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Banquets at the Palace called Quanxi are Man-Han Banquets
Food in History
Fall Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(3) page(s): 31, 32, and 33
Imperial cuisine originated in royal kitchens serving the royal family and their guests. Emperor Kiangxi commanded that each part of China send their best specialty dishes to the palace; many were dishes he got to know on the large royal hunts he organized. These and other trips away from the palace led to the birth of Manchu-Han banquets, at first celebrated on the return of the entire entourage from these away times.
Records indicate the Quanxi or Man-Han banquets included many exotic palace dishes, others encountered on times away from the royal residence, and still others from Mongol, Hui, Tibetan, and other ethnic populations. His goal as a Mongol was, at these events, to represent the essence of all of Chinese cuisine.
Man-Han banquets began during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE), also known as the Manchu Dynasty. They actually started during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662 - 1722 CE). They were quite popular, and most are recorded in the imperial palace kitchen archives. Any one of them could have from one hundred and eight to three hundred courses, the largest and most splendid taking up to three days, start to finish. These banquets featured 'exotica' also known as 'delicacies.' These dishes were interspersed with sets of four different snack foods. This conspicuous consumption at its height served foods from all over China, even a few even from outside the realm. Records indicate venison a favorite among them.
Banquets were not new to the Chinese, big ones like these were. Banquets in general, were discussed in Volume 7(4) on pages 5 and 10. Those referred to as Man-Han Banquets had many names; in alphabetical order some of them were: Feast of Manchu-Han Dishes, Man-Han Imperial Feasts, Man-Han Quan-Xi, Manchu Han Feasts, Han-Man Banquets, and Qing Han Imperial Feasts. These events combined Manchu or Man banquet foods with Chinese or Han banquet foods, along with foods of other Chinese populations. One early record of them in Yangzhou Hua Fang Lu says they are a fine record of early royal Qing life.
Some of these banquets took three days to eat, start to finish. They were eaten in six separate sessions. They were as elaborate as one can imagine and as a Chinese saying indicates 'it is not a banquet without wine' so the Man-Han banquets featured lots of food and many alcoholic beverages. What they were not, is any relative of banquets most have attended these days. One reason is the number of dishes served, another the amount of time taken to eat one of these banquets, a third is the food itself which was anything but ordinary, still another was that the food was served looking magnificent and with lots of pizzaz. At them, exotic dishes were always interspersed with groups of four small sets of foods to slow down the meal, cleanse the palate, and prepare the eater for the next special dish.
While banquets served these days with bird's nest and shark's fin are thought to be exotic, they do not compare with Imperial ones served during the Qing Dynasty. Early Man-Han banquets, called Quan-xi and also spelled Quanxi always had many courses of exotica, and many others between them. These items of exotica included camel toe, camel hump, gorilla lips, bear paw, deer tail, and monkey brains, to name but a few of their main ingredients. Also among these special foods were frog's belly, carp tongue, leopard placenta--real or mock, chicken and duck brains stewed with bean curd, deer tendon, and so forth. They included things hardly thought of or mentioned today.
One can read about one extravagant Man-Han Banquet in a 1764 book by Li Dou that speaks of some items served, some mentioned above, others spoken about in the aforementioned Flavor and Fortune article available on this magazine's website: www.flavorandfortune.com
Rare are any of these exotica served today. Some fancy Chinese foods do remain popular for those willing to pay big bucks for them, others are outlawed. Nowadays, there are newer touches at modern Man-Han Banquets including those for vegetarians featuring mock meats made only with mushrooms. These, too, are not commonplace.
Also rare, is the person alive who tasted more than one or two of these ancient specialities. Those dishes were labor intensive, made with rare ingredients termed magnificent and intermezzo. They were almost always interspersed with sets of other main dishes, some lavish and some looking lean, sand followed by groups of four small items such as four dried fruits like special walnuts, almonds, dried berries, and dried persimmons. Another foursome might be gorgeous dim sum made to look like different fruits and/or vegetables, their exteriors colored and their interior contents concentrated to mimic tastes of items considered the real thing. Other sets of four could be fruits such as sets of tangerines, kumquats, sweet peaches, and preserved plums. A picture on this page is a plate of half the items served between two courses of exotica.
