Sunday, October 22, 2017

A feast

I had leftover Hunan chicken tonight, and got to thinking of some of the meals we've had with Chinese friends. I don't have a vocabulary to describe the differences, but one dramatic difference was that the sauces our friends used weren't thick or sweet--and often not very salty, either. Later in the evening I was reading about travel in China shortly after the Boxer rebellion, and ran across the author's listing of the contents of a feast set out by a local magistrate:
  1. Small cakes (five kinds), sliced pears, candied peanuts, raw water-chestnuts, cooked water-chestnuts, hard-boiled ducks' eggs (cut into small pieces), candied walnuts, honied walnuts, shredded chicken, apricot seeds, sliced pickled plums, sliced dried smoked ham (cut into tiny pieces), shredded sea moss, watermelon seeds, shrimps, bamboo sprouts, jellied haws. All the above dishes were cold. Then followed hot:
  2. Shrimps served in the shell with vinegar, sea-slugs with shredded chicken, bits of sweetened pork and shredded dough --the pork and sea-slugs being cooked and served in fragrant oil.
  3. Bamboo sprouts, stewed chicken kidneys.
  4. Spring chicken cooked crisp in oil.
  5. Stewed sea-slugs with ginger root and bean curd, stewed fungus with reed roots and ginger tops (all hot).
  6. Tarts with candied jelly, sugar dumplings with dates.
  7. Hot pudding made of "the eight precious vegetables," consisting of dates, watermelon seeds, chopped walnuts, chopped chestnuts, preserved oranges, lotus seeds, and two kinds of rice, all mixed and served in syrup--a delicious dish.
  8. Shelled shrimps with roots of reeds and bits of hard-boiled eggs, all in one bowl with fragrant oil, biscuits coated with sweet seeds.
  9. Glutinous rice in little layers with browned sugar between, minced pork dumplings, steamed biscuits.
  10. Omelette with sea-slugs and bamboo sprouts, all in oil, bits of chicken stewed in oil, pork with small dumplings of flour and starch.
  11. Stewed pigs' kidneys, shrimps stewed in oil, date pie.
  12. Vermicelli and egg soup.
  13. Stewed pork balls, reed roots, bits of hard-boiled yolks of eggs, all in oil.
  14. Birds' nest soup.
  15. The appetite being pretty well sated by this time, the following delicacies were served to taper off with:
  16. Chicken boiled in oil, pork swimming in a great bowl of its own fat, stewed fish stomachs, egg soup.
  17. Steamed biscuit.
Tea was served from the beginning and throughout the feast. It was made on the table by pouring hot water into a small pot half full of tea leaves, the pot being refilled as needed. The tea was served without cream or sugar, and was mild and delicious. Rice whiskey in tiny cups is usually served at feasts, though it was often omitted from the feasts given to us. The Chinese assert that the alcohol is necessary "to cut the grease."

Probably etiquette presumed small portions, not American-style ones. The menu differs substantially from both those of the restaurants and the dishes our friends made. I suspect the latter prepared dishes that were more "home-style" than those an official would set out to impress dignitaries.

I wonder if any of the local restaurants offer such 3 hour, 16 remove banquets. (It would take me at least three hours for an adventure like that. Especially since I'm only very mediocre with chopsticks.) My curiosity might exceed my palate, though. I had goat soup in Liberia--excessively spicy, with broken bones and some unidentifiable organs in it, and a very powerful taste of something strange--not liver, probably not kidney. Couldn't finish it. Across the dining room were a couple of European men pretending to be hard-nosed arms dealers. Odd clientele.

Hear from a Chinese tourist of the same era who visited Europe and America: "Nor do they eat their meat cooked in small pieces. It is carried into the room in large chunks, often half raw, and they cut and slash and tear it apart. They eat with knives and prongs. It makes a civilized being perfectly nervous. One fancies himself in the presence of sword-swallowers."

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