Chinese feasts for the British PM – a few thoughts

Random Chinese banquet picture from my library!

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.

Did they really serve this fiery dish to David Cameron?

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.

A delicate soup of honeyed peach sap and Job's tears

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!

8 Responses to “Chinese feasts for the British PM – a few thoughts”

  1. Nazima

    what a nice delve into the details of this feast – so much of it a mystery to us in the west. Peach sap sounds interesting. Aside from being fit for the immortals what does it taste of? is it sweet, like honey perhaps? never tried sap! I guess perhaps like peachy maple syrup?

  2. Fuchsia

    OK here is the actual Chinese menu!

    奶香蘑菇汤 (this seems to be a Western-style creamy mushroom soup)
    中式牛排 (Chinese-style beef steak)
    竹笙拌蔬菜 (Vegetables with bamboo pith fungus)
    清蒸鲈鱼 (so it was simply steamed sea bass, not boiled and then covered in chillies in oil!)
    南瓜西米 (Pumpkin with sago)

    鲟鱼骨炖竹笙(This actually seems to be sturgeon CARTILAGE, simmered with bamboo pith fungus. Has anyone tried this? Sounds interesting….)
    水煮龙虾抓 (Boiled lobster claws)
    鳕鱼培根卷 (Cod and bacon rolls)
    银杏白粥 (Congee with gingko)
    砂锅什锦蔬菜 (Mixed vegetables in a clay pot)
    清炒辣椒肉丝 (NOT fish-fragrant pork slivers, but stir-fried pork slivers with peppers – I think fresh peppers rather than chillies)

  3. Ilya Fisher

    Lovely piece. Maybe Mr Cameron had his camera on him and took photos of each dish he might be prepared to share with us?!

  4. Fuchsia

    Thanks Ilya! ha ha, yes, perhaps you can drop him a line!

  5. Mike

    I’m Vietnamese but I grew up in the US, so I can’t really handle the more exotic dishes of my homeland anymore. When look at the menu, I think of that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: “… and for dessert, chilled monkey brains”

  6. mminuk

    It all sounds delicious. Not sure about the cream of mushroom soup, though!

  7. Chris May

    The bamboo pith fungus is of interest to mushroom fanciers. This is Phallus indusiatus, an edible member of the stinkhorn family.

    The stinkhorn mushrooms are well-known for two things: their resemblance to the erect human or canine penis, and an extraordinarily strong and disgusting smell resembling rotten meat, which attracts flies that spread its spores.

    This particular stinkhorn is far more beautiful than most of its cousins, with a delicate lacy skirt arising from the head of the “penis” that makes it a favorite target for photographers. The fungus is considered very potent for various uses in Chinese traditional medicine.

    It is also said to be delicious, and in days gone by when it only grew in the wild and was found only rarely, it was reserved for the Imperial court and other important personages. Its use has carried over at banquets of the Communist government, including at least one of the banquets for Nixon and Kissinger when Red China began its opening to the West.

    These days it is cultivated, and while still a rare and expensive delicacy, can even be found in Asian markets in this country. This story inspires me to try to find some and sample it.

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