In addition to the Eight Great Culinary Schools of China, there naturally exist a number of special cooking traditions that are strictly ethnic in origin as well as a number of special cooking traditions that belong to Banquet Service, or, as it is often referred to in China, Official Residence Dishes. This category applies to Banquet Service as it was practiced both on a royal level, on the level of state officials who held high office, and on the level of important business magnates whose large private residences rivaled, or sometimes even surpassed, the splendor of the residences of state officials (it would not have been clever to try and outdo the emperor in any category, including in the category of Banquet Service!).
Banquet Service is still an official state function in China, observed at all levels of government, but it is also observed by private families, albeit, these days it generally takes place in a special banquet hall at a large restaurant or hotel that caters to such functions.
In the following, various Banquet Service traditions will be presented, including banquet dishes in the style of the famous 18th century classical novel, A Dream of Red Mansions, as well as ancient period Xi'an Dishes in the Tang Dynasty style and special Hui ethnic dishes that are termed Mosque Dishes, not because they are served at mosques or because they form an official part of Muslim holidays (the Hui ethnic minority are Muslims) such as the Festival of Eid (the celebration of the closing of the fasting month of Ramadan), or because they are served at Muslim weddings and on other auspicious Islamic occasions (though they may very well be served on all of these occasions), but simply because it was the custom for mosques in Hui ethnic areas to be located in ordinary residental districts, i.e., among ordinary people. The term "Mosque Dishes" thus began as a non-Hui designation for "Islamic Dishes", though over time the designation caught on and is used today by all segments of Chinese society to describe the "Islamic Dishes" of the ethnic Hui minority.
Tan Family Dishes
With a history of more than one hundred years - and counting - Tan Family dishes originated from the house of Tan Zonghou, a bureaucrat who served during the latter part of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. These dishes are still made according to the original recipes for the most part, except for minor changes in the available ingredients, and except for the case where a chef will judiciously add a new ingredient to a Tan Family recipe, but niggardly so, as the goal is to enhance, not radically alter, the original recipe.
As an outstanding model of Chinese Banquet Service, Tan Family dishes not only win the praise of epicures at home and abroad, they also arouse the interest of professional cooks worldwide, not least because, from the perspective of Chinese cooking history, Tan Family dishes provide the most complete and accurate data available for the study of the official residence dishes of the Qing Dynasty period.
A widely known Chinese saying that sums up the overarching taste contrast between southern Chinese and northern Chinese dishes is "sweetness in the South and saltiness in the North". Tan Family dishes, however, strike a balance in favor of moderation in both these taste experiences, being neither decidedly sweet nor decidedly salty. Nor, for that matter, are Tan Family dishes spicy-hot, since the Tan Family felt that a chicken dish should taste of chicken while a fish dish should taste of fish, and neither taste should be masked by overpowering spices, most especially not by the taste - or taste-numbing - experience of peppery-hot spices; the use of chilis and ground pepper such as cayenne pepper is foreign to the Tan Family cooking tradition.
Spices are chosen judiciously and used moderately in Tan Family dishes so as to bring out the natural flavors of the principal ingredient(s) of each individual dish, in much the same way that a good French chef has always approached the art of cooking: with an eye to enhancing, not masking, the natural flavors of the ingredients in question rather than resorting to the heavy-handed use of overpowering spices.
The most salient feature of Tan Family dishes is that they are prepared over low heat for long periods of time, so that the end result is a dish with full-bodied flavor whose ingredients are cooked to tender perfection; stir-fry and other quick-frying methods have no place in the Tan Family cooking tradition. In this sense, Tan Family dishes resemble the cooking style of typical Chinese households where good, traditional cooking methods and the moderate and judicious use of taste-enhancing spices is preferred to quick-fry methods and the exaggerated use of spices, especially peppery-hot spices.
Typical Tan Family cooking methods include sautéing, braising, simmering, steaming and baking. The Tan Family cooking tradition also embraces occasional deep-frying and pan-frying methods, and also the gentle cooking of slowly-simmered soups.
