not a big gastronomic occasion, but food does play a part. In fact, this holiday grew out of the Cold Food Festival. And to explain that, I’ll have to tell you the story of a man, the thigh of another man, the curious failure of nepotism, a heavily forested mountain and the ultimate bro prank gone wrong.

Before Duke Wen became the ruler of the state of Jin, he was just a guy on the run from his murderous royal family. One day, weak with hunger, he was surprised to see his courtier Jie Zitui offering him a bowl of savory broth. “Hey, where did you get the meat?” Duke Wen asked.

“My leg,” answered Jie.


Years later, when Duke Wen started feeling guilty for not rewarding this courtier for his loyalty, he tried to lure Jie down from the mountain where he now lived as a hermit. When promises and cajoling failed, Duke Wen decided that setting fire to the mountain might prove more persuasive.

It proved fatal. To mourn Jie Zitui, the remorseful monarch proclaimed that for a month each year, all fires would be prohibited – creating a kingdom of involuntary raw foodists.

Many dynasties later, Emperor Xuanzong grew disgusted with how his wealthy subjects vied to outdo each other with extravagant sacrifices honoring the deceased. “I’m going to limit these gravesite rituals to a single day each year: a fortnight after the spring equinox. Light offenders will get spanked 100 times in court; heavy offenders will be stripped of rank and fortune. That oughta solve the problem,” he probably said, wiping his hands in satisfaction. “Nobody will ever again turn a holiday into an excuse for ostentatious consumption.”


These days, joss shops are a portal to a parallel universe constructed of cardboard and papier-mache, an entire mall's worth of goods ready to be offered up to one's ancestors via small bonfires. Hell Bank Notes, joss clothes, joss houses, joss cars and joss electronics are standard, but if you go to the right shops, you can find the “vulgar” items that the authorities are always trying to stamp out: joss call girls, joss condoms, joss Viagra.

While we’d rather not know what our ancestors get up to in their ghostly spare time, we do care that they’re well-fed. This year, we splurged on fancy joss banquets and a kitchen set for them, but imagine how pleased we were to find a joss “supermarket” – mismatched clip art printed on the flimsiest possible pulp. What a bargain! In the underworld, Xuanzong is giving us a thumbs-up for frugality, while a frowning Duke Wen stands with his ghostly fire extinguisher at the ready.

Photos © Cherry Li, all rights reserved. A version of this story originally appeared on luckypeach.com.