The Most Luxurious Cuisine Ever

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:

(Here’s Cixi) 

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.



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1 Comment

  • Nancy Taggart says:

    I hope this message will reach you as I’m neither a twitterer nor a facebooker. I have almost no internet presence because I live on the west coast of Vancouver Island and there’s no cell service.

    So, Ruth (or Ms Reichl if you prefer – as a Canadian I’m unsure about American protocols and don’t want to insult you or hurt your feelings through ignorance), I’d like to tell you how much your books have meant to me, particularly Tender At the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples.

    Most recently, though, in the last year or two, I’ve suffered so many deaths in my family it’s causing my cerebral tissues to slurry down into an injudiciously seasoned and altogether regrettable lettuce puree; no wailing violins, please, I’m just stating facts. ‘Happenstance’ brought me your Kitchen Year book. I’ve read through it slowly, thoughtfully, and savoured and salivated over the recipes. In the last short while, it’s become one of my favourite books.

    There are more than a few reasons for that. When you began to write the book you were dealing with a life-altering change due to the sudden demise of Gourmet magazine. While I was trying to deal with losses of my own – and there are so many people doing this every day – I have deeply appreciated the conclusions you came to and been reminded that I, too, love cooking and can find solace and satisfaction in the kitchen (although I will never approach your competency and perspicacity therein).

    Most moving for me was your Carole King story. Yes, our lives crisscross and they matter. If they cross only once, they matter. And it’s never too late.

    Thank you again; very much,
    Nancy Taggart (Canada)