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 a delectable lamb dish from the Imperial Court called "Ah, Sweet as Honey", a favourite of the Empress Dowager Cixi (known to many from the opening scene of The Last Emperor). The last ruling dynasty, the Qing, were Manchus, 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. Because of this, they had to be inventive about names as well as dishes - there are only so many "chicken with cashew nuts" one can differentiate - so you can usually tell an Imperial dish if it has a crazy name like "Phoenix with Five Silks".
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" in Shanghai, and various other coastal areas, 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 then 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!
Jellyfish with Cucumber
“Ah Sweet as Honey”
Imperial Man Tou
favourite dishes of Empress
Dowager CiXi, of the Qing Dynasty
Traditional Beijing Dish
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”
Cost will be £40 of which £35 will go to MSF
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