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Chinese imperial food [Copy link] 中文

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This post was edited by aziz at 2012-11-10 13:51

Chinese imperial food dates back to slave society. Ever since there were emperors and palaces, there has been imperial food, which was served mainly to the emperors, their wives and concubines, and the royal families. Emperors used their power to collect the best delicacies and called upon the best cooks to make delicious food for them. Imperial food represented a dynasty's best cuisine.


Although imperial food was made exclusively for the royal family, generals, ministers, and nobility, it was the peasants, herders, and fishermen who provided the raw materials, craftsmen who made the kitchen utensils, the cooking staff who provided the service, civil officials who named the dishes, and protocol officials who drafted the dietary and culinary rules. Imperial food comprised the dietetic culture of the Chinese palaces and it is part of China's valuable cultural heritage.

Imperial foods often were improved dishes invented by the common people. The inventors were not princes, dukes, or ministers, but cooks and commoners. The original model for a dish might have been similar to a dish you once prepared for yourself.

Food preparation is impossible without cooks, so emperors in ancient times cherished excellent cooks. The Historical Records by Sima Qian, a famous historian of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220), reports that Yi Yin, the first famous prime minister in known Chinese history, helped Tang (the first ruler of the Shang Dynasty, enthroned 1766 B.C. – 1760 B.C.) destroy Jie (the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, enthroned 1818 B.C. – 1766 B.C.).

Yi Yin had been a famous cook before he became prime minister. Yi Yin, whose original name was Ah Heng, was a slave of the Youxinshi family. He wanted to convince Tang of his good ideas, but lacked a way, so he brought his kitchen utensils with him and won Tang's trust by demonstrating his cooking skills. Tang described him as cooking delicious dishes and having the ability to govern the country, so he appointed Yi Yin as his prime minister.


Later cooks also participated in politics. Peng Zu, who is called the founder of Chinese cooking, was chef to Emperor Yao around the beginning of the 21st century B.C. Yi Ya of the Qi State in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 B.C. – 476 B.C.) won the trust of Prince Huan of Qi by being good at cooking and identifying flavors. Shao Kang, the seventh emperor of the Xia Dynasty, had been an official in charge of the kitchen service for Youyushi before the Xia Dynasty was founded.

Zhuan Zhu of the Wu State was an assassin in the late years of the Spring and Autumn Period. In order to help Prince Guang ascend to the throne, he learned the unique skill of "roasting fish" from a famous chef. Through his cooking skills, he was able to meet Prince Liao of the Wu State and assassinated him.

In the late Shang Dynasty (16th century B.C. – 11th century B.C.), the government became corrupt and held lavish banquets and feasts in the palace. The following was written of the reign of Emperor Zhou (the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty, enthroned 1154 B.C. – 1122 B.C.): "With a pool of wine and a forest of hanging meats, men and women chased each other naked, drinking all night." (Records of Kings and Princes) This lavish and licentious lifestyle led to the fall of the Shang Dynasty.

Chinese imperial food originated around the Zhou Dynasty (11th century B.C. – 476 B.C.). Although China's dietetic culture developed and grew prior to the Zhou Dynasty, it truly flourished during the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties (1122 B.C. – 220).


The Spring and Autumn Period witnessed an unprecedented development in the history of Chinese thinking. Theories from the different schools of thought touched upon the universe, society and life. Pragmatic thinkers studied how food and drink related to the everyday life of the people. As medical science developed, the idea of dietotherapy arose and attention was given to dietetic hygiene.

Chinese eating and drinking habits differ greatly from those in the West. Westerners eat more meat while Chinese eat more vegetables, especially the traditional cereals. (Cereals are said to have been discovered by Shen Nong, the chief of the ancestors of remote antiquity.) China began growing the five cereals as food crops during the Zhou Dynasty.


The Zhou Dynasty was the most prosperous period of the slave society, and during this time politics, economics and culture advanced greatly. It was the strongest of the three slave dynasties: Xia, Shang and Zhou.

The imperial cuisine of the Zhou Dynasty was a great improvement over the cuisines of the Xia and Shang dynasties. Beginning with the construction of the Xia Dynasty palace and the establishment of the imperial court, an organization was set up to prepare and serve food to the emperor and empress. Officials were appointed, royalty began seeking pleasures, and an imperial kitchen system was conceived.

famous food in Fang Shan Restaurant,Chinese food on line service.jpg

The Shang Dynasty imperial cuisine was even better than the cuisine of the Xia Dynasty. The foods for the emperors, princes, and dukes were stratified, and a system of stratified foods for the nobility was developed, however, a system for managing imperial food was still lacking.

During the Zhou Dynasty, such a complete system was developed. It included procurement, diets and preparation as well as staffing, supervising the imperial food, and developing grades for the emperor, princes and dukes. Everything was done in a fixed order according to the "eating rites."

The Zhou Dynasty imperial food was of a higher standard than the imperial food of the Xia and Shang dynasties, and famous dishes, feasts and banquets appeared one after another. During the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese imperial cuisine took shape. Staple and non-staple foods were plentiful and many imperial and famous dishes were developed.


