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Qian-Long: Qing Emperor and His Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(1) page(s): 14, 17, 25, and 33


Much is known about the foods of the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE) because very accurate records were kept about what the emperors ate, when they ate it, and with whom. Renqui Yu, in Volume 7(2), pages 13, 14, and 24 details some of them. His article titled: Imperial Banquets and Emperor's Meals in Qing China is on this magazine's website www.flavorandfortune.com

During Qing dynasty times, traditional conventions controlled emperor's lives when they were in the palace. This was not so when they went to visit their subjects and see what was happening in their empire. One of the things they may have enjoyed while away was not having to rise at four in the morning, an inherited protocol. No doubt there were others.

Emperor Qian-Long was Manchu; he lived from 1711 to 1799 CE and ruled from 1736 to 1796. His considerable impact on the court and food habits of his country trickled down to the general populace. One that did not, probably due to expense, was what he ate upon first awakening. That very early snack, as he called it, before his first audience was a bowl of crystalized sugar prepared with bird's nests. After this first set of audiences, he took a nap. He awoke again, a bit before nine, and then had breakfast. It was a multi-course meal. He ate lunch between two and three in the afternoon, and after lunch took another nap. He had supper, if there were no evening function, whenever he called for it.

All of his meals were prepared by five sets of culinary folk including a chef, five cooks, and another chap who supervised them all. In addition, there was a steward, whose sole job was to see to it that all needed foods were obtained and accounted for. In addition, the steward recorded which cook prepared which dish, and the exact amount the emperor ate of each of them.

Emperor Qian-Long loved dishes from South China, others from Shandong, and of course, foods from Manchuria. He particularly adored Suzhou dishes made with duck. To entice his appetite, many meals began with appetite pick-me-ups such as pickled cabbage and other pickled vegetables. These had been preserved in soy and other fermented sauces. During meals, he consumed more of them and dumplings stuffed with vegetables, rice cakes, and foods made with or served with honey.

Main dishes, about forty of them, were served with boiled rice. He always ate alone, unless there was some state function he needed to attend. Lots of the dishes presented to him were never tasted, and rarely was one finished. Left-overs were given to members of his imperial family, other consorts, and to his favorite officials. They might have been fried or steamed chicken or duck dishes made with cabbage and/or other vegetables, dishes made with bean curd, or simple pork dishes. His breakfast and mid-day meals were quite similar. There could be several kinds of dumplings, a soup or two, noodle dishes, and items such as chicken made with egg whites, and the duck dishes already mentioned. There were also many vegetarian dishes. Beef never appeared at his table because his forefather, Noriachi, had issued a decree that no cattle be destroyed. Another reason was he was a devout Buddhist.

Who cooked for this emperor? Many were sons of earlier chefs, theirs were inherited positions. Others were recruited on six extensive tours of his empire, and the many other smaller jaunts. For example, if he had a dish when traveling that he liked, that person was invited to prepare it and other dishes at the palace. Almost all accepted this virtual command performance.

Clearly, this emperor and others liked to eat away from the palace as rules, such as the emperor eating alone, were suspended. Qian-Long adored eating at banquets honoring dignitaries and celebrating special festivals. Most banquets he attended began after all were seated and tea was served. They continued with cold dishes, as many as sixteen of them, followed by more appetizers. Then the cooked main dishes were served; there could be between eight and fifty of them. Few, if any, included fruits because they were considered snack foods. However, as this emperor loved loquats, bayberries, and tangerines, they were served between long pauses in these meals when he called for them. They could be served alone or in brine, honey, liquor, or another liquid; and as they were served between meals, they were considered snacks.

The foods served at banquets were mostly Han or Manchu style, or dishes served during earlier dynasties, such as Ming dynasty foods. Emperor Qian-Long took pride in justifying these extensive meals as opportunities to win the good will of his people. To some of them he would order up to two hundred dishes. One of them was known to have lasted three days. Since then, the larger ones have been dubbed Han-Manchu Banquets.

The recipes used to prepare these major repasts quickly spread around the empire. They served to integrate the various Chinese cuisines. All were meals with many meat dishes, a reasonable number of vegetarian ones, and a few made with game, which this emperor adored. One duck dish served often had its bones removed, the cavity stuffed with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, white meat of chicken, shrimp, sausage, and the neck meat of the duck. Eight items stuffed into this duck was preferred because eight is a lucky number. Later, this dish became known as Eight-treasure Duck. It is still a popular banquet item. He and the Empress loved it, records indicate they even enjoyed it at breakfast.

While there was a lot of food set out, imperial statues decreed main dishes needed preparation the day before and that they be set out on tables the night before. Thus, they were eaten at room temperature and accompanied by wine. Food was less important than the rituals that came with it before, during, and after the meal.

There were lots of bean curd dishes at these banquets and at all the emperor's meals. There were also many vegetable dishes. With no reports of extensive illness from foods served to hundreds and hundreds at these meals, there was no need to change this 'prepare ahead' protocol.

