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Guest Blog by Jin FENG: Apricot Jam and Tomato Paste

Jin Feng (Grinell College), author of Tasting Paradise on Earth: Jiangnan Foodways



What did the emperor of China eat in the 18th century? A contemporary restaurant in Suzhou, China has reproduced the forgotten imperial banquet. By spotlighting the splendor and opulence of gentry living in the city’s storied past, this establishment feeds not only the body, but also cultural nostalgia in a rapidly changing China.


No ordinary eatery, the Wumen Renjia (Suzhou Family) restaurant has reconstructed the official banquet that the Suzhou Office of Fabric and Clothes had purportedly prepared for the visiting Qing emperor, Qianlong (1711-1799), during his tours of the south. Officially charged with collecting fabric and making clothes for the Qing court, the Suzhou Office frequently turned into temporary living quarters for the emperor and his entourage, summoning skilled chefs working for local aristocratic families to prepare imperial meals. In 1765, the names of several Suzhou chefs appeared on the official record of the emperor’s daily meals during his travels. Some were later taken into the Forbidden City in Beijing, serving as royal chefs and leaving behind records of “Suzhou-style” dishes once loved by the royal family.


Sha Peizhi, the manager of Suzhou Family, has led the effort to recreate the Suzhou Office banquet of the past, with the help of a specialist from the Forbidden City Museum in Beijing. Sha and her colleagues not only searched through the Forbidden City archives, but also consulted contemporary Suzhou chefs and the descendants of Qing-dynasty aristocratic families. One such descendant is I.M. Pei, the late architect, whose family once owned the Lion Grove Garden. After more than a decade of trial and error, Sha and her team came up with more than forty dishes now acknowledged as the “Intangible Cultural Heritages of Jiangsu Province” and won accolades from the government.


Many of the recreated dishes not only boast imperial associations but also abound in history and literary significance. Take “Eight Treasures Duck,” which has won the place of honor thanks to Qianlong’s renowned obsession with dishes made from all parts of the duck. Or consider “Jin Shentan Pressed Tofu,” a culinary creation that commemorates the ill-fated Qing scholar and Suzhou native, Jin Shentan (1608-1661). As a show of bravado before his execution, Jin purportedly told his sons that five-spice pressed tofu combined with peanuts could replicate the flavor of smoked ham. Perhaps most revealing is the restaurant’s version of Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish, a signature local dish. Sha corrects what she believes to be misconceptions about this dish perpetuated by her rivals and by locals alike. There is no evidence, she maintains, that Qianlong ever consumed it at the Pine and Crane Tower (Song He Lou) Restaurant, a rival eatery. The dish, in fact, has more ancient origins: It arose when the assassin Zhuan Zhu hid a dagger inside a cooked fish to kill King Liao of Wu in 515 BCE. Sha’s team claims that they have therefore altered the standard recipe of the fish to better represent what they consider “authentic” Suzhou cuisine. The fish now cooks with apricot jam instead of the more common but “inauthentic” tomato paste. Since tomato was not imported to China until the 16th or 17th century, she reasons, it’s best to use apricot jam instead. The Chinese cooked with fruits as early as the 11th century BCE.



Squirrel Fish


“Fishy” origin story aside, Sha also claims that their chefs have integrated modern scientific knowledge into their offerings even while emphasizing the restaurant’s time-honored royal ties. For instance, “Cherry Pork,” another signature local dish and a supposed favorite of the Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908), uses red fermented rice for coloring. Sha recounts that in 1985, two American scientists, Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering that monocline-k can regulate cholesterol metabolism. Goldstein and Brown only speculated about possible drug therapies based on this discovery that could lower “bad cholesterol” clotting arteries and leading to a heart attack or a stroke. But Suzhou Family has lost no time advertising the “scientific basis” for not only their Cherry Pork, but also their Red Fermented Rice Wine. The dish, they claim, is good for reducing fat and cholesterol content. It also supposedly prevents cardio-vascular diseases, cerebral apoplexy, myocardial infarction, and high blood pressure, too.


Besides offering “authentic” and “scientifically proven” local dishes, Suzhou Family also uses suitable packaging to represent the restaurant as the true heir to Chinese cultural traditions. Sha has had a set of eating utensils custom made for their renovated imperial banquet. These include white and blue porcelain plates produced in Jingdezhen, the famous “Porcelain Capital” of China, silver spoons, and chopsticks with sliver tips, traditionally used for testing poison in food in the imperial palace. They also try to recreate the lifestyle once enjoyed by Suzhou aristocracy, who owned private gardens and kept family chefs. These efforts have paid off with people in China and beyond. The restaurant attracts foreign celebrities to the restaurant like I. M. Pei, and the owners received invitations to reconstruct historical banquets in Japan.[1] They have even signed an agreement with the municipal government of Vancouver in Canada to serve food at a Suzhou-style garden there and to promote traditional “garden-style living.” [2]


The restaurant’s business model comprises mixing heritage and invention, art and science in one easily recognizable and consumable package. It also invokes China’s imperial past, adding mystique and flare to target both domestic and global markets. The resulting imperial banquet represents more an invention of traditions than a recovery of historical data. This case thus questions the meaning of authentic Chinese food. For some within China “authentic Suzhou cuisine” signals sophistication and higher social status. For others, however, it ignites hometown pride. And for still others, this cuisine buttresses their sense of uniqueness and individuality. In fact, a successful “local cuisine” restaurant like Suzhou Family Restaurant does not just exactly reproduce the food of traditional society. It must also be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of diverse parties without sacrificing the familiar elements of the Suzhou culinary tradition that make it “identifiable.” Architectural style, interior decoration, utensils, signature dishes, and local lore work together to evoke the symbolic universe of traditional foodways and living.


[1] “Suzhou meishijia chenggong fuzhi wutao ‘cefeng cai,’ jilu Liuqiu zhuquan.”


[2] “Suzhou meiyao mingcha jiang piaoxiang Wengehua Yi Yuan, ‘Wumen Renjia’ yu Jiaguo qianyue.”

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