The fairly advanced economy in the Western Zhou Dynasty resulted in abundant cereals, vegetables and meats. The cereals available included rice, corn, millet and beans. The Book of Songs states there were in excess of 130 plants, which included more than 30 kinds of common vegetables. Fruits and nuts included peach, plum, apricot, date, wild jujube (Chinese date), chestnut, hazelnut, pear, sweet crabapple, persimmon, melons, cherry, orange, tangerine and shaddock (a fruit similar to a grapefruit).

Around 100 different animals were available. These included the ox, sheep, dog, pig, horse, deer, bear, wolf and elephant. There were several dozen varieties of fowl, such as the chicken, peasant, sparrow, and wild goose; and nearly 20 kinds of cold-blooded creatures including the carp, triangular bream, turtle, snake and shark. The imperial cuisine used these abundant meats, fish, fowl, cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nuts as well as vegetables pickled in vinegar and soy sauce.

The imperial drinks were known as the six clears, five qis, and three jius. The six clears were water; thick liquids, such as vinegar and sour wine; sweet wine, a wine made from cooked rice; mellow wine, a wine thinned by adding cold water; Yi wine, a wine made from yeast and rice porridge; and ye wine, a wine made from thin porridge.

The five qis were five wines residue made from rice, sorghum, and millet. They were fan qi, a sweet wine with thick, floating matter; li qi, a very mild, sweet wine made soaking half liquid and half grain overnight; ang qi, a turbid; slightly clear; sweet wine; ti qi, a red wine with more clarity than ang qi; and shen qi, a wine with bottom sediment and clear liquid above.

The three jius were wines that had been filtered to remove the residue, and which differed from the five qis. The qis were used for sacrificial rites, while the jius were used for drink. The three jius referred to the categories of wine. Shi jiu, also known as occasion wine, was made immediately whenever there was a special occasion. Xi jiu was an aged wine that took longer to make. It usually was made in winter and matured in the spring; its liquid was clear and mellow. Qing jiu was aged even longer and its liquid was even clearer than Xi jiu. It was made in winter and became mature in the summer.


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The four drinks were clear, which referred to the clear wine that remained after the li qi of the five qis was filtered; mellow, which was a wine made from rice porridge after yeast was added; thick; which was a sour, vinegary wine; and yi, which was a wine made from thin porridge. (Some history books say yi was made from millet porridge.)

Under the rules described in the Rites of the Zhou Dynasty, "when the emperor took a meal, there were 12 deep bowls with legs and 12 plates. Music was played to urge him to eat." This was the custom during the Shang Dynasty. The Western Zhou Dynasty continued the custom in its early years but later made adjustments. The rites indicate the foods served at the emperor's three daily meals were beef, mutton, pork, fish, cured meat, intestine, stomach, small pieces of cooked meat, fish, and fresh cured meat.

A diet system later was instituted for the emperor, princes, dukes, and ministers. According to the Book of Rites, "There were 26 bowls for the emperor, 16 for the princes and dukes, 13 for the marquis, 8 for the senior officials, and 6 for the junior officials." There were five grades of meals, one each for the emperor, princes and dukes, marquis, senior officials, and junior officials. Meals were arranged according to this rule.

Banquets and feasts given by the emperor and his officials also had rules. According to the Rites of the Zhou Dynasty, "When the emperor gives a banquet, there must be six cereals and six animals for food, the six clears for drink, 120 delicacies, eight dainties, and 120 urns of sauce."

The six cereals included rice, millet, broomcorn, sorghum, wheat, and wild rice stem. The six animals were the horse, cow, sheep, pig, dog, and chicken. The six clears were water, thick liquid, li wine, chun wine, yi wine, and ye wine. The 120 delicacies referred to all the delicacies the emperor ate.

Regarding the meals for senior officials, the records of the Ceremonial Rites say: "Senior officials have 20 delicacies more than junior officials, including peasant, rabbit and quail." According to the annotations for the Book of Rites by Zheng Xuan, "The meals for senior officials included broomcorn, millet, rice, sorghum, white millet and yellow sorghum." The non-staple foods included cow, sheep, pig, roast beef, beef pieces cooked in soy sauce, minced beef, roast mutton, mutton pieces cooked in soy sauce, roast pig, minced fish, pheasant, rabbit and quail.

Junior officials' meals included the same staple foods as the senior officers' meals. Their non-staple foods included cow, roast beef, beef cooked in soy sauce, minced beef, roast sheep, mutton piece cooked in soy sauce, roast pig, pork pieces cooked in soy sauce and minced fish.

A complete organization was responsible for the imperial food served in the Zhou Dynasty palace; it included a large staff and a clear division of labor. The functions and responsibilities of the different departments and staff follow:

Chief cook: The chief cook was in charge of the food, drinks, dishes, and delicacies for the emperor, empress and crown prince. The emperor's food included the six cereals, six animals, six clears, 130 delicacies, eight treasures, and 120 urns of sauce. The chief cook held an official rank.

Internal cooks: The internal cooks cooked the dishes for the emperor, empress, and crown prince. They chose the foods and tasted them. Internal cooks carried a title of nobility and were ordinary officials.

