Western Kitchen, Cixi Private Kitchen
Toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, Empress Dowager Cixi arrogated all powers onto herself. This period, called the Guangxu Xuantong Reign, was China's darkest and most corrupt political period.
Cixi was known for her overbearing, extravagant, dissolute, and self indulgent attitude. She was a ruler who brought calamity to the country and its people. She liked beautiful clothes, good food, ostentation, and extravagance.
Under the Qing Dynasty system, there was no fixed funding for the emperors' meals; they were "reimbursed for what they spent." The empress dowager's food expense was 60 taels of silver a day during Qianlong's Reign.
When Cixi took power, she became not only "Her Majesty Empress Dowager," but slao the supreme ruler with supreme power. She was the de facto emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and she was absolutely dissatisfied with her daily food expense of 60 taels (1 tael is approximately 30 grams) of silver. It was estimated that her actual food expense may have been double that, or more than 100 taels of silver a day.
Cixi had exclusive kitchens in both the Imperial Palace and the Summer Palace. Her exclusive kitchen in the imperial palace was called the "Western Kitchen." The Western Kitchen was supervised by the chief managing eunuch. Under him were five sections, each having numerous cooks and sulas (laborers who did odd duties). Each section was sub divided into divisions. The five sections were:
The Meat Section, which specialized in quick frying, stir frying, deep frying, sautiing,s teaming, and stewing all meats of land and sea.
The Vegetarian Section, which specialized in stir - frying, deep frying, and quick frying vegetarian dishes made of bean curd and gluten.
The Rice, Bun and Noodle Section, which specialized in making rice, porridge, steamed buns, steamed rolls, pancakes and noodles. Each meal included porridges of green bean, meat, millet, the seeds of Job's tears (an Asiatic grass), barley and rice. Sometimes, there were also porridges of lotus leaf, lotus root and lotus seed.
The Snack Section, which specialized in making pastries for the morning and afternoon snacks, and steamed, fried, boiled and baked pastries for the midnight meals.
The Pastry Section, which specialized in making crisp and soft pastries, such as crisp and soft baked buns with stuffings, cream cakes, small fried cakes, and soft cakes.
Each section employed apprentices, eunuchs, and temporary people to do odd jobs. There were hundreds of lower ranked eunuchs who had the special job of carrying the meal boxes to the Empress Dowager. When Cixi left the Forbidden City on inspection tours, the whole Western Kitchen staff traveled with her.
The eunuchs in the kitchen were each paid a salary. Those cooks with special skills received higher pay and bonuses if Cixi was happy.
Eunuch Xie was the director of the Western Kitchen at that time. His younger brother Xie Er as well as Wang Yushan and Zhang Yongxiang where all famous cooks who toiled to make many new delicacies to please the Empress Dowager and, therefore, were all in her grace.
Xie Er began work at the Palace because Cixi wanted to eat fried cakes filled with sweet mashed red beans. His specialty was making Shaomai(a steamed dumpling that has the dough gathered at the top). His dough was as thin as paper and his filling was savory and delicious. He was later asked to remain at the palace as a steam and fry cook.
Once, Cixi went to offer sacrifices at the Eastern Qing Tombs. The Western Kitchen sent cooks to go with her, but Xie Er failed to turn up. She ordered Shaomai, but found it tasteless. When she asked why, she was told that it was made by another cook, Liu Da. Cixi became so angry that she had the cook lashed 40 times for making it poorly, and immediately ordered Xie Er to come to her.
Wang Yushan was famous throughout the Palace for his stir frying. He created the Four Grabs. These were grab and stir fry: tenderloin, sliced fish, kidney, and shrimp. These dishes were all crisp on the outside but on the inside they were soft and tender with a hint of a sour flavour. They were never greasy. Cixi awarded him the title, "King of Grab and Stir Fry Dishes," and he and the dishes he created became famous throughout Beijing. (In 1925, Wang Yushan jointed five others in running the Fangshan Restaurant, which served imitation imperial meals in Beihai Park.)
Besides being exquisite, the dishes Zhang Yongxiang cooked were beautiful and had a fresh, tender, yet distinct taste. His specialties were cooking bean sprouts filled with minced meat and hyacinth beans stuffed with minced meat. He chose big, straight, fat bean sprouts, cut off both ends, used a copper wire to hollow the sprouts, filled them with minced chicken or pork, and then steamed them. Hyacinth beans were prepared in the same way. After they were steamed, both dishes were fragrant and tasty. The bean sprouts were one of Cixi's favorite dishes. It was a labour - intensive dish that took 10 people all day to prepare.
