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The History of Chinese Imperial Food

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Chinese imperial cuisine (simplified Chinese: 御膳 / 宫廷菜; traditional Chinese: 御膳 / 宮廷菜; pinyin: yùshàn / gōngtíng cài) is derived from a variety of cooking styles of the regions in China, mainly Shandong cuisine and Jiangsu cuisine. The style originated from the Emperor's Kitchen and the Empress Dowager's Kitchen, and it is similar to Beijing cuisine which it heavily influenced. The characteristics of the Chinese imperial cuisine is the elaborate cooking methods and the strict selection of material, which are often extremely expensive, rare, or complicated in preparation. Visual presentation is also very important, so the color and the shape of the dish must be carefully arranged. The most famous Chinese imperial cuisine restaurants are both located in Beijing: Fang Shan (Chinese: 仿膳; pinyin: fǎngshàn) in Beihai Park and Ting Li Ting (simplified Chinese: 听鹂厅; traditional Chinese: 聽鸝廳; pinyin: tīng lí tīng) in the Summer Palace.

The imperial cuisine is popular among tourists.

Chinese imperial food dates back to slave society. Ever since there were emperors and palaces, there has been imperial food, which was served mainly to the emperors, their wives and concubines, and the royal families. Emperors used their power to collect the best delicacies and called upon the best cooks to make delicious food for them. Imperial food represented a dynasty’s best cuisine.

Although imperial food was made exclusively for the royal family, generals, ministers, and nobility, it was the peasants, herders, and fishermen who provided the raw materials, craftsmen who made the kitchen utensils, the cooking staff who provided the service, civil officials who named the dishes, and protocol officials who drafted the dietary and culinary rules. Imperial food comprised the dietetic culture of the Chinese palaces and it is part of China’s valuable cultural heritage.

Imperial foods often were improved dishes invented by the common people. The inventors were not princes, dukes, or ministers, but cooks and commoners. The original model for a dish might have been similar to a dish you once prepared for yourself.

Food preparation is impossible without cooks, so emperors in ancient times cherished excellent cooks. The Historical Records by Sima Qian, a famous historian of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220), reports that Yi Yin, the first famous prime minister in known Chinese history, helped Tang (the first ruler of the Shang Dynasty, enthroned 1766 B.C. – 1760 B.C.) destroy Jie (the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, enthroned 1818 B.C. – 1766 B.C.).

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