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Imperial Food

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From a talk given by Yuen Wai-chee on July 22, 2004 at the Chinese-American Museum.

Barbeque Foods: Peking or Cantonese styles?

Once a customer asked me, which kind of duck is more tasty -- Peking Duck or Cantonese roast duck?  He was crazy to expect me not to be biased. 

Peking duck may have the advantage of sharing the same name with Peking University and Peking Man, the only three things that have been allowed to keep "Peking" in their names instead of being changed to "Beijing".  But you know what?  The English word "Peking" is in fact Cantonese!  I feel that is a tribute to Cantonese cooking, a tradition I was brought up to honor.

Mr. Yuen

I started working in a Hong Kong restaurant when I was twelve years old.  I came to Chicago as a young man and have always been in the cooking business.  I enjoy my work  I do the roasting myself, ducks, pigs, and chickens.

Two years ago a renowned chef in France committed suicide because his rating went down one rank. 

I’ve never liked ranking systems;  they turn friends into enemies and make satisfied people unhappy.

My nicknames in Chinatown are "king of Chinese BBQ" and "the roast-pig guy.”

Whatever the label may be, I know for sure that I will not kill myself just because people don't rank me high enough. You see, I am a lucky and happy man.

That is, I was happy until Chuimei asked me to look at several 18th century Chinese court paintings.

What is more, she even expects me to comment on them.  The task, as the Cantonese saying go, is like pulling a cow up to a tree top.  When I protested, Chuimei said it is the heart that matters and that everyone can tell a good story from his or her own heart. 

So, bear with me, folks.

I looked at two paintings showing  Emperor Qianlong and his group having fun outdoors. 

The first painting shows that a deer was being prepared and boiled.  Here is the full painting [NOT SHOWN HERE]

The other painting is called Four Dinner Scenes Beyond the Great Wall and is by G. Castiglione.  Here is a detail that shows cooks preparing sheep for dinner.

Four Dinner Scenes Beyond the Great Wall

It is quite clear that in both cases the animals were cut into portions and boiled in large cauldrons. 

I want you to take another closer look at the deer painting first.
Cooking deer started from slaughtering, broiling, roasting, and placing on suitable serving utensils, before reaching the lips of the ruler. 

But look at the size of the fire: it is very small.  The imperial BBQ team did not  roast the animal whole.  Instead, it was sliced and then roasted, which I think would make the meat dry and less tasty, but shorten the cooking time.

Is it possible that the emperor was not democratic enough for a huge BBQ party?  Was the meat being prepared for him alone?

My way of roasting pigs and ducks is different from the imperial style. I roast them whole. 

Let us look at the sheep painting again. 

The chefs were native Mongolians, and I have heard that in Mongolia they prefer to boil their meat, not roast it.

Well, I suppose that might be so.  Not even the emperor dared to upset local customs by roasting instead of boiling.

But we Cantonese like to fry or roast our meat.  Some people even think that the best way to eat Peking duck is to have it roasted by a Cantonese chef.  Do you agree? 

It is quite clear that in both cases the animals were cut into portions and boiled in large cauldrons. 

I want you to take another closer look at the deer painting first.
Cooking deer started from slaughtering, broiling, roasting, and placing on suitable serving utensils, before reaching the lips of the ruler. 

But look at the size of the fire: it is very small.  The imperial BBQ team did not  roast the animal whole.  Instead, it was sliced and then roasted, which I think would make the meat dry and less tasty, but shorten the cooking time.

Is it possible that the emperor was not democratic enough for a huge BBQ party?  Was the meat being prepared for him alone?

My way of roasting pigs and ducks is different from the imperial style. I roast them whole. 

Let us look at the sheep painting again. 

The chefs were native Mongolians, and I have heard that in Mongolia they prefer to boil their meat, not roast it.

Well, I suppose that might be so.  Not even the emperor dared to upset local customs by roasting instead of boiling.

But we Cantonese like to fry or roast our meat.  Some people even think that the best way to eat Peking duck is to have it roasted by a Cantonese chef.  Do you agree? 

Try for it yourself, at any good Cantonese restaurant, and let me know what you think.