April 13, 2017
Imperial cuisine, the ne plus ultra of the Chinese canon, was exclusively reserved for emperors. There has never been a more luxurious kind of cooking. It was meant to showcase the prime offerings of a vast and varied country, including staples like shark lips, rhinoceros, deer penis and dehydrated and fried beaver skin. In some cases, an emperor wouldn’t taste the same dish twice in his (or her, more rarely) entire lifetime.
The remarkable creativity of the imperial kitchens, and their sprawling structure, owed much to the fact that emperors commonly recruited chefs from around the country. This meant that the finest Sichuan cooks worked alongside the finest chefs from Guangdong, Shanghai, Hunan….. Through several dynasties of massive societal change, these cooks helped create one of the most impressive catalogs of food the world has ever seen.
As China has become more prosperous there’s been renewed interest in this once-hidden cuisine. If you’re as fascinated by this food as I am, Chinese Imperial Cuisines and Eating Secrets is a good starting place. It begins with this incredible interview with relatives of Puyi, the last emperor of China; although the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, he continued to be royally served throughout the 1920s. This will give you a sense of the sheer grandeur of these meals:
The brothers describe Empress Dowager Cixi’s meals:
And here’s a taste of the whimsy of this food.
No doubt simplified for the home cook.
Tomorrow, something I’ll actually try at home. Along with something I definitely won’t.
Categorised in: Vintage Books and Magazines