Every year Cixi spent the summer at the Summer Palace, the Three Lakes area (now Beihai Park and the adjoining Zhongnanhai), or the Imperial Palace for Short Stays in Kitchen eunuchs, cooks, and servants went with her. Cixi's private kitchen in the Summer Palace was called the "Longevity Kitchen."
The Longevity Kitchen was located behind the Northern Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. To the east of the theater were eight big compounds with more than 100 rooms. Her entourage and cooking staff totaled as many as 128, one or two dozen more than in Emperor Qianlong's imperial kitchen.
Cixi's private kitchen prepared more than 400 kinds of pastry, 4,000 dishes, and rare delicacies made of bird's nest, shark's fin, bear's paw, chicken, duck, fish, and meat. One of her favorite dishes was small, steamed buns made of fine ingredients that required exquisite workmanship. The main ingredient in the dough was chestnut powder, which was mixed with millet flour, bean flour, broomcorn flour, or corn flour, then sifted through a fine screen. The dough was filled with osmanthus flowers and white sugar, date paste and brown sugar, or preserved fruits. After the dough was well kneaded, it was made into thumb sized buns and steamed.
Cixi took her meals at fixed times. Breakfast was at 6 a.m., lunch at 12, and supper at 6 p.m., plus there was a nightly snack. Before the meal was summoned, all sections prepared their dishes and stored them in food boxes on tables in the lounge. The wooden food boxes were painted light yellow, and decorated with two blue dragons playing with a red pearl. Beneath the boxes were tin bases of hot water wrapped with cotton padded cushions to keep the food warm.
Normally, Cixi took her meals in the Hall of Happiness and Longevity, about 100 meters from the Longevity Kitchen. Before the meal, several smaller tables were put together to make a large table in the central hall. Only when the leading eunuch issued the signal to summon the meal could the prepared foods be brought from the kitchen to the Hall of Happiness and Longevity. While waiting for the meal to be summoned, the young kitchen apprentices, dressed in blue robes with white oversleeves, lined up in a long queue to await the imperial instructions.
When the leading eunuch gave the order to ready the meal, the apprentices placed their food boxes on their right shoulders. The eunuch managing the meal and the Director of the Western Kitchen, Eunuch Xie, led the eunuchs as they entered the hall in order and placed their dishes on the table. Then General Director Li Lianying used silver chopsticks to taste the dishes. If the chopsticks turned black, the dish was poisoned and could not be eaten.
When Cixi took her meal, if she looked at a certain dish, the eunuch would put the dish before her and she would eat one or two bites of it. She tasted only a few of the dishes and awarded the rest to the empress, the concubines, and other people in the palace.
Sometimes the extra food was given to families in the western part of Beijing. Among them were the families of Prince Chun, Prince Gong, Price Qing, General Director Li Lianying, and Li Baotai, the third younger brother of Li Lianying. The food boxes awarded to these families were slightly smaller than the traditional Chinese meal for eight people, and had the same design of two blue dragons playing with a red pearl on a light yellow background.
The boxes, tied with red and green hemp strings, were carried to the families by two eunuchs. The eunuchs hung the boxes from a long pole carried on their shoulders. Both ends of the pole were painted green; the middle was painted red. The bowls and plates in the boxes were blue or bean green. The eunuchs received rewards when they brought the boxes to the families.
The records from the 10th year of Emperor Guangxu's reign state that 8,080 catties plus two taels of Jade Spring wine were used for food or other purposes in Cixi's private kitchen that year. One story says that when Cixi took a train to Yixian County in Hebei Province to offer sacrifices at the Western Qing Tombs, four coaches were used for her private kitchen, in which "100 cooks made 100 dishes and 100 kinds of pastry and sweets using 50 kitchen ranges." This shows how shockingly extravagant Cixi's meals were.
Every midsummer, people in the palace ate fresh litchi, a delicacy among Chinese fruits. The litchi's skin is as red as fire and its flesh is sweet, juicy, and translucent. Litchis grow in the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Taiwan, but the litchis grown in Fujian are the most famous. The litchis from Fuzhou, Xinghua, Quanzhou, Tanzhou, Funing, and Yongchun are large and rich in variety, but the Zhuangyuanhong litchi, which ripens in June and July, is the best.
