Friday, May 16, 2014

A Chinese Dinner in High Life.

I have often found that searching for the answer to a little puzzle commonly leads to another little mystery. Such is the great joy of research. Today’s mystery began with a short piece in an Australian newspaper (Perth’s Sunday Times) of 1905. The article header read ‘My Chinese Dinner’, but no author was given, nor any details about the circumstances of the meal. 

My Chinese Dinner.
The table was set with twenty-two dishes, and lighted by ten large lanterns. Instead of being served in courses, the dishes were brought in one at a time, and passed to the guests severally, beginning with the most distinguished or with the eldest.
Here is a list of them;-
1.      Doves with mushrooms and split bamboo sprouts – delicious.
2.      Fat pork fritters (or something like fritters) – splendid.
3.      Pigeons’ eggs in meat broth, the whites hard but transparent – very good.
4.      Chinese birds’ nests with ham chips and bamboo sprouts (a mucilaginous dish) – excellent.
5.      Poultry, different kinds, cooked with mushrooms and bamboo sprouts – very agreeable.
6.      Duck with bamboo and lotus fruits, the fruits looking and tasting like an acorn without its cup – tolerably good.
7.      Hog’s liver fried in castor oil – bad.
8.      A Japanese dish of mussels with malodorous codfish and bacon – horrible.
9.      Sea crabs’ tails cooked in castor oil, with bits of bamboo and ham – would have been palatable but for the wretched oil.
10.  A star made of pieces of fowl, bacon, and dove, covered with white of eggs - very juicy.
11.  Slices of sea fish and sharks-fins, with bamboo and mushrooms – it was hard to tell what kind of dish it was, but it was not good.
12.  Giblets of poultry with morels – the morels helped the giblets down.
13.  Ham and cabbage – not particularly nice.
14.  A pause now ensued, during which pipes and tobacco were brought in. The pipes held about a thimbleful of tobacco – enough for two or three whiffs – and it kept one busy filling and lighting them.
15.  15. Land turtles with their eggs in castor oil – abominable.
16.  Ends of ham – good.
17.  Ham with sour cabbage – no delicacy.
18.  Stale eggs (these eggs had been kept one month in salt, and two months in moist earth.) The whites looked like moist sugar and were transparent. The yolks had a greenish color, and the embryos appeared dark, rolled together and perfectly unrecognizable – a terrible dish.
Dessert – Conserve of sitzon, a red fruit that looks like a shadberry, and tastes like a kind of currant – good. Dark green fruit having oval seeds like those of the plum, preserved in brandy – good. A green oval fruit with a long, hard seed, resembling a large green olive, but sharp and sour, and disagreeable to the European taste.
Light cakes – very fine. Nuts, almonds, and castor-oil seeds, roasted and candied with sugar – good, even to the castor-oil seeds. Macaroni, with sesame seeds, and three-cornered cakes covered with castor-oil seeds – passable.
Various bon-bons, very moderate; baked lichis. The lichi is the finest of Chinese fruits, having a white flesh with the taste of the best grapes – excellent. Shaddocks and Mandarin oranges – good.
The only drinks were tea, very weak and without sugar, and samion, a rich wine which is drunk hot like tea, and is wretched stuff.

Two things in this article jumped out at me. One was the unlikelihood that the oil which was so unpleasant to the writer was actually castor oil (it wasn’t, was it?) The other was the fruit called ‘sitzon.’ A search for this in the usual places showed that the article above was the only source for the word – in several papers published in 1886. The meal had clearly been taken in about 1886, and was repeated verbatim in the Australian newspaper of 1905 without any contextual information, but with nothing in the intervening years as far as I have been able to discover so far.

The article actually appeared in a number of magazines and papers in 1886 and 1887, so it was obviously deemed to be of interest to readers of the time. The only other clue to the circumstances of the meal was given in several of these publications, and it read simply:

A Chinese Dinner in High Life. A member of a Bremen trading-house lately had the honor of taking dinner with a Chinese magnate in Pekin, and has given an appetizing description of the feast. (Popular Science Monthly of February, 1886)

If you have any mad guesses as to why an article about an event in 1886 would be re-published in 1905, don’t be shy, shout them out!

And if you have any clue what sitzon might be please do let us all know in the comments!

As the recipe for the day, I give you a little something from a piece entitled ‘Be your own Chinese Chef’ in the Western Champion (Parkes, NSW) of 2nd December 1932.

Chinese Chicken Soup.
For Chinese chicken soup, use one and one-half cupfuls of raw chicken run through the meat grinder eight times. Cover with five cupfuls of cold water and add two teaspoonfuls of salt or soy sauce and let it stand a half our; bring to the boiling point and add a quarter of a cupful of sage; cook gently for 20 minutes; add one-third cupful of thinly sliced celery, one cupful cooked mushrooms and very gently stir in one well-beaten egg to make the tiny yellow shreds characteristic of Chinese soups. Garnish each serving with a sprinkling of ground cooked ham.

P.S. See a previous post A Grand “Chinese” Dinner in Paris, 1858.

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