Review #27: The Emperor’s Feast

I am not a particularly zealous foodie. The meals my mind reaches back to for solace seem to be more about quantity than quality (I have my own issues there), or memorable for some other reason: the disastrous, Pinter-worthy birthday dinner party; the time we were being boisterously rude about James Corden at the Ivy and his face appeared around the door with a look of quizzical indignation; the tortilla soup I ate with eyes clamped on Diana Ross at the next table (that’s the end of the celebrity anecdotes, I promise). Oh wait, the Christmas dinner where Richard ‘Victor Meldrew’ Wilson unexpectedly turned up. (Last one)


But then there’s the gongbao jiding, or kung pao chicken. That particular one – the best one I’ve ever had. Nowhere fancy: a restaurant on the Peking University campus which, as far as we could tell, was attached to a student medical centre, and was gone when a friend returned a year later. I could find out what exactly this heavenly canteen was, but I prefer not to know. My own private peach blossom spring. Their gongbao became a staple. I forget how often I returned, but it was at least weekly for several months. It came in a cheap metal, shallow oval dish, casually dumped by blank-faced middle-aged waitresses onto the plasticky checked disposable table cloth, spilling over with a slop. It had the colouring of bad stage make-up, somehow at once lurid, heavy and muted orange. The chicken was diced into dings (presumably) by machine so perfectly and neatly, and the sauce so gloopy, that it was impossible to tell at first whether you had picked up chicken, spring onion or peanut. I’ve no doubt that it was an old acquaintance of the dreaded weijing (which if it had a less scientific and more poetic English name than ‘MSG’ would be more commonly seen on tables and in kitchens here). It was completely magnificent, a world away from the aluminium tubs of the village takeaway or the supermarket jars of ‘kung pao’ sauce: sweet, tingly, luscious. That dish is my benchmark for Chinese restaurants everywhere, although I know that, being a specifically local dish, that would be like judging every pub by the quality of its carbonara. Only two gongbaos have bettered it: Ba Shu in London, and Fuschia Dunlop’s own recipe by my own humblebragging hand (link here, but buy the books!). But oh, to return to the Beida medical centre restaurant.

…and his magnificent chicken
Ding Baozhen…

It’s no surprise that the gongbao has its moment in the kitchen spotlight in Jonathan ClementsThe Emperor’s Feast, a history of China through food. The name of the dish puns on the late Qing official Ding Baozhen, who began its spread throughout China through a familiar route – as an official, Ding was not allowed to serve in his home region, so having encountered it in Sichuan would serve it to visiting friends and dignitaries. This interplay between Chinese regions – and, later, Chinese communities abroad – is a strong theme throughout, particularly for a Western audience used to a unitary concept of ‘Chinese’ food – take ‘Peking Duck’, its origins in the Yongle Emperor’s attempts to recreate his beloved Nanjing speciality. Clements has specialised in accessible, informative and eclectic books about China and East Asia and The Emperor’s Feast is every bit as readable.

The book is, at heart, a chronological history of China. The book’s subtitle (‘A History of China in Twelve Meals’) led me to expect something high concept, with each chapter focusing on a specific banquet or event and broadening out to talk more about Chinese food culture, and I felt a little disappointed that it is more conventional than that. Each chapter, instead, focuses on a specific time period and draws on primary sources of cooks, travellers and literati to expound on the innovations and fashions of cuisine: the essential relationship between food and Han cosmology and ritual; the excesses, tea drinking and central Asian influences in the Tang; the rise of fast food and the Great Hegemon Without Compare (or Big Mac to you and me).

But, oh, what meals! The Tang dynasty sees a vast proliferation of ostentatious banquets, loaded with exotic ingredients and showy centrepieces, like the Musical Troupe (su zheng yinsheng bu), a 70-piece orchestra made out of pastries. The most popular dishes, as ever, were the super-trendy foreign fads, such as Brahmin Cakes (polomen qing gao mian), made to an Indian recipe that called for clarified butter, Jade Cakes (yu lu tuan), named for their infusion of exotic peppermit, and exotic delicacies such as Phoenix Eggs (fenghuang tai) – actually immature chicken eggs cooked with fish maw.]

Some themes run consistently throughout: the interplay between cuisines, for one, but also the idea that dividing China up into ‘cuisines’ and, indeed, the word ‘cuisine’ (caixi) itself are, like much loftily ancient sounding wisdom, very recent – there is no reference to the ‘Eight Great Cuisines’ until 1980. Clements has a particular eye out for unusual cuisine and amusing anecdotes – the ancient servant executed for undercooking his duke’s bear paw, for instance, or the poor donkey fed nothing but barbecue sauce. The ethics of food are a clear interest for Clements: the Buddhist rules behind vegetarianism, for instance, and Khubilai Khan’s view on halal food; and few chapters pass without a slightly prurient update on the status of the eating of dog meat in that time. Cannibalism – an ever present and often exaggerated theme in times of suffering – also crops up with regularity.

There is a roster of familiar faces, pleasingly grouped by the theme of food and drink: Cook Ding, who never changes his knife (which Clements takes literally, but I always took allegorically); several Emperors, notably Liu Bang and Wu Zetian; writers Su ‘Porky’ Dongpo, Cao Xueqin and Lao She; travellers Marco Polo and Odoric of Pordenone. As you might expect, the number of sources – including Western – Clements can draw on dramatically increases as time approaches the present, for which he focuses on Chinatowns abroad, the importance of Cantonese cuisine and the bizarre faux and hodgepodge dishes that emerge (haggis spring rolls, anyone?), the famines and feasts of Communist rule (was the Sino-Soviet split a result of Krushchev eating a chili above his tolerance?); and the thoroughly disheartening food safety scandals of recent decades.

Clements has an engaging and chatty writing style, and knows his audience: Liu Bang has a ‘frenemy’, Confucians are a ‘bunch of whiners’, we encounter a ‘Chinese Basil Fawlty’. I was rather surprised when, discussing the ‘world’s largest turnip’, he passes over the opportunity to make a Blackadder reference.

And, most importantly, there is plenty to make the mouth water: I particularly liked the sound of Barbarian Roast Meat from the Qimin Yaoshu of 544 AD, or a night on the town in Song Dynasty Kaifeng with Meng Yuanlao – although count me out for the badger meat kebabs.

But take me back for a Beida gongbao jiding any day.

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