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China's Royal Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Fall Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(3) pages: 26 to 27

Canton, now called Guangzhou, is the capital of the Guangdong Province and is in the south of China. This city and its province have served many royal foods including those made with bird’s nests in a regal cooking of the country’s early royal cookery. It had many Emperors who believed that every food had natural tastes and textures that should be enhanced by their royal heritage.

For people in this province, typical meals were scant, and built around rice, their staple. They had many vegetables, few foods from the sea, poultry and other animals if they caught or bought them, all prepared and presented in many ways, the most they could purchase and make when sitting down to eat. For royalty, it meant the most and best they could afford, meats often marinated in a mixture of soy sauce and other ingredients to draw out their moisture, a starch is mixed in to seal them, a little sugar added to bring out their many other flavors, and garnishes to enhance their beauty. Creative ingredients and cookery techniques made China’s foods taste the best they could in no place more obvious than in this city.

They even made a joke saying that they eat everything with legs except tables and chairs, everything with wings except airplanes. But it was no joke that if you ate just two of their snack foods, here called ‘dim sum’ every day, you would need more than a year to taste them all.

Also no joke, was the common expression that a perfect life meant being born in or marrying someone from Suzhou, going to Hangzhou, eating in Guangzhou, and dying in Luzhou. Why these cities, because Suzhou had beautiful women, Hangzhou is itself was beautiful, Guangzhou was where to purchase great foods, and Luzhou where to purchase great wood for a coffin.

Now, most know that just about every Chinatown in the world was settled by people from Guangzhou who could and did make their cooking great. Most people from this city appreciate light food that uses the freshest ingredients prepared using techniques that enhanced them including steaming, frying, stir-frying, and others that making them taste the best they can.

It was these Southern Chinese folk who came to the US early in the 18th century as did three seamen who stayed for a year, but not by choice. These seafarers landed in Baltimore on the Pallas, their captain leaving immediately after unloading, he stranded them there.

Before and certainly after that, many Chinese landed in San Francisco intending to help build the transcontinental railroad, but soon left to open food stalls and restaurants to sell their great food to other Chinese, the non-Chinese, too, at low prices with fast service and wonderful tastes. Their dishes became famous and soon thereafter, featured foods from Guangzhou, Chaozhou, Dongjiang, Beijing, and other cities, foods that were fresh, diverse, tasty, tender, crisp, velvety, and always well-flavored. They were more intense in winter and spring than in other seasons, always delicious and never overcooked.

The Cantonese came from a mild climate, knew, had, and loved fresh greens all year, ate a large variety of fruits and vegetables, enjoyed well-prepared and much fish, poultry, and other animals, and had menus that served them at least since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). They used a large variety of cooking techniques, varied their garnishing and presentations, mimicked local dishes, and enticed diners to eat at their stalls, restaurants, and other places, with the most delicious dishes they could afford.

Theirs was a very old city in an old famous seaport, and their cooking used less oil, maintained each food’s original taste in lightly-flavored dishes with many vegetables that matched their meats, served them with clear soup, and shared their more than five thousand different main courses, eight hundred different snack foods, and many beverages, too.

Some were lucky enough to see, be served, or shown them at the 1956 Guangzhou Famous Dishes and Snacks Exhibition in that city; and many became famous all over China, and then all over the world.

One was their Roast Suckling Pig which has a long history and is loved by most Chinese and those introduced to it. Another, their Royal Lobster some call Lobster Cantonese that we had made with lobster, ground pork, and several condiments. Both were mentioned by other names in The Book of Rites, it produced thousands of years ago. Both were mentioned early on, both still loved, both were popular at Chinese Imperial Banquets where ever they were held. The Pan Xi restaurant in Hangzhou also knows it simply as Mushroom Soup, the lobster originated in Guangzhou’s capital city. They both have simpler and more complicated names, both are detailed below, and both are the best of the best, so do make and enjoy them.

The soup recipe was given to us by a culinary staff who encouraged us to print it in this magazine whose copies we gave him. We hope you will make and enjoy both, as many have over many years. The soup instructions, given to us orally are written as an almost single paragraph; the lobster dish given to me after having it for the first time as a teenager never having had any seafood before. We scribbled it on a paper napkin we kept for many years and can make it as remembered these more than sixty years since we did first get and make it.

Pan Xi Mushroom Soup

1½ teaspoons dried broken dong gu mushroom pieces, soaked until soft in one cup warm water, drain and save it
½ teaspoon fresh ginger
1 scallion, coarsely chopped
1 Tablespoon rendered chicken fat
½ pound bok cai hearts
½ teaspoon salt
6 cups superior chicken stock
2 Tablespoons Shao Xing rice wine
dash ground white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with a little stock
1 teaspoon rendered chicken fat
½ teaspoon crab roe


(as told to us>
1. Drained the mushrooms of course, mix them with the chopped fresh ginger and scallions, also the salt, granulated sugar, too.
2. Add very hot superior soup, the reserved mushroom water, and Shao Xing rice wine, pepper, sesame oil, the cornstarch mixture and chicken fat. Mix them, then top with the crab roe and serve it very hot.

Royal Lobster Soup

3 Tablespoons salt
8 cups chicken broth
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup Chinese rice-wine
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
dash of ground white pepper
2 lobsters
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans, mashed
1 Tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
3 scallions cut in half-inch pieces
1/4 cup ground or finely minced fatty pork
1 large egg
1 Tablespoon sesame oil


1. Bring salt and broth to a boil with the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and ground pepper.
2. Put the lobsters in boiling water simmering them for three minutes, then put them in ice water, and drain well.
3. Remove the claws, cut them and the bodies open, and cut tail meat in half the long way and in several pieces the other way.
4. Heat a wok, add the oil, and stir the lobster meat for one minute, then add the minced pork, then the black beans, garlic, ginger, and scallions and stir-fry one minute.
5. Finally, stir in the beaten egg just for one minute, then drizzle with the sesame oil, and serve in a preheated soup tureen.

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