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Qing Dynasty Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(1) page(s): 28-30

Imperial food during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE) impacted Chinese Dietary culture, as did the fods of all preceeding dynasties. Imperial kitchens were then, as they were before, responsible for the emperors meals as well as for those of his family and the meals of the highest officials who lived on palace grounds. These kitchens fed him and his large entourage. Those outside palace walls wanted to emulate the emperors, so their influence was important.

Imperial kitchens had a director/minister, that person's deputy, and a large group to assist these men. All were appointed by the Emperor. In addition to them, there were more than four hundred officials, cooks, and eunuchs responsible for foods served and eaten in the palace. The staff was reduced by half during Daoguang's reign (1821 - 1850) when he simplified his diet reducing the number of dishes served to him and to others.

The director, chefs, kitchen assistants and others in the palace culinary staff also oversaw foods served when the emperor or his senior staff were away from the Forbidden City on official business. They did not always cook for them at those times, but did so more often than not. The spouse of the emperor had an equivalent staff though not quite as large as that of the emperor. That was true until Empress Cixi took power. Her staff was even larger than the one for Emperor Qianlong. It is reported that she also made her staff work harder because she took her meals in assorted places depending upon whims or needs.

The emperor's staff in the main kitchen served his regular everyday meals and prepared and served his banquet and festival meals. In addition, there was a tea kitchen making tea with milk, and a clear tea kitchen preparing tea with nothing added to it. These tea kitchens were not only for those beverages, but for snacks that accompanied them. In addition to these three sets of kitchen responsibilities, there was a special bakery kitchen making rice, wheat, and other staple foods, and an external bakery kitchen making staple foods for banquets, sacrificial rites, and feasts. With this much attention to food for the royal and extended family, meals for the emperor and his entourage were an important part of royal family life.

Overall, the foods prepared during the Qing Dynasty were based upon the traditional diet of the Manchu accompanied by remnants of the Han dietary. Most often, the emperors meals were served in Yangxin Hall, also known as the Hall of Tranquility. Protocol required that the emperor eat there sitting at a table all by himself.

When in the Forbidden City, protocol dictated that the emperor got up at four in the morning each and every day. After dressing and preparing for the day, he ate a dish cooked with sugar and bird's nest; this was before his earliest audience. Then, at nine that same morning, he ate a breakfast most often of seven dishes, three pastries, three pickles, and rice. We know this from detailed records kept including who cooked each dish, where each food item was purchased and when, what it was called, and how much of each of them he ate.

Lunch, which was the main meal of the day, was served between noon and two in the afternoon. The exact time was when called for by the emperor. He had a snack, usually with tea, about four in the afternoon, and another before bedtime. Like his meals, every item was recorded as indicated above, and tested, often dipping some or pouring a bit of each dish onto a silver platter. It was then tasted by a eunuch before serving it to the emperor or anyone in the imperial family.

During the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796), the fourth ruler of the ten in this Dynasty which was also called the Manchu Dynasty, one report on one occasion speaks of the his being served rice and some dishes. Of these, one was with chicken and duck, another prepared with bird's nest and duck, a soup, some stewed chicken, also smoked duck, salted duck made with pork, a few fried dishes, and several pastries. All of these were for one meal.

Later. when Empress Cixi ruled, reports indicate she would order and taste one hundred or more dishes after one or more eunuchs tasted each one checking for poisons. Needless to say, her food expenses were gargantuan compared to those of previous rulers. Emperor Qianlong's meals were not considered great because he adhered to rigid rules associated with palace food. Not so when he went on trips. At those times he enjoyed many more and many different foods because what he ate away from the palace was not governed and did not require any protocols of the Forbidden City.

Not only was food regulated at the palace, but so was all dinnerware used to serve it. Every kitchen had its own service pattern, even its own storehouse for its platters, bowls, dishes, chopsticks, serving utensils, and the like.

When an official wanted to present a dish to the emperor, perhaps for a favor wanted or one already granted, if that person was a prince, duke, or a member of the royal family, his presentation was served on a red plate. High civil officials above the rank of a deputy chief or a high military officer had their dishes served on green plates. Those of lesser rank had theirs served on common plates.

Those who study the foods of this dynasty say that foods before the reign of Emperor Qianlong had fewer influences from China's Northeast. They report meals served before he came to power as heavy, many dishes made with liver, duck, fish, deer, bird's nest, and game. After his reign, there were more dishes with millet, white, glutinous, and regular long and short grain rice and black rice, and lots of wheat, noodle, and cereal dishes served with all the meat and fish dishes. Before and after the reign of Qianlong, foods are discussed in these two divisional styles. What changed very little is that before and afterwards, formal banquets had seven to forty-nine main dishes served after eight to sixteen cold dishes.

No matter the dishes, their purpose was singular, to maintain and improve the emperor's health. Therefore, all meals had lots of staple food and many fruit and vegetable dishes. In Spring and Summer, meals and dishes in them were lighter, in Fall and Winter meals were fattier and heavier. At every meal, before or afterwards, there were several hot pots or roasted poultry items, or both. Overall, most foods were Han dishes, many popular during the Ming Dynasty; later there were Manchu dishes. These came to the emperors table along with some Northern and some Southern dishes, also some herbal/medicinal dishes. Foods of this last group were selected and served to maintain yin/yang balance in the emperor's diet and maintain his health.

