Imperial food from the Ming and pre- Ming dynasties has mostly disappeared by today. What has been preserved is the Qing Dynasty imperial cuisine because its cooks passed down their knowledge and skills, and because the palace kept dietetic records.
General Feng Yuxiang (1882 - 1948) drove Puyi (1906 - 1967), the last Qing emperor, out of the Forbidden City in 1924 and disbanded the imperial garden, was opened to the public in 1925. Former cooks of the Qing imperial kitchen, Sun Shaoran, Wang Yushan, Wen Baotian, Niu Wenzhi, and Zhao Yongshou, then opened a tea – house in Beihai Park with help from Zhao Renzhai, former chief of the palace vegetable storehouse. Their teahouse was named Fangshan, which means imitation imperial food. They specialized in making and selling the orthodox pastries of the Qing Palace. From making and selling tea, pastries, and refreshments, Fangshan gradually evolved into serving the traditional dishes of the Qing Palace. Many literati and tourists dined at the restaurant out of admiration for their imperial dishes. The restaurant soon became famous throughout the city because of its fresh raw materials, excellent cooking, and unique flavors.
The Fangshan Restaurant is located in Yilantang Hall on the north side of the Jade Isle, where Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 - 1908) used to take her meals after sight – seeing in the park. The food made in the Qing Palace for the emperors was called imperial food, so a restaurant operating outside the palace making and selling imperial food was only an imitation.
The restaurant’s staple food was cooked wheaten products, such as baked sesame seed cakes with fried minced-meat filling and pastries shaped like apple, peach, fingered citron, and lucky rolls. Whatever wheaten food you ate, you received a good luck message: apple – all is well; peach – longevity, you will live a long life; lucky rolls – everything is fine.
The pastries included steamed corn-flour cake, rolls of kidney bean flour, and mashed pea cake, which were all favorites of Empress Dowager Cixi. The most sumptuous food at Fangshan Restaurant was their Manchu and Han banquet. These dishes have the flavors of the Beijing cuisine palace dishes.
There is another Fangshan Restaurant at Dongdan, and a Tingliguan (Listening to the Oriole) restaurant at the Summer Palace.
Although imperial food originated with the common people, imperial food uses different raw materials. The rice, flour, meat, vegetables, melon, fruit, poultry, fish, and delicacies from land and sea were carefully chosen tributes from local officials throughout the country. They were unmatched in quality and purity.
The rice used in the imperial kitchen was only grown at Jade Spring Hill and Tang Spring in the Haidian District, west of Beijing. It was known as Jingxi Rice (west of Beijing) or Haidian Rice. Because of its low yield and excellent taste, only the emperors could eat it. Top quality rice tributes from other parts of the country were also eaten only in the palace.
The mutton eaten in the palace came from the Qingfeng Department (Department of Celebrating Good Harvests). The Qing Dynasty Imperial Kitchen did not serve beef, but it did use cow’s milk, which came from the same department. All kinds of melon and fruit, and delicacies from land and sea were tributes from different parts of the country. The palace cooking water was brought every morning from the Jade Spring, which Emperor Qianlong named the “Number One Spring in the world.” Poultry and seasonal vegetables were bought at the market. Carefully chosen raw materials were a pre – requisite for preparing imperial food.
All cooks in the imperial kitchen were famous. They cooked their dishes to emphasize taste, color, and shape. Besides tasting good, every dish must look as good as a work of art. Many cooks specialized in making one or several dishes during their lives. The more their labor was divided, the better the dishes were. What they created was not so much a dish as a valuable work of art. Their excellent cooking skills were the key to the making of palace delicacies.
Ingredients in the imperial dishes were strictly blended, and the auxiliary ingredients could not be modified. In public restaurants cooks can adjust the ingredients according to whatever ingredients are available as long as they make dishes with appealing color, aroma, and taste. But in the palace, not a single auxiliary ingredient could be replaced. If a cook wished to create a new dish, he had to assume a risk. If the emperor liked his new dish, his bonus would be impressive, but if the emperor disliked it, the cook would be punished or beaten.
Imperial cuisine stresses the original stock and taste of the dishes. Between shape and taste, taste is emphasized. For example, if the main ingredient is chicken, the dish should taste of chicken. Regardless of what auxiliary ingredients and seasonings are used, they should not affect the taste of the chicken. This was also true of venison, aquatic products, seafood, and of hot and cold dishes. Imperial food requires the presence of color, fragrance, and taste. A dish that looks good but does not taste good is not good, and vice versa.
Cold dishes could not be combined on one plate. A plate of boiled chicken should just be boiled chicken and nothing else. A plate of jellyfish salad should be nothing but jellyfish salad, and the same for smoked fish, preserved eggs, and pork cooked in soy sauce. They should all be served on separate plates. There was nothing similar to the assorted cold dishes of today, which are modeled like a work of modern art.
The dragon and phoenix designs were not used in the palace. The dragon and phoenix were the symbols of the emperor and empress, so they could not be eaten. Special dishes were created for display, such as the snow-white bird’s nest, which was put in four big bowls with four big Chinese characters that meant, “a long life.” Other display dishes had characters like “Moon Festival greetings,” “many happy returns of the day,” “good luck to you for life,” and “New Year’s Day greetings.” The display dishes were prepared especially to flatter the emperors, but they also were delicious in case the emperor wanted to taste them.
Palace dishes were named simply, usually for their cooking methods, main ingredients, or for the major and minor ingredients so the emperors knew what was in the dish as soon as they saw it. For example, quick – fried chicken with fresh mushrooms; balls of pork; shrimp and sea cucumber; stir – fried fish slices; and quick – fried mutton with onion. Looking through more than 200 years of files from the Qing Palace Imperial Diets, we found no dishes with showy names. Maybe this was because the emperors wanted their ministers to think and act consistently. While the imperial dishes were named differently from those in restaurants, they were very similar to dishes eaten by the common people. Palace cuisine can be regarded as a collection of the best examples of Chinese food. The imperial cooks who started the Fangshan Restaurant in 1925 passed along their cooking skills so that today we can taste imitations of the palace dishes.