Have you ever attended a Chinese banquet? The tables are always round and usually big enough to seat up to twelve guests. You might be in a private room at a restaurant or lucky enough to be in someone’s home. There’s probably a lazy Susan on the table to pass the dishes around. And there will be a lot of them. Is this the way the emperors of China ate?
an imperial banquet
Slippery Noodles is a culinary history of China written by Hsiang Ju Lin. Hsiang relies on texts written by a sixth century government official Jia Sixie who wrote a book entitled Essential Skills for Common Folk. While that book was intended primarily as a farmer’s manual, it also addressed the culinary arts. Here is his recipe for grilled fish.
Carefully clean and scale the fish. Cut it into pieces about 3 cm square. Ginger, tangerine peel, pepper, scallion, celery, sand leeks, perilla and edible cornelian cherries are cut fine and mixed with the fish together with salt, fermented black beans and vinegar. It may be left overnight. When grilling the fish moisten it with coriander juice, and repeat when the fish looks dry. When done the fish has a reddish colour. Put two pieces in each bowl – never just a single piece.
It doesn’t sound bad at all and could easily be executed in a modern kitchen. But not everything on the menu for a medieval imperial banquet sounds equally yummy. Such a feast requires at least eight delicacies. In Jia Sixie’s time, that meant meat and fat. Say, rice or millet covered with a fried meat paste and topped off with a layer of liquid fat. Or maybe you prefer this delicacy: dog liver wrapped in caul fat?
Protocol dictated when a banquet was warranted and which menu was to be served. The highest class of imperial banquet was to mark the death of an emperor or empress. High-ranking imperial concubines merited a lesser menu. All the way down to weddings, birthdays or military victories.
a birthday banquet
By the time the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) rolled around, Chinese cooking had evolved considerably. Both the techniques and the ingredients reflected the fact that China now extended from the frigid north to the humid south, the eastern oceans and the western desert. The term eight delicacies still existed but now there were four types.
From the sea: bird’s nest, shark’s fin, sea cucumber, fish swim bladder, fish bones, abalone, seal, giant salamander
From the mountains: camel hump, bear’s paw, monkey brain, orangutan lips, elephant trunk, panther foetus, rhinoceros tail, deer tendons
Fowl: Chinese grouse, quail, swan, partridge, peacock, turtledove, red-headed hawk, red bird’s nest
Plants: lion’s mane mushroom, silver fungus, veiled lady fungus, morel, shiitake, daylily and two other kinds of mushrooms
According to another culinary historian, Rachel Laudan, in her book Cuisine & Empire:
In China, the emperor ate meals staged to exhibit his cosmic role, never touching foreign foods (at least in formal meals), and never eating with visiting foreigners.
Nowadays, we’ll admit the occasional round-eye to the dinner table. I’m talking now about my husband, my sisters-in-law and all of our kids. But my parents still draw the line at food. If it’s a banquet, then it’s Chinese food only!
This month, my mother turns 80 years old. She was born in Hong Kong so my brothers and I are hosting her birthday banquet at a Cantonese seafood restaurant. Any self-respecting Chinese restaurant has a banquet menu. And any self-respecting Chinese host would try to tweak the menu to suit their own tastes and maybe haggle a little on price, too.
Here’s our menu:
- Chiu Chow style cold appetizers
- Sauteed shrimp with XO sauce and jelly fish
- Sauteed scallop
- Filet mignon
- House special chicken
- Steamed live fish
- Baked lobster in supreme sauce with long-life noodles
- Fried rice with egg white and dried scallops
- Dessert with white nuts and mashed taro
- Chiu Chow style sweet crystal cake
The worst thing that could happen to a Chinese host is to run out of food. My father starts to get nervous whenever my brothers finish off a dish. He’ll keep on ordering food until the platters remain untouched on the table.
My mother once told me that, for a proper Chinese meal, I had to serve as many dishes as there were guests at the dinner table, plus one. So far, I’ve never run out of food during a dinner party but my husband and I have, on many occasions, eaten leftovers for the good part of a week.
I’ve never tried my hand at camel’s hump. I suspect my local butcher won’t stock it. It’s also not a standard ingredient in my favorite Chinese cookbook. That’s Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop. She culled those recipes during her time training as a chef in Sichuan province. Sometimes she asked for the recipe. Other times, she worked it out herself, tasting and trying like any good cook should.
When my mom and I were in Taiwan a few years ago, we had the most amazing dinner at a restaurant called Fu Lou in Tainan. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask for the recipe so I had to reverse-engineer the dish when I got home. Here it is.
Karen’s Taiwan style mussels
This recipe will serve 4-8 when combined with other dishes. Mussels can be substituted for any other mollusks including clams and razorbacks.
1 kilo fresh mussels
3T each finely minced ginger, finely minced garlic and scallions, green and white parts, cut on the bias (horse ears)
2 bird Thai chiles, halved, with seeds and stem removed
1/4 cup each palm sugar, soy sauce (light), Thai fish sauce and oyster sauce
Several large handfuls of Thai basil
1. Soak the mussels in tap water 20-60 minutes, changing the water 2-3 times, to remove all the sand. Discard any open or cracked mussels.
2. Whisk the liquids and palm sugar together in a small bowl and set aside.
3. Heat vegetable oil until almost smoking. Saute the aromatics until they release their scent. Add the mussels and stir constantly until the shells begin to open.
4. Pour in the palm sugar mixture and continue to stir until all shells are open. Discard any closed shells. Add Thai basil and stir until wilted. Serve immediately.