Emperor Qianlong liked all hot main dishes served in a double-layered container, the one below holding boiling water to keep his main dishes hot. This was important because meals were prepared some time before the emperor ate them. Time was needed for the eunuchs to taste all his food before he did. Many main dishes stayed well because they were boiled then steamed and served with a sauce.

Before and when Qianlong became emperor, there were many Ming and Tang dishes served. All chefs were appointed for life, their sons inheriting their positions when they passed on, so popular dishes and those who made them were always available for the emperors pleasure. Emperors did add other chefs. For example, those who cooked dishes for Qianlong on his trips away from the palace exposed him to other foods. Southern trips made delicacies he particularly liked, and so these were added to his palace meals. Thus, his table added Shandong, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and other foods after he became emperor and traveled and tasted them.

Recipes that he and other emperors loved follow this article as do other dishes popular during the Qing Dynasty. All are rewritten for ease of cooking in today's times.
Qianlong Mutton with Sauce
4 to 5 pounds mutton, loin preferred
2 Tablespoons minced scallions, divided into two parts
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger, divided into two parts
2 teaspoons whole peppercorns, divided into two parts
4 teaspoons salt
3 Tablespoons rice wine
4 Tablespoons dark soy sauce, divided into two parts
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Put mutton, two quarts of water, and half of the scallions, ginger, and peppercorns, and all of the salt into a large pot; and bring this to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Remove any scum and continue simmering until the liquid is reduced to less than half its original volume, about two hours.
2. Then add the rice wine and one part of the soy sauce, and continue simmering until the liquid has barely two or three tablespoons left (about another hour). Then remove the meat, slice it, and arrange nicely on a heat-proof platter and steam it for fifteen minutes, then remove the platter from the steamer.
3. In a small pot, prepare a sauce putting the rest of the scallions, ginger, peppercorns (tied into a piece of cheesecloth), the soy sauce, sugar, chicken broth, and the sesame oil and bring to the boil and boil for one to two minutes. Discard the cheesecloth and its contents.
4. Pour the sauce over the meat, and serve.
Qianlong Pheasant Casserole
1 scallion, minced
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons sesame paste
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
1 teaspoon hot pepper oil
3 pheasants, boned, the meat cut into two-inch square pieces; or use two pounds of chicken thigh meat cut into these squares, cut each thickness cut in half
1/2 cup pickled napa cabbage
1/4 cup pickled carrot strips
3 Tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted in one tablespoon lard
1/2 pound firm or brown bean curd, cut into half-inch cubes
1. Mix scallion and ginger pieces in a bowl, then add soy sauce, sesame paste and the shrimp paste, and stir. Add the hot oil and stir well, until all are combined. If this sauce is too thick, add one tablespoon hot tea or hot water, and continue to stir until well-mixed.
2. Put five cups of boiling water into a casserole that can go on the stove and then to the table. Add pickled cabbage and carrots and the bean curd and return to the boil. Then add the pieces of peasant or chicken meat, and boil this for three minutes if pheasant, five if chicken meat. Then add the pine nuts and bring the dish to the table.
3. Serve broth and contents to each person, leaving any remaining on the table for seconds, if desired.
Qianlong Gold Coin and Swimming Dragon
1 pound eel, skinned and boned, head and intestines removed, flesh cut into half-inch by three-inch strips
1 Tablespoon minced fresh coriander
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 scallion, finely minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely minced
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing or another Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Marinate eel with half teaspoon cold water and the minced coriander, garlic powder, scallion, and ginger for fifteen minutes.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, and in half minute, add the eel strips and stir-fry them for two to three minutes before adding the cornstarch mixture. Stir-fry half a minute and it will thicken and cling to the eel. Remove to a pre-heated small platter and serve.
Qianlong Summer Chicken
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon corn or another vegetable oil
1/2 pound boneless thigh meat, cut into thin strips
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 scallions, cut into one-eighth inch pieces
1 slice fresh peeled ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons fresh minced coriander
1 lettuce leaf
1. Heat wok or fry pan for half minute, then add both oils.
2. Quickly mix the chicken pieces with the cornstarch and stir-fry for one minute. Then add the minced scallions, ginger, and the garlic and stir-fry just twice before adding the salt and sugar. Again stir-fry just twice.
3. Add salt and sugar, and stir two or three more times, then serve on a lettuce leaf placed on a small platter.
Qianlong Pork Balls
1/2 pound ground pork
2 Tablespoons ground pork fat
2 egg whites
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
2 scallions, white and green parts separated, and minced separately
3 slices peeled fresh ginger, minced
1 cup canned bamboo shoots, cut into thin strips
1 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing or another Chinese rice wine
1. Mix pork and pork fat stirring them in only one direction, then add the egg whites, cornstarch, and salt and continue mixing for just one more minute, then make one- to one-and-half-inch balls of this meat mixture.
2. Heat wok or a pot, then add the oil and just as it starts to smoke, add the pork balls and fry them until lightly browned. Remove to paper towels to drain, and discard the oil or strain very well and keep refrigerated for another use.
3. In a medium-size heat-proof serving bowl, mix white part of the scallions with the ginger, bamboo shoots, sugar, soy sauce, and the rice wine, then add the pork balls and half-cup tepid water, and stir well before steaming over boiling water for thirty minutes.
4. Remove bowl and set it on a small plate. Sprinkle half the minced green scallions on top and stir them into the sauce in this bowl. Then sprinkle the rest of the scallions on the top of the meatballs and serve.

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