STORIES SAY THAT on his birth anniversary in 1720, Emperor Kangxi (康熙皇帝) held the most spectacular banquet of all time in the Forbidden City, Beijing.
The “Manchu-Han Imperial Feast” (满汉全席) has become a legendary event, featuring in books, movies, TV shows, and even as the inspiration for the plot of a Kung Fu Panda film.
But what can we learn about the original event, if it really happened at all? Did it actually have 300 dishes and last three days? Was the Emperor’s 66th birthday the main reason he held such a luxurious feast? What did they actually eat?
Three centuries later, the event is recreated from time to time, so we have a chance to experience at least some of the delights that had been offer, and seek answers to questions about the feast.
It was recreated recently in Hong Kong, and you can click here for an interview with the chef in charge.
Or read on, to learn more about the legend.
MEAL TO UNITE WARRING GROUPS
First, did it really happen? While some historians have expressed doubts, most think that the reports are based on fact – and history shows that there have been attempts to recreate it for more than 200 years.
Second, why was the Manchu-Han Imperial Feast held? We should note that this period in China’s history was unusual. After more than fifteen centuries in which the Han (汉族) people had dominated, the country was now run by Manchurian (满族) sovereignty.
Emperor Kangxi wanted the country to move towards stability under his leadership. On his 66th birthday, considered a momentous occasion in China, he wanted to hold an event that would create a level of peace that would continue for generations.
He knew that co-operative Han ministers played a decisive role in keeping the country stable. Thus he called for the preparation of a feast in which half the cuisines would specifically cater to Han people’s taste. The Emperor hoped the spectacular meal would convey his tolerance and friendship to all who attended or heard about it.
HEAVEN AND THE ANCESTORS
How did the event actually happen? At dusk, the ritual bell reverberated. Royalty, aristocrats and prominent ministers from both Manchu and Han communities filed into the inner and outer dining halls in silence. They stood beside the huge dinner tables, waiting for the Emperor’s incense to rise, and thus pay respects to heaven and the royal ancestors.
Then the Emperor turned to his guests and greeted them. Solemn music was played by imperial musicians, and all the guests seated. As the sky turned dark, dazzling fireworks lit it up with splashes of color.
The guests cleaned their hands and faces in golden basins with fragrant water: it was necessary to be clean in front of the food offered by the Emperor. Before the main dishes, two kinds of dim sum, including sweet and savory flavors, were served. To wash down the food were green tea, jasmine tea and barley tea.
Then the main dishes started to appear from the kitchen.
BONELESS CHICKEN AND BRAINS
What did they actually eat?
There’s no full menu available, but it’s clear that most of the huge number of dishes were varieties of Chinese food from the multiple regions. One dish was Peking Duck, now famous around the world.
Another was Dezhou boneless braised chicken, a whole bird deep fried and then simmered for eight hours or more.
There was dried sea cucumbers and egg tarts and tofu.
But there were also dishes we would consider odd today, including various types of brain, including chicken, duck, cuckoo, monkey, and goat.
And there were foods that people today are now discouraged or forbidden to eat, including shark’s fin soup and bear claws.
As well as signifying unity between the Manchu and the Han peoples, the banquet had another purpose.
The Manchu people were known as northern nomads for centuries before they defeated the Han army and took over the heart of China, the area known as the Central Plain. They were associated with the simplest, crudest ways of eating. They would sit on a fur mat outdoors. Meat from freshly caught animals would be lightly cooked. Diners would slice chunks of flesh and pop them in their mouths.
So this grand event showed that Manchu people could act with the sort of dignity and formal ritual that the Han people had shown for centuries.
In the Manchu-Han Feast, the order of eating was important, and Manchurian cuisines must go first. During the feast, cuisine styles were changed four times of changing cuisines. In the Han section, the Shandong (山东) style dishes dominated. (In more modern recreations of the feast, such as the presided over by master chef Hu Zhu in Hong Kong, Cantonese cuisine tends to dominate.)
RECREATING A LEGEND
Perhaps the most famous attempt to create the grand experience took place on November 2 and 3 in 1977. The Hong Kong State Guest Restaurant (now the Federal Restaurant) was commissioned by Japan’s TBS TV station to make a full-scale Manchu-Han Feast with a total of 108 dishes.
After three months of preparation, more than 160 kitchen staff did the cooking. The whole process was even broadcast live to Japan by satellite.
The chef in charge was Hu Zhu (胡珠), one of the founders of Hsin Kuang Restaurant Group (新光酒樓集團), probably the best known Chinese restaurant group in Hong Kong.
Image at the top from Wikimedia Commons