External Cooks: The external cooks cooked dishes for the sacrificial rites. External cooks carried a title of nobility and were ordinary officials.

Assistants: The assistants were responsible for food preparation, serving, maintaining the cooking fires, and carrying water for the kitchen.

Nutritionists: The nutritionists studied the nutrients in the emperor's food and drink.

Wine officers: The wine officers were responsible for the drinks for the emperor, and crown prince.

Altogether, there were 22 departments with more than 2,300 staff. Thus it can be seen that the organization surrounding the imperial foods in the Zhou Dynasty was huge, the establishment was complete, and the division of labor detailed and clear. This guaranteed a standard of performance and quality for imperial meals, state banquets, and sacrificial feasts.

As the ruling class extended imperial food to include sacrificial rites as well as banquets given when the emperor met with princes and dukes, imperial food became linked with politics. Laozi, a famous thinker during the Spring and Autumn Period, said: "Governing a big country is like cooking a small fish." He meant that when governing a large country, one should not make too many changes, and policies should remain stable.

Even 50 years ago, the old Chinese government still called the job of the chief executive "making adjustments to the tripods". Tripod in ancient Chinese refers to all sizes of cooking utensils. "Making adjustments to the tripods" means adjusting the flavors of the dishes being cooked in the pots and pans to please the palates of the diners.

Even 50 years ago, the old Chinese government still called the job of the chief executive "making adjustments to the tripods". Tripod in ancient Chinese refers to all sizes of cooking utensils. "Making adjustments to the tripods" means adjusting the flavors of the dishes being cooked in the pots and pans to please the palates of the diners.

The relationship between food and politics was especially important during the Zhou, Qin, and Han Dynasties (circa 1122 B.C. – A.D. 220). Banquets and feasts were the norm whenever the emperor met with princes or dukes or whenever the latter met with each other.

Chinese dietetic culture flourished after the Han Dynasties (206B.C. – A.D. 220) and became a conscious matter. Numerous writings on dietetic culture appeared, including the Book of Foods, by Cui Hao and some parts of the Essentials for Common People (on food), by Jia Sixie in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 535). These writings, which record the popular thoughts on diets during this period and tell how to cook many dishes, mark the beginning of cooking as a specialty.

During the Han and Wei Dynasties (206 B.C. – A. D. 265), imperial food and drink followed the system initiated in the Zhou Dynasty. By this time China's strengthened economy and its cultural exchanges with other countries had provided new sources of raw materials, better cooking utensils and cooking skills, wider adoption of ironware, and higher standards for imperial dishes.

The Seven Advices was a book written by Mei Cheng, a politician in the State of Wu, to give advice to the crown prince of the State of Chu in the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 8). Although the book exaggerates the deliciousness of the food, it still gives a glimpse of imperial food at that time:

Tender calf meat, fresh bamboo shoots and vegetables, thick soup of flattened dog meat, good cooked rice covered with fresh rock mushrooms, rice cooked with mushrooms and made into balls that melt the moment they enter the mouth. It was just as if Yi Yin were in charge of the cooking and Yi Ya had cooked the dishes of tender bear's paw mixed with seasonings, roast tenderloin slices, raw fish slices, flavored autumn eggplant, vegetables so fresh they still had dew upon them, and wine with an orchid flavor. Rinse the mouth after eating. Mountain pheasant, domesticated leopard fetus, less rice, more porridge, as if the hot soup were splashed upon snow, making it easy to digest.

The Han Dynasty imperial kitchens grew vegetables in hothouses, so their availability was not limited by the season. In the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty food sweetened with honey began to appear in the palace.

It is said that during the period of the Three Kingdoms (A.D. 220 - 280), Cao Zhi, Prince of Chenliu and son of Cao Cao, made a thick soup of camel's hooves that cost 1,000 ounce of gold. Cao Zhi called it "Seven-Treasure Soup." Cao Cao usurped the power by taking the emperor hostage and acting in his name during the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty, so their eating habits were representative of the palace customs. They paid great attention to the variety, taste, and flavor of food, and to the quality of the dinnerware. By that time, it had become fashionable to drink tea in the palace instead of wine.

Stir-frying was the chief cooking method during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (A.D. 420 - 589), and stir-fried dishes became popular as everyday meals among the common people. Buddhism was spreading in China by this time, and vegetarian dishes began appearing because the Buddhist monks ate vegetarian food. In response to the demand for vegetarian dishes, the cooks of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (502 -557) introduced the use of gluten.

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Post time 2012-11-11 22:15:59 |Display all floors
{:soso_e179:} Chinese food is not only a dish that you eat, it involves a whole culture behind it. To prepare it the chef needs some kung fu. No joke. Chinese food is art.

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Post time 2012-11-12 10:32:48 |Display all floors
Chinese food contained profound culture and history, it's the crystallization of wisdom and innovation of chinese people. we are enjoying the great achievement of our ancestor's effort.

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Post time 2012-11-12 12:59:40 |Display all floors
chinese food is so delicious

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Post time 2012-11-12 19:14:31 |Display all floors
In a sense the emperors were our tasters.

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