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A Chinese Imperial Feast A Year In The Eating

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A Chinese Imperial Feast A Year In The Eating

Asia

A Chinese Imperial Feast A Year In The Eating

A Chinese Imperial Feast A Year In The Eating

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122370174/122394472" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Waitresses in Manchu garb await customers at the Cui Yuan restaurant in Beijing. The sign behind them says "Manhan Quanxi," or "Manchu and Han Imperial Feast." The calligraphy was done by the younger brother of China's last emperor. Xiao Kaijing for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Xiao Kaijing for NPR

Waitresses in Manchu garb await customers at the Cui Yuan restaurant in Beijing. The sign behind them says "Manhan Quanxi," or "Manchu and Han Imperial Feast." The calligraphy was done by the younger brother of China's last emperor.

Xiao Kaijing for NPR

Ninety-nine years after the fall of its last dynasty, China is experiencing a resurgent interest in things imperial. If you care to taste this fascination, there are restaurants in China that purport to recreate imperial feasts, in which scores of exotic courses were served over several days.

You may find the price astronomic, the authenticity questionable, and the animals on the menu too cute to eat, but the feast remains a legendary part of China's culinary culture.

In a traditional courtyard not far from Beijing's Forbidden City, two waitresses in elaborate Manchu costumes bring a first course for me to sample into a private room at the Cui Yuan restaurant.

A waitress announces a soup said to be a favorite of the 18th century Manchu emperor Yongzheng. The little brown cubes in the soup, she points out, are deer's blood.

Sun Xiaochun is the restaurant's head chef and vice chairman of the Chinese Culinary Association. His specialty is the Manhan Quanxi, or Manchu and Han imperial feast. The Han are China's ethnic majority.

Sun himself is an ethnic Manchu. His teacher's teacher, he explains, was a court chef at the summer palace in Chengde, a mountain resort town northeast of Beijing.

Deer's lip, garnished with vegetables. Xiao Kaijing for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Xiao Kaijing for NPR

Deer's lip, garnished with vegetables.

Xiao Kaijing for NPR

"The Manchu emperors would spend the summers hunting and drilling troops at this summer retreat," Sun says. "This place produced a unique source of ingredients, cooking methods and dishes."

Sun's menu is heavily populated with wild game.

The $54,000 Feast

Next up on my plate is a deer's lip, soft and smooth with a chewy outside layer. After that there's sea cucumber with the meat of a swan goose, a rare waterfowl found in Manchuria.

The swan goose tastes almost too light to be meat. I have to go ask the chef about this.

In the kitchen, chef Liu Yabin puts down a large wok and explains that the breast of the swan goose has been mashed into a puree, then formed into little white nuggets. That explains that.

Back in the dining room, Sun says that his modern-day imperial feast is free of endangered species.

Sea cucumber with swan goose meat. Xiao Kaijing for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Xiao Kaijing for NPR

Sea cucumber with swan goose meat.

Xiao Kaijing for NPR

"There are many ingredients we can no longer use, such as tiger meat," Sun says. "The imperial feast used to include a tiger's tail. Some rare species can now be raised on farms such as hazel grouses, swan geese, deer and mandarin ducks."

His point is well taken, as I am next served chunks of peacock drumsticks, stir-fried with hot peppers and peanuts.

You can forget about getting a quick takeout from Sun's restaurant. His imperial feast contains 268 dishes, not including appetizers and deserts. His clients take up to a year to sample all 268, for which Sun charges them just over $54,000.

Sun dismisses popular lore about the imperial feast, which holds that the events lasted for three days and comprised the auspicious total of 108 dishes. He says weeklong banquets were the norm, usually for the emperor's birthday and similar events.

Imperial Hubris

For a dispassionate eye — and palate — on all this, I turned to Eileen Wen Mooney, author of the book Beijing Eats. She says Chinese imperial cuisine in general tends to be gimmicky and reliant on fancy presentation. She argues that locals order it more to impress guests than for the taste.

Chunks of peacock drumsticks with chili peppers and peanuts. Xiao Kaijing for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Xiao Kaijing for NPR

Chunks of peacock drumsticks with chili peppers and peanuts.

Xiao Kaijing for NPR

"That's kind of misleading; people think Chinese people love to eat this kind of thing," she says. "It's not like Chinese people really have this habit of loving exotic [foods] ...You call it 'exotic' in quotes ...That doesn't represent what Chinese people like to eat."

As for claims of authenticity, Mooney says this is a moot point, as nobody alive today has tasted a real imperial feast.

Chef Sun adds that while recipes for all 268 of his dishes can be found in imperial court cookbooks, imperial cuisine has evolved over centuries, and it continues to do so today.

"There may be some dishes which have lost their original taste," he admits. "It may be the same dish, with the same ingredients and the same name and the same preparation, but we have to improve it to satisfy modern people's tastes."

For all his compromises to contemporary tastes and wildlife laws, Sun seems to be doing well at preserving a tradition of what you might call imperial hubris of the culinary variety.

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