Painting a picture: the Emperor's feast

Painting a picture: beef preserve with 'rib' of sweetcorn

by Mukta Das 8 July 2019

Mukta Das and Andrew Wong take a look at the grand feasts held by the Emperor in early China, creating a recipe that represents the hierarchy of the court and contains a surprising Taiwanese ingredient.

Mukta is a food anthropologist specialising in Chinese cuisine.

Mukta is a food anthropologist specialising in Chinese cuisine. A graduate of Chinese and Indian history from SOAS, she has lived and worked in East Asia and Europe. She works closely with chef Andrew Wong to discover and explore China's rich culinary traditions.

Preparing a feast at the Imperial Court in China was a serious operation. Tens or hundreds of tables were arranged in a huge hall, reaching up to 500 metres long, with the Emperor at the head table facing all his guests including the lowliest courtiers at the other end of the hall. Food anthropologist Mukta Das and Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong have been looking at these incredible feasts, creating a recipe which celebrates them along the way. Using the street food of Taiwan as a starting point, the dish showcases not just the incredible rules and rituals of these meals, but the sauces that both ends of the table would eat. See what they came up with below and how they developed their discussions into a plate of food.

In all cases the rules for serving dishes (for entertainment) are the following: the meat cooked on the bones is set on the left, and the sliced meat on the right; the rice is placed on the left of the parties on the mat, and the stew on their right; the minced and roasted meat are put on the outside and the pickles and sauces on the inside; the onions and steamed onions at the end, and the wines and broths are placed to the right.

Liji, 3.51–56 translated in Sterckx, R. 2005. Food and Philosophy in Early China in Sterckx, (ed) Of Tripod and Palate.Palgrave Macmillan, New York. p56

Andrew Wong: This dish came about after a chat with Mukta about feasts in Chinese Imperial courts. You had the Emperor at the very top, but he would constantly host feasts that brought people of all ranks and status together. At these massive feasts, the Emperor would be at one end of a great hall, and then half a kilometre away were the guests with the least status, right at back. So the Emperor starts off with, say, ninety-nine dishes for him to choose from. As you go down the ranks the collection of food gets smaller and smaller and less sophisticated. But the important thing Mukta pointed out was that the only thing which was probably universal from top to bottom were these rich condiments, used to flavour vegetables and rice. The only thing which both the Emperor and the dude right at the other end of the table had in common was dipping food into these sauces.

Mukta Das: There’s a rich vein of classical Chinese philosophy that links ruling an empire with running a kitchen. Feasting was crucial to get right, and these pastes were very important; not just because of their flavour, but because they created a sense of equality, even within such a clear hierarchy. There’s a famous Han tomb mural of an elite kitchen scene – near the top of the mural is a stack of large trays with an attendant busying himself with preparing the correct amount of dishes according to the grade of the guest. At the other end you can see huge clay jars probably filled with meat, fish and vegetable sauces. You realise, looking at it, just how much time, skill and space was taken up by making sauce.

The technology to make meat paste with salts, oils, wine and time (anything from one day to 100 days) goes back many centuries in China. According to food historians, hai 醢 (a finely chopped, almost minced meat paste) was already very important 2,000 years ago. The Rites of Zhou demand that the emperor keep a Superintendent of Fermented Victuals in the royal kitchens, who would be responsible for always having at least sixty jars of pickles and pastes at the ready. There were snail, oyster, frog, fish, rabbit and goose meat pastes. The oils in the sauce would have most likely come from adding bone marrow, to deepen and enrich the flavour.

AW: I wanted to create a dish which represented this idea of there being extravagance at one end and nothing on the other, but with a meat paste in the middle to tie everything together. We also started looking at the street food of Taiwan, and one of the most well-known snacks is sweetcorn, served as a spicy buttered corn on the cob. But one other massively popular Taiwanese street snack that people don't really know about is bottarga (cured mullet roe that’s seen as a speciality in Italy). It's not really revered in Taiwan; it's more of an everyday ingredient. Street vendors will simply slice it up, pan-fry it and give it to you – it doesn't have the kind of exclusivity that it does in the Mediterranean. So with the sweetcorn on the plate, I pan-fry some slices of Taiwanese bottarga and only put it at one end, with nothing on the other. The meat paste then goes in the middle.


MD: This is where Andrew and I turn a bit geeky. In truth we don't know when sweetcorn arrived in China – the same foods arrived at different times over the course of history. Andrew’s keen on Columbus’ discovery of America and the global sea routes which saw certain vegetables and farming techniques move from east to west and back again. It’s why you now find things like sweetcorn in Yunnan and chilies in Sichuan. I, on the other hand, tend to go back even earlier, to the millenia-old land-based routes like the Silk Roads.

AW: Mukta and I talk a lot about the Buddhist monastic chefs, who were really skilled at creating vegetarian dishes that looked and tasted like meat. So I started messing around with the idea of a vegetarian rib, cutting up the sweetcorn and trying to shape it so it looked like one. The meat paste comes courtesy of a new chef at A Wong from Hunan, who likes to make meat pastes at home. All these components – the sweetcorn ‘rib’, the Taiwanese bottarga and the meat paste – came together to create a snapshot of what I wanted to create.