Chinese President Hu Jintao was honoured with a state banquet at the White House last night. Apparently he and his entourage had requested a ‘quintessentially American’ menu, and this is what they were given:
D’Anjou pear salad with farmstead goat cheese, fennel, black walnuts and white balsamic
Poached Maine lobster with orange-glazed carrots and black trumpet mushrooms
Dry-aged rib eye with buttermilk crisp onions, double stuffed potatoes and creamed spinach
Old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
It would be fascinating to hear what President Hu actually made of the dinner. He grew up in Jiangsu, in the refined, rice-eating south of China, and has also lived in Gansu, Guizhou, Tibet and Beijing, though not, I think, abroad. I assume he’s had plenty of experience of foreign food on his international trips, and perhaps occasionally in Beijing, so perhaps he has cosmopolitan tastes. Many Chinese people, however, especially those of his generation, would be less than delighted with raw salad and goat’s cheese, and with the prospect of eating a whole slab of beef, even if the meat was well done (rare, pink-oozing meat is an atrocity in terms of Chinese gastronomy). The main complaint of Chinese gourmets when it comes to ‘Western food’, though, is that it’s simple and lacking in variety, as I’ve mentioned before. And, reading reports of the banquet, I couldn’t help remembering an article in the Guardian newspaper of former President Jiang Zemin’s visit to London in 1999, which mentioned that the personal belongings that had accompanied him to Buckingham Palace had included ‘boxes of Chinese food’. I had a sneaking suspicion that the poor man, subjected to days of unfamiliar food at unsufferable banquets, was expecting to have to resort to snacks of instant noodles every night before bed.
By means of contrast, the menu on the right is from a provincial government banquet in Hunan that I attended in November, at the West Lake Pavilion restaurant in Changsha, the ‘biggest Chinese restaurant in the world’ (it can seat as many as 5000 in its various halls. I first wrote about this place in the Financial Times several years ago, and it was later the subject of a 3-part TV documentary). As you can see, the menu lists 24 dishes, if you include pickles and the final fruit platter: slivered bamboo shoots with preserved mustard greens, pickled sweet potato, radish skin, rustic mixed vegetables, peanuts in old wine, crisp ears with coriander, cold cooked beef, snake with chilli and ginger, secret-recipe turtle-meat, pig’s feet with pig’s stomach, West Lake head steamed in a bowl (can’t remember what this was!), large prawns with green chillies, ‘floating fragrance’
aromatic duck, steamed Western Hunan smoked meats, mountain goat stewed with mung bean sheets, Hunan-style Dongpo pork, secret-recipe bighead carp, claypot Chinese yam, stir-fried smoked donkey, Liuyang mountain bamboo shoots in chicken stock, Liuyang yellow vegetable, blanched seasonal greens, West Lake steamed buns stuffed with meat, platter of cut fruit. The ingredients and the cooking methods are many and varied, and the menu showcases a number of famous local ingredients. It does, however, avoid the more extravagant Chinese delicacies, such as shark’s fin and sea cucumber, which might be seen as inappropriate at a feast held at public expense.
The ironic thing about grand Chinese banquets, though, is that it’s almost impossible to appreciate the food, as you might guess from my very sketchy account of the menu. Banquets in China are about so many things besides food, including, depending on the occasions, social relationships, business, face; hierarchy, sycophancy, bribery, festivity… Like President Hu’s state dinner at the White House, the Hunanese banquet was a formal occasion, and the guests had very little time actually to eat. The festivities commenced promptly as 6.30pm, and finished promptly at 8pm. In between, as the dishes came
thick and fast from the kitchens, there were speeches, acrobatic performances, songs and dances performed on the grand stage at the front of the hall. For much of the time, the guests milled around the tables, toasting each other as individuals and in groups, with tiny cupfuls of bai jiu (strong grain spirits), red wine or (for the teetotallers) orangeade. The general manager of the restaurant, Qin Zhong, who was so kind to me when I lived in Changsha, took to the stage for a stunning operatic duet with a chef from Beijing (she used to be a professional singer). A Hunanese celebrity chef who lives in Japan gave a brilliant performance of a karaoke song on stage. I was press-ganged into making a very brief speech, but absolutely refused to sing a song! Meanwhile, about five hundred guests milled around, toasting, exchanging pleasantries, smoking cigarettes,
and trying to snatch mouthfuls of food from time to time.
For me, the funniest moment of the whole evening, and probably my entire trip, occurred during a conversation with the government official who was sitting next to me at that dinner. He had seen my photograph on the front page of the local Party Daily, Hunan Ribao, which had featured the food conference which we were all attending. ‘Ms Fu,’ he said, ‘I hope you realise that even senior leaders struggle to get their pictures on the front page of Hunan Ribao’. One thing I never thought I’d be was a cover girl for a communist newspaper.
As usual on such occasions, I left entertained but still hungry, and needed a midnight feast before I could sleep. I was reminded, as ever, of the Qing Dynasty gourmet and food writer Yuan Mei, who went home after a 40-course banquet and needed a bowlful of congee to fill his belly.