Imperial Food in the Ming Dynasty
Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, established his capital in Nanjing (Chinese for southern capital). He ate mostly food cooked with the flavors of South China during his ruling years. His fourth son, Zhu Di, declared himself the emperor in 1403 and gave his reign the title of Yongle.

In September 1420, the 18th year of his reign, Zhu Di moved the capital to Beijing (Chinese for northern capital), so the palace cooks moved with him. Most of the raw materials they used in Beijing were grown locally, so the imperial food in Beijing had both southern and northern flavors.

Because tributes were sent to the palace from all parts of the country, delicacies of all kinds were available in the Forbidden City. Beijing had been the capital of the preceding Yuan Dynasty. The food in the Yuan palace had been influenced by the Mongolian flavorings. The food in the Ming palace, however, was mainly that of the southern Han people, so it totally changed the Mongolian style of food served in the palace.

The Mongolian food served in the Yuan palace was mainly meat from animals and fowl, especially mutton, but little seafood was served. The Yuan imperial food considered of meats and vegetables with mixed flavors from the Muslims, Hans, and other ethnic groups. This was because Beijing, having been the capital city of the Yuan Dynasty, was an important communication center and was inhabited mainly by Han people. Therefore, the food of the Mongolian rulers had been influenced by the Hans and other ethnic groups.

The imperial food of the Ming and Qing Dynasties had one common attribute: Diet was used to protect health. Kublai (1215 - 1294), the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, paid great attention to protecting his health through diet.

During the Reign of Tianli in the Yuan Dynasty (1328 - 1330), Hu Sihui, the imperial physician at the imperial hospital in charge of the emperor’s food, wrote a book entitled Principles of Correct Diet, which he gave to the emperor. The book dealt with questions about nutrition and hygiene. It also told how to make soup, thick soup, syrup, paste, oils, tea, sesame cakes, stuffed buns, steamed buns, porridge, and noodles, and described their nutritious effects. The book had a great influence on the food and drinks served in the Yuan palace. It encouraged health protection and parental education, listed taboo foods during pregnancy, and banned alcoholic drinks. It described foods for use in all seasons, prevented the wrong use of flavors, and stressed dietotherapy and regimen.

Shortly after Zhu Yuanzhang (1328 – 1398) ascended to the throne, he summoned Jia Ming, a 100 – year – old man from Haining to ask him the secret of his long life. Jia Ming gave The Instructions on Foods and Drinks to the emperor.

Hu Sihui’s Proper and Essential Ways of Drinking and Eating also received great attention from the Ming emperors. Zhu Qiyu, Emperor Daizong of the Ming Dynasty, even wrote a preface for the book before it was reprinted.

As in previous dynasties, food and drinks in the Ming Palace were supplied in season. Fresh fruits, vegetables and meats were supplied in their times. In the Ming Palace, more vegetables and fruits were eaten than meat and fish. Among the meat and fish eaten were chicken, pheasant, goose, duck, carp, golden carp, Mandarin fish, bream, rabbit, and deer.

The menu in the Ming Palace changed daily and dishes were not repeated. Light refreshments also changed daily. This variation in the daily diets continued until the end of the Qing Dynasty.

In the middle of the Ming Dynasty there were great varieties of food and drinks, their quality was improved, and new cooking methods were used. During festivals, sacrificial rites, and celebrations, the court ministers and officials were given food. On the Dragon Boat Festival, court officials were presented outside the Meridian Gate with a pyramid – shaped dumpling of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. When there was a ceremony, those called by the emperor were given a cake wrapped in red silk. When Imperial College students paid tribute to Confucius, they received food from the emperor, but the variety of the food given to them was not great.

In autumn, residents of the Ming Palace liked to eat fat ground squirrels, which were an annual tribute from Shanxi. The eating of ground squirrels was a Mongolian custom handed down from the Yuan Dynasty. But as a whole, the customs of the Han ethnic group most influenced the food and drinks served in the palace.