It was a difficult job getting fresh litchis to the palace in the hot summer. Since the Qin and Han Dynasties, the Chinese capital cities have all been located in the northern plain regions, which are far from where litchis grow. Because litchis are juice, they deteriorate and rot quickly so the growing areas mainly dry or preserve them.
According to TCM theory, if litchis are eaten fresh, they help produce saliva, reduce thirst, and strengthen the stomach. People who suffer from high stomach heat, a shortage of saliva, thirst, and tooth aches, or sore throats are advised to eat fresh litchis. Fresh litchi juice boiled or cooked with rice porridge helps build the liver and kidneys been regarded as a treasured fruit that improves the health. For these reasons, all the feudal emperors of all the dynasties ordered litchis to be shipped to their palaces regardless of the cost.
A story goes that Yang, the most loved concubine of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (712- 756), liked litchis. The emperor sent people on horseback to bring litchis back to the palace. A poem by Du M u, a poet of the Tang Dynasty, exposed and satirized this palace extravagance. It reads:
"A horse galloped across the land at full speed,
And the concubine laughs.
Who knows it is lichee coming. "
According to the list of tributes received during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723 - 1735), in May of each year naval units in Fujian sent warships to transport 60 barrels of litchi trees to the capital city. The trip took more than 60 days. Whole litchi trees were transported so the fruits would be better preserved. But the expense was shocking. For this reason, the emperor controlled the litchis on each tree. From the day a tree was received, the Office of Internal Affairs daily recorded how many litchis were gathered and to whom they were awarded.
The emperor himself ate only a few litchis every day and awarded the rest to his ministers. This tradition began in the reign of Emperor Qianlong. At that time, only the emperor, his wife and concubines, the crown prince, princes, princesses, and favourite ministers were awarded fresh litchis. Generally, the fresh litchis from the trees satisfied their needs for at least 20 days.
Bowls of refreshing, sweet, cold jelly were made from litchi and other fresh fruits sent to the palace from the various parts of the country. The jelly was made of agar, almond, honey, crystal sugar, and osmanthus flowers, which were boiled into a syrup. Then fresh fruits and litchis were added. After it was chilled, it became translucent like jade and was mottled with the colors of the fruit. It was a great honor for the people who waited on the Empress Dowager to be awarded a bowl of this fruit jelly.
Each year during the Spring Festival Cixi insisted her meals be ostentatious and extravagant. The following story tells how she took her dinner on the first day of the first lunar month. It was so ostentatious and extravagant that there has been no parallel in history.
Cixi required the four "Guardian Gods" and 500 "Buddhist Disciples" to wait on her. Her dinner was usually taken in either the Hall of Tranquility and Longevity or in the Hall of Bodily Peace south of the Hall of Preserving Talents, because these were the two halls where she lived in her dotage.
Three tables, named Heaven, earth, and the People, were laid with dishes. The Heaven table was to the east, the Earth table was to the west and the People tables was in the center. The People table was solely occupied by the Empress Dowager. This meant that apart from heaven and the earth, she was the arrogant mistress of the world.
Who were the four "Guardian Gods"? They were four old, meritorious eunuchs dressed in official robes who had served previous sovereigns. They were retired and now only served on grand occasions. One of them had been a boy attendant in the study of Emperor Daoguang (1821 - 1851). Another had been fitted with all the burial clothes made for Emperor Xianfeng before the corpse was dressed for the memorial ceremony. These four old eunuchs stood at the four corners of the hall and were referred to in the palace as the four Guardian Gods.
In addition, 500 eunuchs lined up from the threshold of the hall to the threshold of the Longevity Kitchen. They were known as the 500 "Buddhist Disciples" or arhats. The arhats, all dressed in new silk robes, wore pink and white soled boots, had fresh haircuts, and looked vigorous.
Every light was ablaze both inside and outside the hall. A lantern was positioned every five steps in front of the long queue of 500 eunuchs to form a "dragon of fire." The dragon extended from the Longevity Kitchen to the hall where the Empress Dowager took her meal.
The chosen 500 excluded the very young and very old. Their training began on the eighth day of the last month of the passing year. It included holding plates and bowls but during training, crude bowls and bricks replaced the real plates and bowls. Their only duty was to deliver the bowls quickly and steadily. They used white cloths to hold the bowls and it was said that each training session cost two bolts of cloth.
