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.
April 11, 2017
Here’s another piece from the amazing Chinese food encyclopedia I wrote about a few days ago.
This is one of my favorite Chinese preparations: simple greens cooked in broth. But as you’ll see, the simplicity of this dish belies an artful process: slow and patient stock making that results in a crystal clear broth bursting with deep, deep flavor. (I have to admit that the recipe reminds me a bit of the famous seventeenth century French chef Francois Vatel, who once offered to reduce a herd of cattle to a thimble of broth.)
But to really flex your stock making might, most of us require a few more specifics.
To find them I consulted Fuchsia Dunlop. She always delivers.
In Land of Plenty, her classic English-language Sichuan cookbook, she writes:
Sichuanese cooks clarify their stocks by adding pastes made from raw meat, which rise to the surface, collecting the scum. The classic method is first to use a “red paste” made from minced pork mixed with an approximately equal quantity of water, and then a “white paste” made from chicken breasts, again pummeled to a paste and mixed with an approximately equal quantity of water. The cooked pork paste is discarded, but the cooked chicken breast mixture can be tied up with cheesecloth and left in the clarified stock for another hour, at 200 degrees fahrenheit, to improve and clarify the liquid and its flavor. Straining the cooked stock through cheesecloth, however, gives a perfectly respectable result and is the method I use at home.
Here’s her recipe for “Banquet Stock,”
And here’s the Chinese original from the Chinese Encyclopedia. You’ll be happy to know it’s no more specific than the English translation.
March 31, 2017
There’s something poignant about the drift of the “hints” in The American Woman’s Cookbook, written by Ruth Berolzheimer in 1941. Though her tips run the gamut – there’s a section on food for invalids, and a glossary of French cooking terms – Berolzheimer’s audience is the striving woman of modest means, eager to keep up with the Joneses.
If this looks ludicrous – and so much of it does – consider this: The American Woman’s Cookbook sold one million copies in its first year. Kind of makes me sad…..
March 29, 2017
Like Apicius before them, The Portuguese American Federation, a few centuries later, packed their cookbook with a robust “hints” section. No housekeeper, after all, should be caught with lumpy frosting or sad egg whites.
If such perfectionism is opposed to my own kitchen philosophy, the sheer variety of these pro-tips make them an entertaining read.
March 25, 2017
Housekeeping books seem to be all the rage. Just look at the furious popularity of Marie Kondo’s, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
But this is really nothing new. Back in the fourth or fifth century (nobody knows when the Roman cookery writer, Apicius actually penned his tome), the author was already offering his readers advice on keeping a happy home. Want to turn that red wine white? Apicius is on the case!
Apicius, who’s best known for his manifesto-length recipes featuring ingredients like liquamin, sea urchin, flamingo, sheep’s bladder, and healthy heaps of fresh frankincense, devoted an entire section of De Re Coquinaria (sometimes translated as “On the Subject of Cooking”) to the household arts. When he wasn’t busy inventing lasagna, it seems Apicius was puttering about the house.
Here are a few of his more entertaining tips.