24th September 2016
China has had a turbulent history and has gone from a series of Imperial Dynasties through to Communism. It also has a long tradition of gastronomy - Peng Zu, who is called the founder of Chinese cooking, was chef to Emperor Yao around the beginning of the 21st century B.C.
This menu is designed to take you on some of that journey - hopefully without the pain...
We start with two favourite dishes of the Empress Dowager Cixi (known to many from the opening scene of The Last Emperor). The first is a delectable lamb dish from the Imperial Court called "Ah, Sweet as Honey". The last ruling dynasty, the Qing, were from Manchuria in Northern China. They ate lamb which is relatively unusual in China. This dish is cooked twice, with 2 different sauces and around 13 different ingredients. All Imperial meals consisted of 100 dishes, all cooked by different chefs. Partly sheer extravagance, but probably mainly out of necessity - the chances of being poisoned were much lower with such a large number of dishes and different chefs. The chefs were rewarded with one tael of silver if their dish was enjoyed by the Emperor.
The second is Imperial Wo Tou. Wo Tou are a peasant food from Northern China, made from corn. How did it get on the Imperial menu? In 1900 when China was invaded by foreign troops, the Empress Dowager Cixi fled Beijing with Emperor GuangXu. Since they left in great haste, they did not have time to pack food for their long journey. Practically starving, the Empress Dowager was offered a piece of Wotou, which she gladly accepted and ate it with great relish. Upon returning to Beijing, she told the Imperial Kitchen to make Wotou for her. The chef was terrified to feed her peasant food, so he recreated it with the finest and most refined ingredients he could find. It became a common item on the Imperial menu. I got this recipe from one of the top chefs in Beijing.
We then go on to Beansprout Salad cooked in Sichuan pepper oil.This dish was served to the Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796), also of the Qing Dynasty at the 2000 year old Confucian mansion, which is inhabited by the descendants of Confucius.
As we know, the "adopted son" of the Empress Dowager was in fact the last Emperor. The decline of the Dynastic system started during the reign of the Empress Dowager, with the rise of Western Imperialism as the "Foreign Devils" demanded footholds or "concessions" along the coast, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Opium Wars. The next 2 dishes will illustrate this period with an unusual stir-fried potato dish, obviously not a native vegetable to China - I first tasted this dish on the Bund in Shanghai, which looks rather like Embankment on the Thames - built by Western powers to emulate their home countries and impress with the power of the West.
We go on to try a tofu and seafood dish in "XO sauce". As the Western Powers started to exert their influence in China, this led to a taste for Western luxuries - and cognac was amongst them. Actually there is no cognac in this dish but "XO" became synonymous with luxury and the ultimate concession to the "foreign devils" - Hong Kong - developed this expensive sauce. Being seafood, it also comes from the Eastern seaboard which is where the foreigners were able to trade.
With the decline in Imperial power, and then WWII and Japanese occupation, the road to communism was paved. We progress to the favourite dish of Chairman Mao - red stewed pork. This is an earthy peasant dish and a world away from the "Ah, Sweet as Honey". It was a popular dish in Beijing and will be served with another dish from that era, stir-fried "Aubergine Silk", which was a simple dish eaten by people during the Cultural Revolution when there was not much available in the shops.
We'll finish with mango pudding - another western influenced dish as it has diary products in it which was not traditionally consumed by the Chinese.
Which system had better food? You decide!
Pickled Carrots and Radish
Jellyfish with Cucumber
Dynastic China - the Qing Dynasty
“Ah Sweet as Honey”
Imperial Wo Tou
favourite dishes of Empress Dowager CiXi, of the Qing Dynasty
Beansprout Salad cooked in Sichuan pepper oil
Braised Seafood and Tofu in XO Sauce
A dish from Hong Kong with clear foreign influence
Fried 3 Silk
Potato, Carrot and Peppers
Red-Stewed Pork, widely known as Chairman Mao’s Favourite dish, who favoured “peasant cuisine”
Traditional Beijing Dish
Cost will be £45 of which £35 will go to MSF
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