Bean curd was considered a tonic food, one good for the aged. Chinese today still believe this and site that this emperor lived to be eighty-eight, ate many vegetable dishes with eggplant--an imperial favorite, and had dishes selected considering yin-yang balance. He was careful about his diet, and to help the imperial doctors, records kept of foods at ordinary meals and banquets helped them take good care of his health.

We have never read, as we are not well-versed in Chinese, the actual banquet or other imperial records, though they are said to be available in Beijing at the Historical Archives. We do know that many of the chefs (their dishes reported in these records) were sacked, but we do not know why. One can conjecture reasons, but why bother. We do know they were hired by restaurants and rich families in the capital and elsewhere after leaving the monarch's employ.

We read and have reported that this emperor loved tea. It was the chief non-alcoholic beverage consumed during his reign. As an important part of palace life, it was served and consumed at lectures and other palace events including at tea ceremonies before or after grand lectures. This emperor drank lots of tea and he initiated a special day when poetry was written and tea consumed when reading it.

Should you want to indulge in Qian-Long dishes or have a Qian-Long banquet, there is at least one Beijing restaurant specializing in them. Called the Lishiu Restaurant, it is at 68 Lishiu Road and there they serve several dishes he adored including at least two he gave fanciful names to: Swallow Flying to the Moon, and Golden Hill Buddha.

Below, we offer a few dishes popular during this emperor's reign. The first one he ate in Qufu at the Confucius residence. His daughter married into that family, and once when visiting, as he had little appetite so the chef there tried to entice and increase it. That is the first dish below. He was reported to say it was 'delicious' and it was he who gave it that name. The second dish he tasted on a southern tour taken incognito. He liked it so much, he had it added to his royal menu at the palace. The third dish was enjoyed in Hangzhou. The story about it is that in a rainstorm, soaked and hungry, the emperor went into a small restaurant. The owner there prepared a stewed fish head casserole with tofu. When he went back to the palace, he asked for the same dish, and gave it the name Little Royal Dish.
Golden Hook with Silver Strip
Ingredients:
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/2 pound bean sprouts, heads and tails removed
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 Tablespoon dried shrimp, minced
1 teaspoon minced ginger
small amount of fresh hot pepper
1 teaspoon each, red and green sweet pepper, slivered
Preparation:
1. Heat wok or fry pan and fry the ginger in dry fry-pan until aromatic, about half minute. Then add the bean sprouts, rice wine, and salt and fry for one minute then remove everything from the wok, and put in a strainer to drain.
2. Fry garlic in the same pan, add the shrimp, ginger, and hot pepper and toss well before returning the bean sprouts to the pan and stir fry half minute.
3. Add red and green pepper slivers, toss well, then serve.
Tofu Soup, Monk Wen Si Style
Ingredients:
1 Tablespoon chicken fat
2 shallots, sliced thin
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin
1 quart chicken broth
1 pound tofu, cut into thin slices
3 Tablespoons fresh bamboo shoot, cut into cut into matchstick-size pieces
1 cloud ear fungus, soaked and slivered
1 dried Chinese mushroom, soaked, stem discarded, and sliced thin
2 asparagus, cut into two inch lengths, then into matchstick-size pieces
2 Tablespoons vegetarian ham, cut into matchstick-size pieces
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into matchstick-size pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with the same amount of cold water
2 sprigs coriander cut into half-inch lengths
1 teaspoon sesame oil
dash ground white pepper
Preparation:
1. Heat large wok or a big heavy pot. Add the chicken fat and the shallot and garlic pieces. Stir-fry for one minute, then remove and discard them.
2. Put the chicken broth into the pot, and bring it to the boil. Add the tofu, bamboo shoot, cloud ear, Chinese mushroom, asparagus, vegetarian ham, and carrot pieces. Reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes.
3. Add the salt, cornstarch mixture, coriander pieces, sesame oil, and the ground white pepper. Stir, then serve.
Fish Head Casserole with Tofu
Ingredients:
5 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large fish head, preferably carp, and weighing close to two pounds
1/4 pound pork, sliced
1 pound frozen then defrosted tofu, sliced into quarter inch by two inch pieces
1 chili pepper, seeded and slivered or two teaspoons Chinese chili sauce
1 Tablespoon broad bean paste
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
2 quarts chicken broth
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 scallion, slivered
Preparation:
1. Heat oil and fry the fish head in a wok or large fry-pan until golden born, then move it to a large casserole. Fry the pieces of pork one to two minutes until no longer pink, then add them to the casserole.
2. Fry the tofu until slightly crisp, and put it into the casserole.
3. Put chili pepper, chili sauce, broad bean paste, and the garlic in the wok, fry that one minute, and transfer everything in the wok to the casserole.
4. Add chicken broth, soy sauce, and the sugar and cook uncovered for half an hour. Then add scallion pieces and stir. Serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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