Q&A: Ivan Li Xiaolin
The co-owner of Family Li Imperial Cuisine, Beijing, who was in town for Ritz-Carlton's Asia-Pacific Food and Wine Festival, talks to Grace M.W. Wong about royal tastes and exotic recipes
What was it like growing up in a family that safeguarded Qing dynasty imperial recipes? "My father was a math professor and my mother a doctor. [Our family was] serious about food, even during the difficult times of the Cultural Revolution. The recipes at Family Li Imperial Cuisine were passed down from my great-grandfather, who worked under Empress Cixi. At the beginning my sisters and I just helped our parents in the kitchen. As we grew older we started cooking on our own. When I was young my parents would invite their friends over for dinner, and they served bear paws. Opening our first restaurant, in 1985, was simply accidental."
Why did you expand from Beijing to other Chinese cities and overseas? "People came to us to suggest opening branches, and they usually invested. Our first overseas branch was established in 1991, in Melbourne, Australia. The investor was the father of Conroy Chan Chi-chung [husband of actress Josie Ho Chiu-yee]. My older sister and I went to Melbourne to set it up. The second international branch is in Tokyo and we will be opening a branch in Taipei at the end of this year."
What are the quintessential elements of the imperial cuisine? "[It] is built on traditional Chinese philosophies: Taoism and Confucianism. The dishes should be neither spicy nor salty. The focus is on harmony, natural flavours and purity of taste. Empress Cixi was a true gourmand. She enjoyed bird's nest and expensive ingredients. Each of her meals would have around 150 dishes. I am trying to bring back the lost cuisine. The hardest part is that some of the ingredients used are no longer available. Certain game products or endangered species are banned. Thus, recipes that call for ingredients like tiger meat, bear, elephant trunk or swan cannot, of course, be reproduced. I have to substitute using new ingredients. Even the water is not from the same source as in the recipe. The emperor and empress would only consume water from a particular mountain spring, which has a distinctive taste."
What was the inspiration behind the new Beijing restaurant you run yourself? "In 2010, I opened my own Family Li Imperial Cuisine in the Shunyi district of Beijing, as a base in which to train chefs to work at the Shanghai and Tianjin branches. There are 4,000 to 6,000 imperial recipes in our collection and I feel we have to expand our menu, and that's why I opened my personal branch - to test-trial the recipes. Our original restaurant can only have a menu of about 30 dishes."
How do you feel about serving shark's fin? "We have to think of other ways to save sharks but not completely ban shark's fin. It is a Chinese food tradition. To me it is imperative to find a balance to preserve our food culture as much as possible."