Some thirty years ago, my husband and I did attend a Man-Han-like banquet at the Fangshan Restaurant in Beijing's Beihai Park. This restaurant, whose name is said to mean: 'imitating imperial cuisine' was founded in 1925 by several former imperial chefs. I recall walking in through the East Gate, and eating a meal so special I could never have ordered it; a Chinese colleague did that for us. That meal was called the 'Small Imperial Banquet' and though my notes are scanty, memory looms large.
It was not a meal with one hundred and eight or more different dishes, but did have more than forty of them, and it did end with many sweet soups. There were three sets of eight individually served special dishes, each one followed by one platter of four different small snack-type items. Some of the main dishes were exotica, several others mimicked them such as the bear paw made with firm tofu covered with the thinnest slices of black mushrooms one could imagine. At that meal, we did see and savor many delicacies including a pile of the best jelly fish I ever ate.
These Man-Han Banquets became popular after the Manchu appointed many Han officials, and this restaurant still had very elderly chefs who had cooked for the Imperial Family. They knew how to create dishes to promote harmony and to combine Han and Manchu dishes at one important meal. The purpose of this meal and all other Man-Han banquets is to embody the majesty, elegance, and importance of the emperors. We felt like royals when eating their food!
Back to the food at that special Fangshan banquet. There were huge pieces of exceptionally tender abalone, a super large whole shark's fin, a piglet carved and returned to its bony carcass, half a camel toe, the mock bear’s left paw–one it licks and is considered more tender, some great venison, and several super soups including a wintermelon filled with a whole pigeon and a quarter of a pressed duck. Thinking back to that soup, I bet that was why my hubby wanted me to have a soup cooked in a wintermelon at my 75th birthday party; and I did. You can read about that party meal, no Man-Han Banquet but a great meal nonetheless, in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume ???? on pages ???
At our Fangshan Man-Han meal, one other thing I recall is very tender eel mixed with leeks, two small lovebirds made with egg whites sitting on a turtle soup, and a dish served in a coconut shell loaded with white and black mo-er cut in such a way to look like two people holding hands. Think they served that turtle soup because the chef may have been told that I had such a splendid soup years earlier and did love it. I say that because that soup was not on the printed menu of the meal. Man-Han banquets dating back to the Qing Dynasty were and still are known as perhaps the most expensive Chinese meals on record. In the past, some did include elephant trunk, gorilla lip, monkey brain, and camel hump, food I have never eaten as they were never served to me. Every dish at a Man Han banquet needs many hands and much time in preparation. They are almost always served on red table cloths by lavishly dressed staff; and they are intended to bring many an Oh and an Ah from those ready to enjoy their rare and delicious dishes.
At these banquets, main dishes arrived after gongs rang, cymbals clanged, lights went off, and/or firecrackers announced each special dish. Should also mention that every dish has a fancy name evoking beauty and providence, and that every person is served their individual portion from a gorgeous platter, and with a flourish. Below are a few dishes served said to be special at these imperial meals. Must confess, they are some of the more simplistic ones so that readers can try to mimic them in their homes.
Many guests at these meals reported that wine pours like water, that they felt they have too much to eat and drink, but that they did enjoy the pomp and ceremony. We were once told that at the end of such a meal the guests report being tired, grateful to eat no more, drink no more, and go home to sleep off excesses of the experience.
One such imperial meal was re-enacted in a movie called: The Chinese Feast. If it comes to a theater near you or to your television screen, take a look and see and better understand what Man-Han banquets are all about.
This cuisine is extremely rare in China or anywhere today, but a few Hong Kong restaurants still make similar meals if ordered and payed for in advance. However, those that do, often replace the exotica with less expensive, more easily obtained, and less rare items because many of the animals used in the past are now endangered or outlawed species. Should you know of one, do check the particulars and let us know costs, numbers of and what the dishes are, and other important details. Then we can inform those readers who want to know about them.
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