Food

What the royals of China’s last dynasty ate

Jun 28, 2018

Gifs by Mario Chui

“The cuisine of the Qing Dynasty was flush with wild game,” says chef Yongcheng Duan of  Beijing-based restaurant chain Najia Xiaoguan (那家小馆). “The Manchus were fond of hunting and had a lot of deer, beef, and lamb in their food.”

The Manchus ruled China for over 200 years as its last royals, when its downfall in 1911 ended 2,000 years of imperial rule.

One documented facet of the royal Qing emperors was three-day banquets with up to 300 courses served. Those lavish events also focused on rare, high-quality ingredients, says Duan.

That’s why you’ll see items on imperial menus such as lychee-laced prawns, venison fried rice, and creamy chicken, ham, and duck soup spiked with sea cucumber, abalone, and fish maw. Mongolian lamb chops are plated so that they look like scrolls. Ingredients like lychee, dates, millet, walnut, and osmanthus are motifs throughout.

The dishes Duan makes at Najia Xiaoguan are interpretations from a recipe book inherited from the restaurant proprietor's ancestor, who was a former imperial doctor. 

Here’s a taster of Najia’s staple dishes, at a combined value of nearly $255.

Eggplant and deep-fried soya bean with homemade sauce (八旗茄子) 

The dish is a cold appetizer, gently salted and enhanced with a piquant rice vinegar. In Chinese, the dish is called “eight banner eggplants,” a nod to the eight military divisions under the Qing emperor. 

“On the road, the army had to bring their own provisions and these were usually salted or cured foods,” Duan says. Salted eggplant was one of the staples of the imperial army and over time, eventually made its way to the emperor’s court. 

Stewed fish maw, sea cucumber, shark’s fin and abalone in chicken soup (满汉皇坛子)

Translated to “imperial earthen pot,” this $55 soup practically glows with royalty. The bright yellow broth is thickened and made with boiled-down yellow-haired chicken, duck, scallops, and Jinhua ham. 

It’s also packed with some of the prized ingredients from the sea—fish maw, sea cucumber, shark’s fin, and abalone. The entire cooking process takes upwards of 12 hours. 

The dish’s story is that each year, the emperor would send his Plain Yellow Banner calvary a batch of his finest ingredients from the mountain and sea, as a reward. The cooks would prepare everything in a large pot and share it with the neighboring villagers. The dish was thereby dubbed huang tanzi (皇坛子), or imperial earthen pot. 

Fried rice with venison and fennel in Beijing style (老北京鹿肉茴香饭) 

Deer was a favorite protein of the royal court, and this fried rice is peppered with chunks of it. In fact, deer was so prized that herds of them were rounded up from across the country and brought within the perimeters of the emperor’s hunting grounds south of Beijing, beginning from the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. 

Fennel is the predominant spice in the fried rice and helps cut the gameiness of the venison. In Chinese cooking, fennel is traditionally used in conjunction with meat.

Crispy prawns with lychee and syrup (酥皮大明虾) 

Lychee has long been a beloved ingredient of Chinese royals. In the Tang dynasty, the emperor famously sent couriers to fetch him lychees in South China, just to please his mistress who adored the fruit. 

The prawn and lychee dish makes a sweet and savory combination. “The natural sweetness of the prawns pairs well with the lychee,” Duan says. Jujube is the stand-out feature of this dish; it adds a nutty element that rounds out the entire plate.

Sautéed Chicken fillet with walnut (宅门核仁剔炒鸡)

“This is ‘kungpao chicken’ but instead of peanuts, we use walnuts,” Duan says. 

Kungpao chicken (or gongbao jiding—宫保鸡丁) is a dish named after a late Sichuanese Qing dynasty official named Ding Gongbao (丁宝桢). Fundamentally, it’s tender stir-fried chicken coated in a bit of spice. 

Peanuts are a typical feature of the plate, usually sprinkled at the end. But instead of peanuts, Duan insists on walnuts, for extra fancy factor. In fact, walnuts are so valued among China’s elite, that some consider them a status symbol.

Braised whole beef rib with rice straw (稻香牛肋) 

According to Duan, braised beef slow-roasted in straw was typical of family reunions in the Qing-era.

The practice of smoking meats with straw has remained a common technique throughout Northern China. It renders the cut soft and buttery, while allowing the meat to take on the complex flavors of the straw.

Stir-fried bean curd with codfish and mushroom (偷吃豆腐) 

In Chinese, this dish is translated to “sneakily eaten tofu.” Duan says that once, there was a imperial kitchen team which wanted to make a special fish dish for themselves. 

They took the opportunity to get started when their prince set off on a trip, but he surprised them by returning midway because he forgot something. Embarassed, the kitchen staff tried to camouflage their fish with tofu slices on top.

This didn’t mask the fragrance of the fish, and when the prince got a whiff of the smell, he asked to taste it. He quickly discovered the fish buried underneath the tofu and found the entire situation quite amusing. 

From then on, fish and tofu became a royal staple. “We use cod and soft tofu,” Duan says. “They have a very similar texture and look. The point is that when you try the dish, you can’t tell which is which.”