A rather incredible evening on Monday… At short notice, I was invited to a dinner at Mosimann’s for a gathering of the Club des Chefs des Chefs – an elite association of chefs working for heads of state around the world. The reason: so that I could accompany the Chinese delegation, who might otherwise have felt stranded in a sea of non-Chinese-speakers. It was surreal and wonderful to meet the chefs in charge of the kitchens at the White House and Buckingham Palace, as well as the chefs attendant on the King of Thailand and the Irish President, among others. Interestingly, the Chinese delegation were not the personal chefs of the Chinese President, but two of a team of thirty-something culinary experts from all over China who produce state banquets at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Visiting heads of state do not stay in the Chinese president’s official residence while in Beijing, but in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, and we know nothing about the Chinese president’s private catering arrangements.) It was fascinating talking to the Chinese chefs, who were originally from Jiangxi and Liaoning (they and their colleagues take it in turns to attend the Club’s international events), and also a pleasure to be able to make them feel more at home. Continue reading…
Banquets, Beijing, Chefs, Chinese food culture, Chinese restaurants, Politics, Sea cucumber, Sichuanese cuisine / 3 Comments
While I was in Chengdu in March, I found myself staying in the same hotel as Michelle Obama for a couple of nights. Despite our proximity, I didn’t catch the slightest glimpse of her, although the hotel restaurant was swarming with White House people during her stay, and I was penned in at the side of the road outside the hotel one evening while her imposing motorcade swept past. As you can imagine, the question at the top of my mind was: of all the possibilities, where are they going to take the First Lady to eat?!
In the end, according to newspaper reports, the organisers settled on two restaurants: a Tibetan restaurant, and a hotpot restaurant. And while I fully understand the reasons for choosing a Tibetan restaurant, and love the riotous fun of eating hotpot from time to time, I’m sorry that Mrs Obama didn’t also have the chance to enjoy a more typical Sichuanese meal. Hotpot, after all, despite being a fun experience and an example of the mala (numbing-and-hot) exuberance of Sichuanese cooking, is hardly a showcase for the broader cuisine in all its dazzling variety. Continue reading…
Banquets, Chinese food culture, Chinese restaurants, Politics / 4 Comments
Over the last year, high-end restaurants in China have been struck as if by lightning by President Xi Jinping’s ‘anti-corruption campaign’ and ban on dining out at government expense. ‘People in China are used to such political campaigns,’ one friend of mine told me, ‘But normally they drop off after a while. No one expected the ban on expense-account feasting to last this long.’
Officials in China are paranoid about being caught breaking the rules: these days, all it takes to ruin a reputation, and perhaps a career, is a meddlesome citizen with a smartphone camera, hovering outside the restaurant as you sneak out after eating your shark’s fin soup. Continue reading…
Today, the Daily Telegraph published menus of the lunch and dinner served to the British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday in Beijing. Lunch, apparently, was ‘hors d’oeuvres’, creamy mushroom soup, beef steak Chinese style, bamboo fungus with green vegetables and boiled sea bass, followed by pumpkin cream with sago, ‘pastries’ and fruit. Dinner was another ‘hors d’oeuvres’, sturgeon’s marrow and bamboo fungus soup, boiled lobster claw with peach gum and saffron, codfish roll with bacon, sauteed shredded pork in chilli and garlic sauce, steamed duck and taro paste with rice wine, assorted vegetables in casserole and rice congee with gingko, followed by more ‘pastries’ and fruit. Continue reading…
Banquets, Chengdu, Chinese food culture, Development, Environment / 6 Comments
Scientists are again urging people in the developed world to eat less meat for environmental reasons. Here’s a quote from a piece on the Guardian website today, which outlined some of the environmental consequences of our addiction to cheap meat:
The answer, [Prof Mark Sutton, lead author of a UN Environment Programme (Unep) study published on Monday] said, was more vegetables on the plate, and less animal protein. “Eat meat, but less often – make it special,” he urged. “Portion size is key. Many portions are too big, more than you want to eat. Think about a change of culture that says, ‘I like the taste, but I don’t need so much of it.’” Continue reading…
Anissa Helou beat me to it with her blog post about today’s culinary collaboration! Anyway, here’s mine. Anissa (a brilliant cook and food writer specialising in Middle Eastern culinary cultures) and I had been planning a joint Sino-Lebanese lunch for months, and we finally did it, sort of, because in the end it turned out to be Sino-Moroccan. I was in charge of the first course, Anissa of the main course and dessert. As I was cooking at home and planning a ‘Chinese takeaway’ delivery to Anissa’s place, it seemed like a good opportunity to use one of my Sichuanese cuan he ( 攒盒), the gorgeous lacquered boxes that are sometimes used for banquet appetisers. Each box comes with an ornamented lid – in this case a dragon and phoenix (see below), and a neat jigsaw of detachable compartments for the food. The smallest boxes have one central compartment with four others around: this is known as a ‘five-colour’ box. The one I used today is a ‘nine-colour’ box, although I cheated slightly because I only made eight dishes (as you can see, one is duplicated in two compartments). Continue reading…
Clue: I was given it at the end of a grand banquet in Chengdu a few weeks ago, and I was the only guest at the table to receive one.
P.S. Apologies for my long absence from this blog. I’ve been busy in China… I’ll try to catch up now!
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. Continue reading…
Chinese merchants and investors are planning to snap up much of the acclaimed 2009 vintage of Bordeaux wines, according to this piece in the Guardian. The article says Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Lafite-Rothschild have been called “tipple of choice for your thrusting Chinese industrialist”:
Top wines have become a prestigious gift among business people in China; a bottle of famous claret is now an essential part of entertaining government officials, Chinese merchants said. Among the middle classes, Bordeaux is also seen as a sophisticated and healthy alternative to Chinese wines, which can contain up to 40% alcohol.
The piece quotes a Hong Kong investor, Sam Yip, as saying ”Everyone in China is thinking Lafite,” he said. “It is seen in the same light as Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci.” I can’t say I’ve ever been offered a glass of Lafite at a Chinese banquet, but I can see that it would sit rather nicely on the kind of table described to me by one Chinese chef, at a feast an entrepreneur threw for local government officials (read into that exactly what you will), alongside the abalone, shark’s fin, bird’s nest and humphead wrasse. That particular banquet, as described to me, cost the equivalent of about £8000 for one round table – so I’m sure a few grand on a bottle of wine would have been acceptable. Perhaps they were drinking Lafite anyway – the chef I spoke to only knew about the menu and the cost of the food.
Any of you got any tales of the bling factor at Chinese banquets? Or of expensive Bordeaux wines in China?
Banquets, Chinese food culture, Environment, Hong Kong, Shark's Fin, Unusual delicacies / 8 Comments
While I was writing it, I came across a page I tore out of the South China Morning Post in October last year. It includes a letter from Dr Choo-hoo Giam, a member of the animals committee of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. What is particularly interesting about the letter is that Dr Giam points out the extent to which it is not only the Chinese and their notorious shark’s fin soup that are to blame for the devastation of worldwide shark stocks. The main points Dr Giam makes are as follows: Continue reading…