Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A Grand “Chinese” Dinner in Paris, 1858.

It is a while since I have given you a menu - and it is only a part-description I offer you today - but it picks yesterday’s theme up nicely. The following extract from Hints for the Table: or, the economy of good living (London, 1866) is a marvellous example of the concept of a ‘Chinese’ dinner as interpreted by mid-nineteenth century Europeans. If I can find a more complete bill of fare for this dinner, I will post it at a later date.

“A grand Chinese dinner is an aldermanic affair. The notes of invitation are much larger than ours, and are written upon beautiful red paper. The company are received by hosts of attendants bearing lanterns; and being welcomed by startling music, they are first served with tea, without milk or sugar. There is no table-cloth; instead of napkins, three-cornered pieces of paper are used, and for knife and fork are substituted two little round chop-sticks; whilst porcelain spoons are used for soup. There are many hundred dishes served, the roasts being carved by cooks in uniform and tasteful costume. The whole repast occupies full six hours.
On October 26th, 1858, Prince Napoleon gave at Paris a grand dinner, at which several dishes were Chinese: some of the wine drunk was from Siam (having been sent by one of the Kings of that country to the Prince), and one of the guests was a Chinese mandarin. Among the dishes were swallows'-nests, cooked in the Nankin method ; fins of a shark fried ; oluthuries* à la mandarine; the interior of a sturgeon à l 'octogenaire, aux rondelles de bamboux; oluthuries in salad, with pheasant jelly; rice des immortels; fowl, with Japanese currie; spinach, with balichao**, such as was much esteemed at Rome under Augustus; rice in Chinese fashion, ordinary India currie, &c.
The Chinese are much more skilful in contrivances for supplying the luxuries of the table than is generally imagined. Dempster's scheme for preserving fish in ice (adopted in Scotland in 1800), has been practised in China for centuries. Wheels driven by crews keep in life and freshness, by a stream of water, thousands of fish brought by boats into the Canton market daily. The French have been particularly successful in preserving provisions by exclusion of air; but the Chinese had preceded them for centuries in their simple and effectual methods of keeping eggs, fish, and vegetables. Sugar is of early origin, and, perhaps, more is used in China than all the rest of the world put together; and Chinese sugar-candy does not yield to our highest refined sugar.”

*olothuries = Holothuria sp. = sea cucumber, sea-slug, beche de mer, trepang
** balichao = the pungent-smelling, salty, fermented shimp paste used in many Asian dishes, compared here with the ancient Roman condiment garum.

To Europeans, many of these dishes would have seemed outlandish indeed – and we will get to a greater exploration of a couple of them in the next couple of posts. One ingredient which was not too unfamiliar, at least to the British, was the bamboux (bamboo) – the tender shoots, that is, not the thick woody trunks. Pickled bamboo shoots were a taste acquired by the British as a result of their colonial expansion. They became very popular in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the form of ‘West Indian Pickle’. The imported article of course was expensive, but English cooks soon came up with a local copy, using elder shoots.
Elder Shoots in Imitation of Bamboo.
TAKE the largest and oldest shoots of elder which put out in the middle of May; the middle stalks are most tender and biggest, the small ones are not worth pickling; peel off the outward peel or skin, and lay them in a strong brine of salt and water for one night; then dry them in a cloth, piece by piece. In the mean time make your pickle of half white wine and half beer vinegar; to each quart of pickle you must put an ounce of white or red pepper, an ounce of ginger sliced, a little mace, and a few corns of Jamaica pepper; when the spice has boiled in the pickle pour it hot on the shoots, stop them close immediately, and set the jar two hours before the fire, turning it often. It is as good a way of greening pickles, as frequent boiling. You may boil the pickle two or three times, and pour it on boiling hot, just as you pease. If you make the pickle of the sugar vinegar, there must be one half spring water.
The English Art of Cookery (1788), by Richard Briggs.

[P.S you can find another opinion of bamboo shoots, and a recipe, here.]

Quotation for the Day.

And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?
Bill Bryson


J.W. said...

I've always been fascinated by the ways Asian influence affected Victorian art and culture...what an interesting dinner! I'd be very interested in a full bill of fare if you ever found one.

SharleneT said...

Very interesting. But, I have to take exception to the chopsticks quote. I think using chopsticks make the meal much tastier; otherwise, it's no different from other well-done meals eaten with a fork. Of course, I'm using my very own ivory pair and that might make the difference. These newer commercially-made chopsticks are ridiculous.