Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dinner in a Chinese Tavern in the 1840’s.

The nineteenth century British Naval Officer Frederick E. Forbes’ narrative of his experiences of Five Years in China: From 1842 to 1847 gave us yesterday’s story on food in China at that time – or more accurately, a nineteenth century Englishman’s impressions of Chinese food. Forbes has one other interesting food story for us:

Returning one day from Tien T'hung, a party of five of us agreed, as a matter of curiosity, to sit down to a regular tavern dinner. By great good luck one of the party happened to be the consular interpreter, who induced his linguist and teacher to take the chair: to him, a fine old Chinese gentleman of convivial habits, and great information, we left the entire management, stipulating only that the dinner should be the best that the first tavern in Ningpo could produce. He promised to take us to one in the principal street which he himself frequented. He was to direct us in the most accomplished way of dining à la Chinoise, and to illustrate the courses, in order that our repast should be perfectly à la mode. I have unfortunately forgotten the beautiful collection of monosyllables that composed his name. In the lobby of our hotel was a tempting display of, to us, very novel delicacies, illustrative of mine host's proficiency in his calling, together with a cloud of steam and a most variegated odour. Calling the waiter, our major domo ordered that every dish the house could provide should be served as soon as possible, at the same time requiring a private apartment. The waiter (whose dress was not calculated to impede his movements much, consisting merely of a pair of short unmentionables, it being the height of summer) led the way up stairs, through a large apartment, in which at small tables, one or two at each, sat respectably dressed Chinese, taking their afternoon meal, or conversing over a cup of hot sam-shoo, into a neatly furnished small apartment. No sooner had we entered than a pipebearer, with necessary paraphernalia, introduced a pipe (technically a hubble-bubble) into the mouth of one of the party, who, being told by our preceptor that it was selon de règle, drew a whiff or two and passed it on to another, and so on all round. After a few moments' delay tea was served, succeeded by six small saucers, containing separately sugar-candy, cherries, dried pips of melons, walnuts, ground-nuts, and brown sugar; these, we were informed, were for our amusement, while the landlord prepared a dinner worthy the reputation of his establishment; our Chinese friend beguiling the time with anecdotes of heroes who had distinguished themselves in the convivial line, and heroes with a vengeance they must have been, if these stories  of their mighty appetite, and grand exploits of gormandising had any foundation in fact. Soon the
advanced guard made its appearance, consisting of several small basins, filled with soups and stews of birds'-nests, beche-de-mer, sea-slugs, and other light and stimulating delicacies, patties of shrimps, &c, fried in pork-fat, salted and boiled eggs, and boiled and stewed vegetables (salt, pepper, soy, and oil, in smaller saucers, were in every part of the table.) These, we were given to understand, were mere provocatives of appetite, intended as a foundation for more substantial fare, they were ranged in a line round the table, leaving an open square in the centre. The best wines were now produced, warm, in small metal pots (not unlike coffee-pots) and poured into very small China cups; from our maître de ceremonie, we took our queue, and, seizing the diminutive vessel in both hands, we half rose, and reaching across in direction of the person whom we wished to honour until both vessels met, when, each making a profound bow, and Chin-chin, we reseated ourselves, and emptied the cup, which was no sooner empty than refilled
by our officious Ganymede.
Before each of us were two or three small basins to serve as plates, and a pair of chop-sticks. The repast might be said now to have commenced in earnest, with the appearance of a large bowl of stewed mutton, by no means bad, which was placed at an angle of the square, at which each pecked with chop-sticks, and the more finished example was set by our accomplished friend, breaking a piece with his own chop-sticks, giving us at the same time to understand that it was highly complimentary, and handing it over to me. After an interval of ten minutes, viz-a-viz to the stewed mutton, appeared a corresponding bowl with the tripes of a rare fish, found on the coast of Coromandel. Our Chinese friend was an epicure, and this a favourite dish with him, and he was now in his glory, and did full justice to it in no equivocal manner. The other angles, at equal intervals, were occupied by stewed fowl and puff-puddings, and these four surmounted by a dish of salted blubber. The pile of five dishes being complete, so was the course, followed by other piles of five dishes, consisting of stews of fowls, ducks, puddings stewed in gravies, kabobs, sweetmeats, gelatinous soups and vegetables, to the number of thirty, in fact, every variety of fish, fowl, and pastry, when it was agreed we should move that the repast be brought to an end, upon which everything was removed but the salt, &c, when, all of a sudden, a stewed duck with some peculiar sauce appeared. We had all, with the exception of the Chinaman, long cried, "Hold, enough:" but when that worthy, after many vain attempts to cheer us up, told us of an extensive friend of his, who, having dined, topped up with six ducks out of compliment to him as host; we could not do otherwise than make an effort to help him out of his difficulty, and managed the one before us: a bowl of rice for each concluded the feast. Our officious waiter now appeared with warm water, and a very dark coloured and uninviting towel, which, to his astonishment, we rejected, when offered to us as a general finger-glass and napkin.
On calling for the reckoning we were whisperingly instructed by our friend to fee the waiter and pipe-bearer who would stand our friend with the landlord; they received a rupee each; presently they re-appeared with a long account which, when totaled, amounted to five dollars, or altogether a most extensive feast for about twenty-five shillings in all for six. The above, one might imagine, would have been a feast for the lord-mayor, aldermen, and all the civic dignitaries of Ningpo (if such had any existence), but it was served up extemporaneously; the dinner was on the table within a quarter of an hour of our ordering it; the waiter apologized, and said if more time were given a grander entertainment would be provided. The price of a good tavern dinner, consisting of fish, flesh, fowl, and entries, would be about a shilling of our money; a common club dinner a mace, or fourpence.

Today’s recipe for comes from the Chinese-Japanese Cook Book (Chicago, c1914) by Sara Bosse and Onoto Watanna [pseud.] The recipes in this book are, as you would guess, “American-Chinese.”
Seaweed Soup.
Two yolks of hard-boiled eggs; one can of seaweed; three chicken giblets; two tablespoonfuls of syou; [soy sauce] one and one half teaspoonfuls of Quong Sang Chong (water chestnut flour).

Boil one can of seaweed until it is like thin jelly. Have ready three chicken giblets, chopped very fine, having first boiled them one hour in a quart of water. Add the seaweed, and boil all together for half an hour. Strain, then crumble in the yolks of two hard-boiled eggs, stir in two tablespoonfuls of syou, and salt to taste. Rub smooth one and a half teaspoonfuls of Quong Sang Chong in a little cold water, then add to the soup and stir until it thickens slightly. Serve with a small piece of seaweed on top that has been soaking in spiced vinegar.


srhcb said...

Was "one can" of seaweed a unit of measurement? I wouldn't think that seaweed canned as we are familiar with the term was available then?

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Steve - sorry about the late response. It meant a can in the current sense of seaweed preserved by the canning process. Canning had been developing as an industry since about 1810 - although can-openers lagged behind!