Walter’s recent birthday cake inspired me to write this article. The cake was unusually big and colourful. On its top was a beautiful peach made of cream and sugar. Several small white cranes, with their wings outstretched perching prettily around the fruit, were made of icing. His Chinese colleagues, who made the cake, explained that in China a peach and a crane signify health and long life.
Rules of arrangement
To the Chinese, almost every plant, flower and shrub has a meaning. There is no nation on earth that attaches so much importance to their eating and drinking tradition as the Chinese. Indeed, their cuisine is well known throughout the world, and their sumptuous banquet is incomparable. The arrangement is not only pleasing to the eye, but the food is also delicious and delights the taste buds. what to ask a girl The way each course is prepared and served represents the philosophy of life.
The sacred Chinese Book of Rites stipulates the rather strict and complicated rules on the arrangement of dishes and seats. The Chinese are quite particular on how their guests are seated, befitting their position and importance.
The history of the art
When they crossed the Great Wall, the Manchus brought with them their traditional eating and drinking culture. Only after they became stronger and more prosperous did the rulers begin to eat the best food of the Hans and the other ethnic groups. Emperor Kangxi in his political wisdom tried to pacify the Hans by combining the Manchu food with that of the Hans, thus creating the Manchu and Han cuisine that has become the pride of China. Mr. Lin Yutang, a Chinese scholar, said that Chinese cuisine is an art of combination and the Manchu and Han Banquet is the pinnacle of this art.
The scale and variety of courses reached its peak in the Qianlong reign during the Qing Dynasty, and started to decline and disappear at the end of the Dynasty. However, this was revived a century later. It was said that during his visit to the southern provinces, Emperor Qianlong had 800 camels for the purpose of carrying his kitchen utilities. The daily banquet consisted of 108 courses plus 55 cold dishes and 44 desserts, the ingredients of which were obtained both from land and sea. To this writer, such a sumptuous meal was mind boggling and seemed to be an epitome of luxury beyond anyone’s imagination.
One of the banquet’s favorite dishes was the imperial soup called “Monk Jumps over the Wall”, that was invented in Fujian Province during Emperor Daoguang’s reign in the Qing Dynasty. Sea cucumber, sharks fin, abalone, dried scallop and dove eggs were among the major ingredients. The soup was supposed to be rich in fragrance and provided a pleasant aftertaste.
A legend of the art
In olden days such a banquet was exclusive only to the imperial families, but today anyone with money to spare can partake of and enjoy the dishes a banquet has to offer. Each specialty has an interesting legend of its own and “Aiwowo” dish is no exception.
Do you still remember the Fragrant Concubine or “Xiang Fei” who was Emperor Qianlong’s concubine that I mentioned in my Silk Road article published some months ago? The lady was the granddaughter of the famous Abakh Khoja. When she died, her body was brought all the way to the suburbs of Kashgar to be buried in Abakh Khoja’s Tomb. The palanquin that was used to carry her body is on display today in the main tomb.
Having suppressed the Uygur people’s revolt in Xinjiang, Emperor Qianlong seized the chieftain’s wife and made her his concubine. Then he took her to live in Beijing with him. While living in the palace, Xiang Fei did not find the imperial food appealing and longed for the simple Uygur food to which she was accustomed. She refused to eat any kind of food cooked for her in the palace kitchen. Her refusal worried the emperor. He had no other choice but to send out a proclamation that if anyone was able to cook something that would appeal to Xiang Fei and bring back her appetite, that person would be richly rewarded.
In the meantime Xiang Fei’s husband was making his way to Beijing in search of his wife. When the Emperor’s proclamation reached him, he was ecstatic and started to prepare a dish of glutinous rice balls that had been a special dessert in his family for generations. Since his name was Aimaiti, he called this special dish “Aiwowo” in the hope that his wife would be able to recognize its origin. When the dessert was delivered into the palace, Xiang Fei realized that it was her husband who had prepared the dish and guessed that he must be in Beijing. The thought of him being in the same city comforted her and she began to eat – much to the delight of her lord and master, the emperor. From then on it became Aimaiti’s duty to prepare the dish for Xiang Fei every day. Since then, “Aiwowo” has become popular both in the palace as well as among the ordinary people.
There is also a story behind a dish called “Kidney Bean Rolls and Pea Cakes” and that of “Dragon Plays with Phoenix”. The story tells of how each dish obtained its name. The former was from Empress Dowager Cixi and the latter from Emperor Wuzong in the Ming Dynasty.
The next time you are invited to a banquet and see those beautifully decorated and dazzling dishes, you might want to ask your host or your Chinese colleagues for their origin. I am sure that will make an interesting dinner conversation.