The Chronicle of Ceremonies and Rites, by Sun Chengze, listed the appropriate food and drinks by lunar month:

One: Chives, romaine lettuce, chicken, and duck

Two: Celery, liver mosses, artemisia vulgaris, and goose

Three: Tea, bamboo shoots, and carp

Four: Cherry, apricot, green plum, cucumber, and pheasant

Five: Peach, plum, Chinese pear – leaved crabapple, eggplant, barley, wheat flour, and chicken

Six: Lotus seedpod, sweet melon, watermelon, and wax gourd (winter melon)

Seven: Date, grape, fresh water chestnut, amaranth, and pear

Eight: Lotus roots, young taro plant, wild rice stem, tender ginger, semi – glutimous rice, millet, broomcorn, and Mandarin fish

Nine: Orange, chestnut, small red beans, granulated sugar, and bream

Ten: Mandarin orange, tangerine, Chinese yam, rabbit and honey

Eleven: Sugar cane, buckwheat flour, red bean, deer, and rabbit

Twelve: Spinach, leaf mustard, golden carp, and whitefish

Vegetables and fruits accounted for a large percentage of the foods. Of the meats, there were many kinds of poultry, fish, and animals.

In the Ming Palace, most foods had southern flavors, with the foods of the Han ethnic group being dominant. The Ming Palace was characterized by opulent banquets, sumptuous feasts, and voracious eaters. According to Liu Ruoyu:

The food and drinks for the royal family were bought by their own grants, and poor officials were hired to do the cooking. Those who were highly skilled could earn several taels (one tael is approximately 30 grams) of silver every month, but received no add bonuses.

Clean baskets had to be used to cleanse the rice before cooking.

Sesame seed oil, sweet sauce made of fermented flour, fermented soybeans, soybean sauce, vinegar, and other sundries were bought from outside at any price.

All foods taken by the Royal Family and court officials were roasted or fried.

When members of the Royal Family fell ill and had to take drugs, they took them carelessly and refused to avoid rich foods.

In short, the members of the Royal Family most favored those court officials who were good cooks.

As the eunuchs’ sexual physiology was altered and destroyed, they paid special attention to eating foods that invigorated their kidneys and stimulated their male virility.

The court officials are fond of eating the sexual organs of the ox and donkey. When they say arm – in – arm, it means the penis. If they say the white kidney of the sheep, it means the testis. The ovaries of the white horse is a very rare and precious thing that is difficult to get. It is called the ovaries of the dragon.

If an old male duck is cooked so as to melt in the mouth, it has the same positive effect as ginseng. For this reason, eunuchs like to eat the kidneys of male ducks.

The Ming Palace paid more attention to dinnerware than had previous dynasties. Besides the porcelain ware fired in the Chai, Ru, Guan, Ge and Rao kilns, there were porcelain treasures from the Xuande, Chenghua, Jiajing, and Wanli reigns. In addition to horn and jade ware, there were cloisonné ware, countless exquisitely shaped, pure gold ware, silverware, and gold and silver ware inlaid with precious stones. Yan Song (1480 - 1567), a prime minister of the Ming Dynasty, had many high – grade sets of dinnerware among his articles of tribute.

The Ming Palace had no special menus for imperial dishes. Based on available historical data, following are how some representative dishes were cooked in the Ming Palace:

Roast Mutton: Cut the mutton into large pieces. Mix soybean sauce to an even consistency and add kernels of Fructus amoni, Chinese prickly ash, and the whites of scallions. Cook sesame oil in a wok for a little while. Add the ingredients, a little water, seal the pan with paper, and cook it over a low fire, or roast it again after it is cooked. (Song’ s Way to Build Health)

Roast Sliced Mutton: Slice the raw mutton and grill it on an iron mesh over a charcoal fire. Dip the mutton pieces in salted water and soy sauce occasionally until they are well cooked on both sides and ready to eat. (Collection of Making Adjustments to Tripods)

Quick Stir – Fried Sheep Tripe: Wash the sheep stomach until it is clean and then cut it into small strips. Heat water to boiling in a soup pot and heat oil in a wok. Put the tripe into the boiling pot, scald it, remove it with a wire strainer, wring it dry in a piece of coarse cloth, and stir – fry it in the wok. Add cut onion, sliced garlic, Chinese prickly ash, aniseed, soy sauce, rice wine, and vinegar. Stir – fry it quickly until it become crisp and delicious. If it is fried slowly, it will become moist and difficult to eat. (Eight Commentaries on How to Live)

