Visiting Assistant Professor Spotlight: Yitzchak Jaffe


The most common approach to studying food preferences in ancient China has been to document the earliest occurrences and examples of what will eventually be identified as typifying Chinese cuisine (e.g. when does tofu make its debut?), or by tracing later traditions and even modern practices back into the past (such as locating the beginnings of stir-fry as a cooking technique). At the basis of these studies is the notion that Chinese civilization is monolithic and unchanging; a cumulative culture that adds to its solid core.  In his examination and survey of how foodways developed in China, K.C. Chang stated that it is clear that “continuity vastly outweighs change”. 

The temptation to extend the more recent past further back in time is understandable, but the urge must be curtailed. Indeed, upon preparing a menu composed of dishes from a sixth century C.E. cookbook, the historian Endymion Wilkinson noted that his guests were unwilling to refer to the prepared meal as ‘authentic’ Chinese food.

My current research project is aimed at uncovering foodways of Bronze Age communities through the study of contextual archaeological data from Shandong province. I focus on the li pots, the main cooking apparatus of the time. Rather than look at the styles of ceramic vessels as reflecting the ethnic identity of their owners, as is commonly the focus of many studies, I investigate these cooking pots to understand instead how different communities made and consumed their food with them. Currently, I am exploring the relationship between the technical properties of ceramic production and cooking practices, i.e. how potters made their vessels and the ways in which cooks used them.

By focusing on cooking practices, this project will begin to reconstruct the tapestry of communities of culinary tastes inhabiting Shandong during this time – a region traditionally considered peripheral to the development of Chinese civilization.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, I will be organizing an event at ISAW in collaboration with scholars at the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, where academics and chefs will undertake collaborative research projects focused on food in the past.

This endeavor will bring scholars of the ancient world and food specialists together to create and serve the fruits of their collaborative efforts to the NYU community. Specialists will work in teams composed of a chef and an archaeologist/historian who will cooperate on a research project focusing on food to create a consumable final product. Our aim here is not simply to combine ingredients in a pot from a particular time and place. Instead, the nature of each team’s project will be one in which collaboration between various specialists will provide for novel and concrete research perspectives.

More information about Yitzchak's research can be found on his page here