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Sublime cuisine from royal kitchens
By Gao Ceng

LEGENDARY recipes from China's imperial kitchens and fabled dishes from literary classics are mysterious, coveted and mostly out of reach. But Gao Ceng gets a very special taste.

Deboned domestic duck is stuffed with deboned wild duck, which in turn is stuffed with pigeon, mushrooms and ham. The dish, called san tao ya(三套鸡,triple ducks), was served in the ancient imperial court and homes of aristocrats - the ultimate in home cooking.

The magnificent triple ducks - the product of dozens of hours of labor - are an example of guanfu cai (官府菜), literally official's home cuisine.

Another is jin gou gua yin tiao (金勾挂银条, silver stripe hung on a golden hook). It requires the hollow stem of a mung bean sprout to be carefully stuffed with dried shrimp - virtually a mission impossible today in a fast-paced workplace.

Many of these dishes are mysterious, cited in ancient books and legends of court cuisine. They are coveted by wealthy Chinese today - price is no object for many of them. But many recipes have been lost and the exorbitant price puts them out of the reach of less affluent people.

A few hundred years ago, some descendants of aristocrats opened exclusive, luxury restaurants based on their ancestors' recipes.

The public has been curious for a long time. Those, who manage to read "A Dream of Red Mansions" from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) learned that 10 chickens were used to season a small dish of diced eggplant in a feudal household.

"Guanfu cai is a cuisine that originated with folk chefs who were hired by private chefs for aristocrats and then developed their craft," says Wang Yuemin, an official of the Shanghai Cuisine Association, known for his research into Chinese traditional cuisine.

"It distinguishes itself by breaking the north-south geographic distinction and elevating finesse and sublime flavor to the limit, at all cost," Wang tells Shanghai Daily in an interview.

Officials in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties used to stage lavish dinners for each other, and food was a showcase for their wealth and status. They used it to compare each other's refined taste and chefs tried to outdo each other.

"Fierce competition greatly stimulated the development, expanding variety and enhancing technique," Wang explains.

Simple, yet not simple

Guanfu cai is not as extravagant as people imagine, but it's not as simple as it looks, says Freeze Ng, the executive chef at Shangri-La Hotel, Qufu, Shandong Province, who just launches his Confucius home cuisine menu. Qufu was the home of Confucius (551-479 BC).

Unlike imperial chefs using rare and expensive ingredients such as bear's paw and deer's sinew, private chefs used more widely available ingredients at the time, such as bird's nest, shark fin and abalone. They also used simple ingredients, such as vegetables, including eggplant, as well as tofu and pancakes.

Many dishes combine rare and common ingredients, such as pork braised with abalone in soy sauce, a signature dish of Tan Cuisine named after Cantonese official Tan Zonjun in the Qing Dynasty.

The emperor sometimes bestowed elaborate and costly royal recipes on his favored officials, who enriched their own chefs' guanfu cai menus.

For the eggplant dish in "A Dream of Red Mansions," dried, diced eggplant is stir-fried with diced salted fish, ham, chicken, bean curd and bamboo shoots. Then it's cooked in chicken broth over a low fire until it becomes dry. Then it is mixed with chicken melon and topped with chicken oil before serving. The eggplant doesn't taste like grandma's eggplant.

Another guanfu cai dish called "eight-treasure tofu" makes the most out of simple tofu. Chopped tofu is stir-fried with pine nuts, finely chopped chicken, ham, shrimp, mushroom and cooked with chicken broth. The original recipe invented by royal chef was a favorite of the Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) and he bestowed it upon favored officials.

North and south meet

Although guanfu cai developed in capital of Beijing in the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was greatly influenced by the food culture of eastern and southern China.

Marriage alliances among aristocratic families in the north and south was a key reason the cuisine developed further.

"Aristocrats living in the south moved north with their private chefs, bringing both their recipes and food philosophy," says Luo Chenglie, the director of the Qufu Confucius Home Cuisine Institute. He is also a professor at Qufu Normal University, Shandong Province, where he is a Confucian scholar.

Powerful and wealthy family could source the best ingredients from around the country, he says.

