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.
It’s incredibly frustrating not to be able to see the Chinese names of the dishes, which must remain vague. Do journalists reporting this summit really have better things to do than provide adequate news about the catering?!! I called the Downing Street press office to ask if they had a copy of the full menu, but they didn’t. It’s too late to call Beijing, and a certain amount of Googling in both English and Chinese isn’t throwing up much more information, so we will have to guess…
The ‘hors d’oeuvres’ must remain a mystery, but presumably included several pretty and delicious appetisers. It looks as though the lunch was a simple affair, designed to be accessible and easy: a case, perhaps, of ‘Western food with Chinese characteristics’ or ‘Chinese food with Western characteristics. A mushroom soup (really made with cream? or just with a rich, dense Chinese stock 浓汤?); beef steak, traditionally loved more by Westerners than Chinese but rapidly gaining currency in modern China; and some kind of green vegetable, but accompanied by lacy, ethereal bamboo pith fungus 竹荪.
The ‘boiled sea bass’ is a little ambiguous: it sounds like ‘water-boiled sea bass’ 水煮鲈鱼 , that dazzling Sichuanese dish of slippery poached fish in a sea of sizzling chilli oil, but official banquets for foreigners normally steer clear of radically spicy dishes and food drowned in oil. Was this a nod to the new popularity of spicy Sichuanese food in London, or was it really a more delicate dish of poached sea bass, without the raucous, sweat-inducing chillies and riotous zing of Sichuan pepper? That might have been more diplomatically appropriate, if less exciting. It’s hard to tell from the translation.
The pumpkin cream was presumably a smooth, sweetened pumpkin soup all floaty with little sago pearls. I do wish they’d seen fit to elaborate about the pastries.
It appears that this lunch was a relatively modest affair, in keeping with Xi Jinping’s campaign against official extravagance and the waste of public funds. He has been urging officials to keep to the basic ‘four dishes and a soup’ 四菜一汤 rather than lavishing money on tables groaning with delicacies.
The dinner appears to have been more of a banquet, even if it was nothing in comparison to the only official Chinese banquet I’ve attended, where twenty or thirty dishes were served (most of them untouched because all the guests were so busy rushing around raising toasts to each other!). A sign of the times! An austerity campaign and the eyes of the Chinese people peeled for the symptoms of official gluttony…
Again, the ‘hors d’oeuvres’ are not individually listed, which is a shame because they might have been rather interesting.
The first main course is something I’ve never tried: sturgeon’s bone marrow, known in Russian as vesiga and in Chinese, rather poetically, as the ‘dragon’s tendon’ of the fish 鲟鱼龙筋 , served with bamboo pith fungus in what one can imagine must have been a very refined banquet stock. The lobster claws are prepared with another lyrical, exotic Chinese ingredient, the sap of the peach tree 桃胶 , which I have been lucky enough to taste and which has always struck me as food fit for the immortals. (The saffron is a modernist touch: I think the only time I’ve really had it in Chinese dishes is at Da Dong in Beijing, where China’s most acclaimed celebrity chef, Dong Zhenxiang, uses it in his version of a traditional Shandong dish of Chinese cabbage with chestnuts.)
The codfish roll with bacon sounds like a new dish made with imported fish: cod has been appearing on the menus of more cosmopolitan restaurants in recent years. But it’s hard to speculate further without seeing the Chinese characters.
I’m guessing the sauteed shredded pork must be that Sichuanese classic fish-fragrant pork slivers 鱼香肉丝, which is not only divinely delicious, but only mildly spicy from the pickled chillies, which makes it the kind of Sichuan dish traditionally considered suitable for high-level banquets. I’m not sure about the steamed duck and taro paste with rice wine.
If anyone has a copy of the Chinese menu, please let me know!