When the dinner began, the eunuch who was the master of ceremonies shouted, "The dinner is ready," to invite the Empress Dowager to the table. Cixi came to her seat accompanied by Emperor Guangxu and the Empress. She first clasped her hands in tribute to the Heaven table on the east, then to the Earth table on the west. Finally she took her seat in front of the center table.
The four Guardian Gods, with their hands at their sides, immediately paid their respects to the Empress Dowager. Then the 500 eunuchs shouted, "Long live Her Majesty the Old Buddha!" in loud voices that spread to the Longevity Kitchen and all corners of the compound. Simultaneously, firecrackers with swastika designs on their tops exploded in the courtyard, and young trained eunuchs whipped non stop their three meter long whips, made of several strands of twisted sheep intestine. The exploding and whipping produced excitement and crushed evil.
The dishes served at the dinner were divided into three categories. In the first category were dishes of good luck created just for the festive occasion, such as Man Your Life Be as Lofty as the Southern Mountain Ranges, Wishing You Good Luck, and Absolute Authority over the Whole Nation.
In the second category were dishes of tribute from different parts of the country, such as bear's paw, elk, flying dragon (special pheasants that eat pine nuts), preserved venison, lobster, and crabs preserved in wine.
In the third category were regular dishes according to the festive menu prepared in the Longevity Kitchen.
The emperor and empress both waited upon Cixi, one to her east and one to her west. Knowing Cixi was very superstitious; the emperor was clever and first ordered the dishes of good luck while the empress wished their mother a long life and good luck. As the emperor presented a dish to his mother, the empress said its name aloud. The empress was told the names of the dishes when the old eunuch passed them on, for she could never remember the names of so many dishes!
Under the Qing Palace rules, the emperor was never to say: "What I would like to eat" or "What I want to eat today." And, he was absolutely never to let others know which dishes he preferred. The emperor also was never to eat the same dish two days in a row even if it was his favorite, so the kitchen prepared the imperial meals according to regular rules.
An honourable senior eunuch had to wait on the emperor when he took his meals. When the emperor tasted a dish, he was only to eat one or two spoonfuls, never a third. If he did, the eunuch would shout, "Withdraw it!" and the dish would disappear for one or two weeks. This was the family rule: "Don't be greedy for food to avoid being murdered," for there were historical examples where emperors had been poisoned unexpectedly. Such security measures were taken at every meal and became merely a simple, indispensable formality.
When the emperor ate, others waited on him but did not encourage him to eat certain dishes. Eunuchs, the empress, or concubines waiting on the emperor (in the late year of the Qing Dynasty, the emperor had to wait upon Empress Dowager Cixi) could not encourage the emperor to eat because it was forbidden by the palace discipline would reprimand them immediately by saying: "Shut your mouth!" and he would slap them on the face using his leather - gloved hand.
For this reason, even the palace maids and eunuchs who attended the emperors and the Empress Dowager for decades, still did not know what the emperors and the Empress Dowager liked to eat. The emperors and Empress Dowager ate the dishes of tribute today, regular dishes tomorrow, and fresh delicacies the day after that. They would not allow their preferences to be known to others. This was the rule of the Qing Palace.
It is said that the Longevity Kitchen, in the late years of the Qing Dynasty, had more than 100 cooking ranges and about 300 people doing the cooking. Under the rules, each cooking range was tended by three people: the chef, a person who prepared the ingredients for a dish, and someone who did odd jobs. All the ranges were numbered and all the dishes were cooked according to fixes rules. Once the eunuch issued the order to summon the meal, the chefs prepared their dishes one by one in a pre arranged order.
The work in the kitchen proceeded smoothly, and people without kitchen ties were forbidden to enter. It was clearly recorded in a daily book who did the washing, who prepared the ingredients, and who cooked each dish. If there was a problem, the offender would soon be found out. After each process was finished, the Office of Palace Affairs checked it. Only if it met standards would the work move to the next step.
As saying goes: "One meal taken by the emperor and empress can feed the common people for several years." If Cixi's daily meals cost 100 taels of silver, that was enough to buy 12, 000 catties of rice in those years. If the per capita yearly average were 300 catties, 100 taels would feed one person for 40 years!
In the late years of Cixi's rule, floods and drought frequented different parts of the country. In 1889, the biggest flood in centuries occurred in Northeast China. "Fields and houses were submerged and countless people drowned in the waters along the rivers." Many who survived by sheer luck starved to death. "The land swarmed with famished refugees; it was too horrible to describe."