Soup is a big part of guanfu cai, which uses southern ingredients such as shark fin, shark lip and bird's nest, which is cooked in the northern way called diao tang (吊汤, refined soup), according to Wang from the Shanghai Cuisine Association. This cooking gives the soup a rich, concentrated flavor with a clean and pure, tea-like appearance, he says.

Diao tang is a cooking technique used in both guanfu cai and Chinese royal cuisine; at least three ingredients are stewed together for more than 10 hours until all the flavors are released. The chef keeps skimming the froth from the surface during stewing. Finally, minced chicken is added and the thick soup particles adhere to it. The soup is then strained and the chicken removed, leaving a clear soup.

'Literary' cooking

From the recipes, to presentation to dining ambience, guanfu cai conveys a strong literary feeling. That's because chefs often worked for scholars who had passed the imperial exam and worked in the bureaucracy. They were familiar with history, poetry, calligraphy, music, painting and other arts.

Some officials even involved themselves in the kitchen work, designing recipes.

"Sometimes either a philosophical observation or a literary quotation can be expressed through food, which is quite evident in Confucius home cuisine," says professor Luo.

The cuisine was developed by the private chef of Duke Yansheng, a direct descendant of Confucius, in Qufu. It reached new heights when the Duke married the daughter of the Emperor Qianlong (1735-1799), turning his family into one of the wealthiest and most powerful in China - with a kitchen and cuisine to match.

Early this month a Confucian Home Cuisine Banquet was held at the Shangri-La Hotel in Qufu. Chef Freeze Ng did extensive research and conducted numerous interviews with local chefs in Qufu to decide on the most classical dishes.

The banquet was accompanied with the lingering music of guqin, the favored six-string, plucked instrument of scholars.

Six appetizers included marinated duck's tongue on the same plate with jellyfish and a celery sprout coated with sauce. They illustrate liuyi (六艺six arts), referring to the qualities of a learned man at the time, including respect for rituals, music, reading and archery.

One of the hot dishes lu bi cang shu (鲁壁藏书) or "book hidden in the wall" recalls the ninth descendant of Confucius who hid classical works in the wall of his house to protect them from book-burning Emperor Qing Shi Huang. The first ruler of unified China suppressed intellectual dissent, burned books and buried scholars. Shrimp, shaped like a book, are wrapped in deep-fried noodles, which represent a wall.

San tao tang (三套汤, three layers of soup) cooks pork, chicken and duck for a long time and goes through the diao tang process to clarify the color.

The dessert shi li yin xing (诗礼银杏, poem, manners and gingko), was a cooked peeled pear carved with the character shi (诗, poem). It was marinated with gingko, jujube and honey sauce. It was named by Duke Yansheng to emphasize the importance of learning poetry and courtesy.

Tan cuisine

Tan's guanfu cai was established by Cantonese Tan Zonjun, who became an official at the Qing Imperial Academy. It is the only guanfu cai well preserved today.

The cuisine relies on craftsmanship and slow cooking to present the natural flavor and texture of bird's nest and shark fin.

"The cuisine follows a strict standard for ingredients, for example, shark fin should be 48 centimeters long, abalone should be of a certain size to ensure the right texture in the mouth," says Liu Zhong, chef de cuisine at Tan's Home Cuisine, Beijing Hotel.

The chef prefers slow cooking, such as braising, stewing and steaming, and says the stir-frying destroys the natural flavors. Salt and sugar are the only seasonings used in cooking; sugar complements savory taste and salt complements the umami flavor of seafood.

Guanfu cai has an illustrious past, but nowadays not many chefs are interested.

"The old cuisine culture requires too much complicated and time-consuming craftsmanship," says professor Luo from Qufu Normal University.

Where to dine

Only by going to the source can you enjoy authentic cuisine, but one Shanghai restaurant features guanfu cai and deserves a try. It is better making reservations two days in advance.

Tanshi Guanfu Cai

Address: 4/F, 3190 Yan'an Rd W. Shanghai

Tel: (021) 6465-8080

Shang Palace, Shangri-La Hotel Qufu

Address: 1/F, 3 Chunqiu Rd, Qufu City, Shandong Province

Tel: (537) 505-8888

Tan's Home Cuisine, Beijing Hotel

Address: 7/F, 33 Chang'an Ave, Beijing

Tel: (010) 8500-9688

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164