Imperial meals in the Qing Palace were dominated by the Manchu cuisine, but they also included the Shandong and the Suzhou – Hangzhou cuisines. These three cuisines were influenced by and blended with one another. A course might be made of raw materials from Northeast China, but its cooking method and taste might have Shandong or Suzhou – Hangzhou cuisine characteristics. Likewise, a dish of the Shandong or Suzhou – Hangzhou cuisine was often prepared by a cook of the Manchu nationality.
Through longtime cooperation and exchange, the cooks of the Manchu and Han nationalities catered to the Qing ruler’s tastes and desires for the banquets and feasts. Under the restrictions of the Qing Palace regulations, systems, and rites, they learned from each other and helped each other create new imperial meals that varied from the cuisines of the three different localities and also varied from the imperial meals of the preceding dynasties.
The eating habits and traditional cooking methods of the Manchus dominated in the preparation of the Qing Palace imperial meals. The imperial meals were limited to dishes from the imperial kitchen and the bakery under the Office of Palatial Affairs. The imperial kitchen and bakery only served the emperors and the royal family.
The imperial kitchen and bakery prepared mainly Manchu foods early in the dynasty, nut mixtures of Manchu and Han foods in the latter period. There was a strict difference between the Manchu and Han dishes served at the banquets and feasts. The standards for the Manchu courses were higher than for the Han courses.
Of all banquets held in the Qing Palace, the most famous and magnificent were the old men’s birthday banquet (especially the grand birthday banquets given by Emperor Qianlong in 1790 to celebrate his 80th birthday). Both banquets served mainly hot pots of wild game and Manchu buns, which are representative dishes of the Manchus.
The Manchu sacrificial rites were fixed by the Qing Palace as national rites. Rules were fixed for the sacrifices, the sacrificial meat, sacrificial wine, and the offerings. The offering of food had to follow the ancestral system.
Every year the Qing Palace had large quantities of sacrificial offerings. As a rule, these offerings were shared by the emperors, the Royal Family, palace officials, eunuchs, and guards. The eating customs for the sacrificial offerings profoundly influenced the imperial meals and were a component of the imperial food. This was because the mats, fruits, wines, cakes, buns, vegetables, dried dishes, and sweet foods were often the foods served at the emperors’ meals.
The raw materials from Northeast China that were used for the imperial meals far surpassed those from other provinces in the number of tributes, quantity, and expense. It was cold in Northeast China, nearly the same as in Beijing, and the transportation was easier. More importantly, the people in Northeast China catered to the eating habits of the Qing Dynasty rulers.
After the raw materials came to Beijing, the annual family dinners the emperors gave on the eve of the lunar New Year’s Day were prepared in the Manchu tradition. Moreover, the delicacies and wild game, native specialties, and river and sea food from Northeast China were more nutritious and could be made into various exotic dishes. In the early years of the Qing Dynasty, the raw materials from Northeast China were the ones used in imperial meals. The eating habits and cooking of the Manchu nationality dominated the imperial meals of the Qing Palace.
The valuable raw materials used in the imperial meals were gathered from all parts of the country. They were a collection of rare foods, and the dishes prepared from them were rare and in the highest quality.
Originally, most of the cooks and cooking staff in the Qing Palace were Manchus, but this began changing around the middle of the dynasty. Because of the social and economic developments in the more than 260 years of the Qing Dynasty, changes also occurred in the expenses allocated for palace banquets, feasts, and dinners; the taste preferences of the royal family; and the composition of the ingredients for the imperial meals.
Before Kangxi’s Reign (1662 - 1722), the Manchu rulers maintained their traditional eating habits, so the raw materials generally came from around Beijing, Mongolia, and Northeast China. A few ingredients also came from other parts of the country. After Qianlong’s reign, a clear change took place in the source of the raw materials, so that more came from Northwest China, including Xinjiang, and China’s southern provinces.
The tributes from the south helped increase the variety in the imperial meals, and Emperor Qianlong preferred southern – style food. Emperor Daoguang and Emperor Xianfeng (1821 - 1861) ate less food cooked in the southern style. Emperor Daoguang occasionally took a meal of the Qianlong reign, but his regular food was cooked in the northern style.
The imperial food during the Tongzhi Reign (1862 - 1875) was even richer and more colorful than in the Qianlong Reign. Its raw materials came mainly from areas north of the Yellow River and from Northeast China. Except for bird’s nest from Fujian, an indispensable tribute to the palace, the specialties originally produced in the south, like ham, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and vegetables, could also be made or cultivated in northern areas. Because Emperor Guangxu liked seafood, the coastal areas greatly increased their tributes of shark’s fin, abalone, sea cucumber, prawns, jellyfish, and kelp. In short, the raw materials for the imperial food varied with emperors’ preferences.
