Feast like a king: Modern restaurants seek to recreate Chinese imperial cuisine

A sophisticated take on Chinese imperial cuisine brings out essence of complex dishes prepared with lavish ingredients

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 12:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 11:45am

"Food can never be too good and cooking can never be done too carefully," wrote Confucius in The Analects.

Food has always taken a central role in the mindset of the Chinese, and knowing how to eat properly has long been a metaphor for knowing how to live. Attention to detailed cooking techniques, which became apparent from imperial times, is also at the heart of modern fine-dining concepts. Perhaps this explains the appeal in looking back for inspiration.

Emperors and aristocrats cared about exotic and expensive ingredients more than anything

Over the past few years, Hong Kong has seen a small but steady revival in ancient Chinese gastronomy. The latest attempt to resurrect the spirit of an imperial banquet can be found at The Ritz-Carlton's Tin Lung Heen, collaborating with premium porcelain tableware brand Legle France to host their ruyi dinner concept.

A ruyi is a ceremonial sceptre used in Chinese Buddhism. It symbolises power and luck, and appears in every piece of the ruyi dinner collection.

The feast, which will run until mid-September, promises to take diners on an indulgent journey showcasing the very best of China's 5,000-year-old food heritage.

"Over the last couple of years Cantonese eating habits have been changing. The Cantonese are more adventurous, have deeper pockets and are starting to travel more, so they want something more luxurious and special," says Peter Find, executive chef of The Ritz-Carlton. "As China becomes more prominent in the news, Westerners too are showing an increased interest in the country's historical past."

Imperial cuisine can be categorised into imperial court cuisine and imperial official cuisine. Although the former originates from what was served to the emperors and the latter from the aristocracy living outside the palace gates, both styles were excessively grand, boasted the finest produce from across the empire, and were defined by rare or exotic ingredients such as sea cucumber or bear's paw.

One of the best-preserved styles is the Tan family cuisine ( tan jia cai), developed during the late Qing dynasty in the household of a government official named Tan Zongjun. "As the reputation of the Tan family cuisine became widespread, officials, literati and wealthy people were all proud of being a guest at the Tan family feast," says Wicky Tse Wai-kit, assistant professor from the department of Chinese culture at Hong Kong Polytechnic.

Tan cuisine, which is notable for its delicate and luxuriant style is served in the capital's Beijing Hotel, as well as in Wynn Macau's two Michelin-star Golden Flower restaurant. Wynn Macau's executive chef Liu Guozhu oversees the labourious methods crucial to the essence of Tan, such as simmering the chicken stock for seven to eight hours every day.

Isaac Yue Man-cheung, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's faculty of arts who writes about representations of food and drink in imperial literature, says that recent attempts to recreate imperial food are "at best imitations". He points to recipes dating back to the Song dynasty, which were specific to the point that fish must come from a certain river, or that a stew must use snow melted from a particular mountain.

At the same time, Yue notes the vague measurements of documented cooking processes. After all it was the literati rather than the kitchen maids who were responsible for writing the recipes, and they saw their duties as a poetic and literary exercise rather than anything scientific.

Instead of attempting to replicate any particular imperial cuisine, the ruyi dinner perhaps wisely sticks to the Cantonese cooking it knows best, while cherry-picking elements of ancient dining logic. "In terms of how people ate, we looked back through ancient Chinese history and found they dined extremely similarly to the way we do in modern fine dining," says the creator of the concept and partner of Legle France, Desmond Chang.

"The earliest record of course-by-course degustation comes from the Song dynasty when they'd have at least 30-odd courses. First course is usually an incense ceremony to clean the energy, followed by music and then tea."

The sophisticated approach to dining is not lost on Chang, who claims they are reviving a "multifaceted experience", including impeccable service, atmosphere, and multiple courses paired with tea and steeped in culture.

The ruyi dinner menu is a mere six courses, and is designed with a nod to the old ways, starting off with a series of cold appetisers, moving on to high protein dishes such as lobster, and ending with lighter foods that are easier to digest. Portions are typically small: as Chang reminds us, guests should ideally be 80 per cent full after the meal.

The lavishness of ingredients is also important. "Emperors and aristocrats cared about exotic and expensive ingredients more than anything," says Yue.

In a similar vein, the ruyi dinner menu features steamed superior bird's nest with sea urchin and truffle, the modern-day equivalent of bear's paw and shark's fin.

In the imperial kitchens, long processes and experimentation were employed in order to find ideal textures and flavours. For imperial state banquets or royal weddings, premium products such as fish maw would be slowly soaked in chicken stock over a low flame, before being lightly fried to give a sponge-like texture to absorb the stock's rich flavours.

Although such painstaking methods are out of favour today, Find proudly explains how each menu item has been practised and timed to perfection. The baked pumpkin appetiser is steamed in its skin to maintain its true colour and flavour, before the truffle is added. This job alone requires experienced cooks who are well versed in the exact timings taken to reach optimum pumpkin firmness.

Pairing with tea is a nice touch, as it has been the beverage of choice since the Tang dynasty. "Tea works like wine, each belongs to a different region and terroir, and with its own characteristics," says Find. So guests begin with green tea to open the palate, move their way through a smoky peony tea that is matched with the delicate flavours of sea urchin, and end with the rounded flowers of chrysanthemum.

What Chang and Find pull off most exquisitely is their presentation. As far back as the Zhou dynasty, the aristocracy used fancy utensils and presentation to demonstrate hierarchy and superiority. It was during the Song dynasty that porcelain became affordable and extreme attention was paid to the aesthetics of meals.

The ruyi menu kicks off with a starter, beautifully plated like a Nine Halls Diagram ( Jiu Gong Ge) to symbolise harmony, prestige and power. Colours are designed to offset perfectly each morsel of carefully proportioned food placed in the cenre of each of the nine small dishes, such as the amber deep-fried shrimp toast sitting on a cheerful rose lacquer plate.

Far beyond a gimmicky marketing ploy, Find and Chang's efforts have resulted in a well-thought-out and detailed menu, which they hope will boost appreciation for the glories of China's past and a move away from greasy Chinese takeaways.

"Chinese cuisine should be festive, celebratory and auspicious. Hopefully one day we can all enjoy very high quality Chinese cuisine. That would be beautiful," says Chang.