Stir – Fried Sheep Tripe: Cut the cleaned sheep stomach into small pieces. Place them in a heated wok with chicken fat, soy sauce, wine, ginger, and onion and stir them quickly. Or, cut the stomach into long strips, boil them quickly in boiling water, and wring them in a piece of cloth. Stir the pieces in heated oil until they become slightly yellow. Add wine, soy sauce, and onion, and stir them again. (Collection of Making Adjustments to Tripods)

Steamed Mutton: Clean the fat mutton and cut it into large pieces. Rub the pieces with Chinese prickly ash salt and shake off the excess salt. Crush some walnuts and put them in with the meat. Wrap the meat and walnuts inside mulberry tree leaves using softened rice stalks to tie them tightly. Put the bundles with some walnuts on top in a wooden steamer. Cover it tightly and steam until the meat melts in the mouth. (Grand Secrets of Diets)

Steamed Cow’s Milk: Mix three cups of cow’s milk, eggs, one walnut (crushed into powder), and a little crystal sugar (crushed into powder) and steam the mixture. It is good for the health. (Add a spoonful of ginger juice for old people who are short of breath or for those with phlegm.) (Collection of Making Adjustments to Tripods)

Cold Sliced Sheep Tail: Steam the sheep tail until the meat melts in the mouth. Cool the meat and cut it into slices. Dip the slices in sugar. (Collection of Cooking Tripods)

Sausage: Clean the casings of the large intestines. Fill them with minced meat. Tie them on both ends and cook them in water. (Song’s Way to Build Health)

Meat Balls: Mince two portions of lean pork and one portion of fatty meat. Add a little onion, green pepper, apricot jam, and fried steamed cake crumbs (or brad crumbs) and mix it all together. Use your hands to form the mixture into balls, then coat the meatballs with fine flour. Quick – boil the meatballs in boiling water; remove them as soon as they float. Eat them with hot pepper juice. (Collection of the Dietetic Systems in the Yunlin Hall)

Stewed Pork: Wash the pork clean. Rub the meat with wine and salt and place it in a spot. Add a little onion, Chinese prickly ash, honey, and bamboo shoots to the pot. Add a small cup of water and a small cup of wine. Cover the pot and seal it with wet paper. When the paper dries, dampen it with water. Burn a large bunch of straw under the pot without poking it. When it dies out, burn of straw under the pot without poking it. When it dies out, burn another bunch. After the fire dies out a second time, wait for a while. Open the cover when it becomes cool to the touch and stir the meat. Cover the pot again and seal it with wet paper. Burn another bunch of straw. Wait until the pot cover again becomes cool; the pork is ready. (Collection of the Dietetic Systems in the Yunlin Hall)

Pickled trotters (feet): How to pickle a pig’s head and trotters. Cook the pig’s head and trotters until they are very soft, then remove the bones. Spread the meat on a cloth and press it flat overnight with a large stone. It is very delicious when pickled in grains. (Eight Commentaries on How to Live )

Steamed Pork: Use good pork and boil it for a short time, then remove the meat and cut it into square pieces. Rinse the meat in clean water. Scrape the skin clean, then crush the skin into pieces with a knife. Put aniseed, Chinese prickly ash, caoguo (Fructus tsaoko), and Chinese cinnamon in a small bag and place it in a soup pot. Put the meat squares on top of the bag. Mix goose and chicken stock together and pour it over the meat. Cover the meat with onions, pickled vegetables and garlic. Put the lid on the pot, and steam it. Remove the onions, garlic, and small bag of flavorings before you eat the meat. (Eight Commentaries on How to Live)

Boiled Meat: Use a sharp knife and scrape the skin three or four times. Rinse the meat and boil it in a pot. Stir it continuously (do not cover the pot) until you smell a meat aroma. Put out the fire when you smell the meat and cover the pot with a lid for a while. Eat it in slices; it is delicious. (Another version: Place a basin of cold water by the pot. Add some cold water to the pot when it begins to boil. Repeat this process three times. The meat will taste even more delicious.) (Records on Waking up in the Garden)

Intestine in Intestine: Choose small, fat pig intestines and clean them. Place one intestine inside another and cook them in broth. Cut them diagonally into one – inch pieces. Mix the pieces with fresh bamboo shoots and mushroom stock, and cook them well. The flavor is excellent. It is also good when made with rice wine and oil. (Grand Secrets of Diets)

Stir – Fried Shredded Pork: Remove the sinews, skin and bones. Shred the pork, then soak it in soy sauce and wine for a moment. Boil rapeseed oil until the white smoke changes to gray smoke. Put the pork in the pan and stir – fry it constantly. Add corn starch, a drop of vinegar, a pinch of sugar, and onion stalk, chives or cabbage. Use just half a catty of meat (I catty is equal to about 1.3 pounds) and use a slow fire without adding water. Another method: After soaking the meat in the oil, cook it with soy sauce, water, and wine slightly over a slow fire until the pan becomes hot and red. It smells even more delicious if some chives are added.