Some products rarely found among the common people were kept in regular supply in the Qing Palace. According to a record, “different varieties of grapes from Xinjiang are found in white, red, and purple colors, the longest looking like horse nipples. A small variety is named Gonglingsun, another small variety is called Suosuo. They were transplanted to the imperial garden during Kangxi’s reign.”
“Prior to the 20th year of Kangxi’s reign, the ancestral emperor happened upon an ear in the rice field in the Lush Green Garden quite different from the common ears. This rice was slightly red. The ear was gathered to be grown in a fertile field the next year. For more than 40 years afterwards, the rice was used for imperial meals, and it could not be obtained elsewhere outside the palace…”
“In The autumn hunting season of the16th year of Qianlong’s reign, Taijibiligunda from Mongolia outside the Great Wall presented an albino roe deer to the emperor. It was as pure white as snow and its eyes were as red as cinnabar. It was presented on 60th birthday of the Empress Dowager. Emperor Gaozong (Qianlong) called it good luck and tied a poem to it. In the next autumn hunting season, the roe deer gave birth in an enclosure built by the mountainside to a young roe deer with pure white hair. This was the only one ever seen…”
“Kandahan was found in Heilongjiang. Bigger than deer, it lives in mountains but takes to water.”
During the more than two centuries of the Qing Dynasty, all rare fruits, fowl animals, fish, and birds that could be found in the world were either captured personally by His Majesty or by the army, or were sent as tributes to the emperor. These delicacies were then cooked in the imperial kitchen.
The dishes had simple names, and more importance was attached to their taste than to their variety. Most imitation Qing Palace imperial dishes served today are named for the dragon or phoenix, or else their names sound beautiful, ostentatious, mysterious, or fantastic. This is contrary to the imperial meals in the Qing Palace where the dragon was likened to the emperor and the phoenix to the empress; therefore, dishes could not be named after them. It was unlike the style of the Qing Palace to give showy or mysterious names to dishes, or to give more importance to appearance than to quality and taste.
In our research of related historical data and the Qing Palace dietetic archives, we found none of the imperial dishes from Emperor Kangxi down to Emperor Puyi named after the dragon or phoenix. All the names were simple and told what raw materials were used, how the dishes were cooked, or what containers were used to hold them. The only difference between dishes served in the restaurants at that time and the imperial dishes was that the dishes in the imperial kitchen were more carefully and tastefully prepared.
Greater attention was paid to imperial meals during Qianlong’s reign, but giving dishes simple names, monitoring the duration and degree of cooking, and flavoring dishes consistently were constant characteristics of the Qing Palace imperial meals.
The palace had strict standards for cooking and fixed rules for using raw materials. The Qing Palace imperial dishes were handed down from generation to generation. Although the menus were prepared by the chief cook in the imperial kitchen, the emperors checked all dishes and ate more of what they liked and less of what they dishes when he prepared the new menu. The common dishes in the menus were what the emperors most liked. These dishes had to be standardized so the flavors and taste did not change regardless of how many times the same dishes were cooked. There were strict rules for the composition of the ingredients and the cooks could not change them at will.
Attention was paid to primary extracts and primary taste. For example, in preparing a duck course, only duck fat, duck stock, or duck soup could be used, chicken soup or other oils could not be used. In preparing a chicken dish, only chicken fat, chicken stock, or chicken soup could be used. Mutton and pork were prepared the same way.
There were also strict rules for flavorings and auxiliary materials. Only duck was used to make duck soup, only chicken to make chicken soup, and only mutton to make mutton soup. Only water from the Jade Spring Hill was used to cook soup and dishes: “The water from Jade Spring Hill is the lightest and clearest. It has always been used for meals and tea, and is brought to the palace every day by people under the Office of Internal Affairs.” (Collected Records of the Hall of Ancient Cultivation, Vol. 24). While imported flavorings such as pepper, ketchup, and cream were already popular in the markets, they were not used for imperial meals.
Fixed amounts of the major ingredients, auxiliary ingredients, and flavorings were used in the imperial dishes. The weights of dishes and the size, length, and height of the buns and other staple foods were all controlled by strict rules. Increases or decreases were forbidden.
Because the emperors’ tastes differed from person to person, the dishes on their menus also varied. The major ingredients used for Kangxi’s meals were meats of beasts produced in Northeast China, mutton, chicken and pork.
Emperor Qianlong’s menus were richer and more varied, Apart from the delicacies of land and sea produced in Northeast China, he liked bird’s nest, duck, Suzhou cuisine, vegetarian dishes, tea, and fruits, but he disliked river and sea foods. From among the preserved records of his daily meals, it is clear that almost to dishes were made of shark’s fin, sea cucumber, abalone, or fish.
Emperor Guangxu liked seafood. Emperor Dowager Cixi liked duck, smoked and roasted dishes, and dishes made with sugar and vinegar and with fruit flavoring. She also liked mushrooms and fresh vegetables. Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, liked vegetarian food and Western food, and he did not drink wine.