MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
China is experiencing a resurgent interest in all things imperial. If you care to taste this fascination, there are restaurants in China that recreate imperial feasts in which scores of exotic courses are served over several days. You may find the price astronomic, the authenticity questionable and the animals on the menu too cute to eat, but as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, the feast remains a legendary part of China's culinary culture.
(Soundbite of squeaky door opening)
ANTHONY KUHN: The doors of a private room at the Cui Yuan Restaurant swing open and two waitresses in elaborate Manchu costumes bring in a first course for me to sample.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: A waitress explains that this soup was 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.
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.
Mr. SUN XIAOCHUN (Head Chef, Cui Yuan Restaurant): (Through translator) The Manchu emperors would spend the summers hunting and drilling troops at this summer retreat. This place produced a unique source of ingredients, cooking methods and dishes.
KUHN: Sun's menu is heavily populated with wild game.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: 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 swan goose meat, a rare waterfowl found in Manchuria. The swan goose tastes almost too light to be meat. I have to go ask the chef.
Mr. LIU YABIN (Chef): (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: In the kitchen, Chef Liu Yabin 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.
Mr. SUN: (Through translator) There are many ingredients we can no longer use, such as tiger meat. 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.
(Soundbite of chewing)
KUHN: Now, here's a bird I always thought I would appreciate for its appearance and not its taste. This is peacock stir-fried with hot peppers and peanuts. While I'd say it tastes like chicken but it really doesnt.
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.
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.
Ms. EILEEN MOONEY (Author, "Beijing Eats"): That's kind of misleading; people think Chinese people love to eat this kind of things. It's not like Chinese people really have this habit of loving exotic - you call it exotic in quotes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MOONEY: That doesn't represent what Chinese people like to eat.
KUHN: 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.
Mr. SUN: (Through translator) There may be some dishes which have lost their original taste. 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.
KUHN: 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.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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