Stir – Fried Sliced Pork: Cut the half – lean, half – fat pork into thin slices, mix them with soy sauce, and stir – fry them in an oiled wok. Add soy sauce, water, onion, gourd, bamboo shoots, and chives as soon as the pan hisses. The fire must be large and strong when you stir the meat. (The Menus of the Sui Garden)

Deep – Fried Sparrows: Pluck the feathers from the sparrows. With the sparrow’s breast in one hand and a knife in the other, make a small opening by the tail and squeeze out the internal organs. Cut the sparrows from their tails along their spines. Remove the breastbones. Break the spines and leg joints, cut off the beaks and claws, and remove the eyes. Rinse and dry them, then marinate them in Shaoxing rice wine, salt, singer, and onion stock for a short while. Roll the sparrows in glutinous rice flour and deep – fry them slightly in hot peanut oil. Drain the oil until the sparrows are cool. Deep – fry them again in oil until they become crisp and golden yellow. Mix minced garlic with sugar, vinegar, and starch and put it in the hot pan, then add some sesame oil. Pour it over the sparrows and place them on a plate. (Chinese Menu)

Steamed Chicken: Choose a tender chicken and clean it in water, then rub it all over with salt, soy sauce, Chinese prickly ash, and aniseed powder. Keep it preserved for half a day. Steam it until a joss stick burns out. Tear the chicken into pieces, remove the bones, and add a proper amount of flavorings. Steam it again until another joss stick burns out. The taste is very delicious. Goose, duck, pork, and mutton can all be steamed the same way. (Grand Secrets of Diets)

Egg Rolls: Fry whipped egg in a thin layer in a work, then fill it with minced meat and flavorings and roll it up. Cook it in lard with sugar and sweet soy sauce. Slice it into pieces. (Grand Secrets of Diets)

Deep – Fried Whitebait (young fish): Use dried whitebait. Steam it with wine, Chinese prickly ash, and onion. It is good stir – fried in oil and better with chives added. It is good quickly fried in oil and wine, and better with edible gourd (squash) or fresh bamboo shoots added. It is good rolled in wheat flour and fried in oil; it is better soup. (Song’s Way to Build Health)

Abalone: Wash it clean and cook it over a slow rice – husk fire for a while. Change the water and immerse it. Cut it into pieces. (Collection of the Dietetic Systems in the Yunlin Hall)

Abalone is very good thinly sliced and stir – fried. Abalone was cut into slices and put into chicken soup with bean curd in the home of Imperial Inspector Yang. It was called abalone bean curd. Pour some rice wine and oil over it. Magistrate Zhuang stewed a whole chicken with abalone and it was also very delicious. (The Menus in the Sui Garden)

Steamed Hilsa Herring: Remove the intestines, but not the scales. Wipe away the blood and water with a cloth and put the herring in a soup pot. Crush Chinese prickly ash and kernels of Amomum xanthioides (Fructus amomi) and mix them well with soy sauce, water, wine, and onions. Steam the herring and remove the scales before eating. (Eight Commentaries on How to Live)

Sea Cucumber: Sea cucumber has no taste but it contains a lot of sand and it has a bad smell. Its natural consistency is thick and heavy. It should never be cooked in broth over a slow fire. Choose small sea cucumbers with thorns. Remove the mud and sand in water. Boil the sea cucumbers three times in meat soup, then stew them in chicken and pork stock with soy sauce until they become very soft. Add mushrooms and fungus that have a similar black color. If you host a dinner, stew the cucumbers the day before. (The Menus in the Sui Garden)

Stir – Fried Chicken Legs with Mushrooms: The monk in the Wuhu Buddhist Temple cleaned the chicken legs and mushrooms in water. He then added oil and wine to a wok and stir – fried the chicken legs and mushrooms until they were well done. Serve them on a plate; it is a very good dish for your guests. (The Menus in the Sui Garden)

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