Kangxi, the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, deserves to be known for more. The highlights of his 61-year reign include military victories, infrastructure improvements, literary commissions of important works, long-term stability and peace in China, invention of a calendar, and efforts to encourage the Manchu and the Han people to live peaceably together under united rule.
The last of these achievements led to the famous feast that Kangxi called Man Han Quan Xi, meaning the Manchurian and Han Banquet. I first heard of this banquet in a blog post by my friend Mingmei Yip, and I knew I had to find out more about it for "Meal Times."
This imperial feast celebrated Emperor Kangxi's 66th birthday. An admirer of the Han culture and eager as emperor to unite the Manchu and Han people, he requested that the banquet feature the best of Manchu cuisine and Han cuisine, which differed greatly in style, ingredients, and cooking methods.
"Lavish" doesn't begin to describe the resulting banquet. The chefs traveled for three months to collect exotic ingredients such as bear front paws, rhinoceros tails, ape lips, and and leopard fetuses. An army of cooks slaved for three weeks to prepare the banquet. Tablecloths, seat covers, and elaborate clothes for the waitresses had to be sewed and embroidered.
The guests—separated by rank but not by ethnicity—sat down at tables dressed with brilliant yellow silk tablecloths and fine tableware of bronze and porcelain. Before the first sip of tea, before the first sighting of the costly food beautifully arranged, every guest had already been overwhelmed by the emperor's wealth, status, and taste.
Then the food and wine started coming. And coming. And coming. The feast started with apples and oranges served with seeds and nuts. The many dozens of dishes that followed ranged from the ordinary (such as rice, dumplings, Peking duck, egg tart, and roast chicken), to the unusual (bear paw with sturgeon, dried sea cucumbers), to the offputting (brains of still-living monkeys).
Kangxi's Manchurian and Han Banquet proved so popular that it was replicated during the Qing Dynasty and later. Regional variations sprouted up. Today in China, some restaurants still offer a version of the feast, but only the richest people can afford it.