Kongfu Banquet Service (and Kongfu Cuisine)
Kongfu Banquet Service is a famous official residence cuisine of China with roots in the city of Qufu, the natal city of the famous philosopher, Master Kong, or Kong Fu Zi - long since Anglicized to "Confucius" - which gives rise to the term Kongfu (eg., Kongfu Cuisine, Kongfu Banquet Service, Kongfu Fighting :)). Note that the "Zi" above is an add-on syllable that can either be used for a rounding out sound effect, or, in the case of a person, as a measure of respect, much like the add-on syllable "san" is used in the Japanese language to show respect when addressing a revered or respected person - neither is an integral part of the person's name.
Kongfu Cuisine is a more everyday, or household, variant of the same cooking style, though many, if not most, experts on Chinese Cuisine insist that Kongfu Cuisine is not a separate strain of the Shandong Cuisine school, but rather belongs to the Jinan style of Shandong Cuisine (to read more about Shandong Cuisine and its two separate strains (note also that the ethnic Hui "Mosque Dishes" described below belong to the Beijing cuisine tradition, which in turn belongs to the Shandong Cuisine school) - an inland (Jinan) and a coastal (Jiaodong) strain - click here).
Both Kongfu Banquet Service and Kongfu Cuisine are characterized by their wide variety of ingredients, their exquisite cooking techniques and their sumptuousness, yet with an emphasis on nutrition. The Kongfu Banquet Service is in addition characterized by its attention to luxurious presentation, its gracious tableware style and a particularly dignified dining etiquette, the latter being an even more respectful nod to Master Kong than the addition of the final syllable "Zi" to his name, one might add.
The meat and fish dishes that made up the everyday diet of the Kong Family emphasized simple yet hearty flavors, and involved a relatively broad variety of ingredients prepared according to one of several special cooking techniques yielding distinctive flavors, rich colors and pleasing textures, notwithstanding that this was everyday fare - the Kong Family lived well, also on a daily basis.
Kong Family banquet dishes can be divided into various grades depending on the rank of the banquet's guest of honor, yet all grades of Kongfu Banquet Service place an emphasis on ostentatiously elegant presentation, accentuated by an especially dignified dining etiquette.
The household dishes in the Kongfu style, which served as the everyday diet for the Kong Family, were made in a smaller kitchen in the Kong Family Mansion, while Kongfu Banquet dishes were made in the much larger kitchen of the mansion's banquet hall and were reserved for special family occasions or for receiving important personages, from the emperor to lesser-ranking local officials. Since Confucius was traditionally revered by the emperor, it was the custom for the emperor and an entourage of high-ranking officials to pay an annual visit to the Kong Family Mansion to pay homage to the great master. These and similar regional and local visits in homage to Confucius always occasioned a grand banquet.
Literature-Inspired Banquet Dishes - Dishes served in the style of the famous 18th century classical novel, A Dream of Red Mansions
The Red Mansion Banquet is a re-creation of the dishes described in the 18th century classical novel attributed to Cao Xueqin, A Dream of Red Mansions. Under the guidance of literary, historical and gastronomical experts, well-known chefs from the city of Yangzhou, the heart of the area where the "Red Mansions" novel takes place, were able to recreate the banquet dishes mentioned in that famous novel (A Dream of Red Mansions belongs to the four greatest novels in Chinese literature). The Red Mansion Banquet style is a unique blend of culinary skill, exquisite presentation, and lively, albeit refined, conversation, all of which is designed to mimic the atmosphere of the characters in the "Red Mansions" novel; to participate in a Red Mansion Banquet is thus to participate in a re-enactment of a piece of Chinese literary and culinary history.
The Red Mansion Banquet includes five grades, or categories: Top Grade Grand Presentation (these are highly ornamental dishes), Cold Butterfly of the Jia Family Mansion, Ningrong Dishes, Yinhong Delicate Snacks, and Guangling Tea and Wine.
Famous main dishes of the Red Mansion Banquet include Plain Stewed Meatballs in the Shape of a Lion's Head, Three-Nested Duck, Braised Chub Head, Wensi Bean Curd (tofu), Plain Stewed Shad, Yangzhou Fried Rice, Tianxiang Lotus Root, and Pearl in the Bosom of an Aged Clam, while famous snacks of the Red Mansion Banquet include Three-Diced Bun, Five-Diced Bun, Emerald Shaomai (steamed dumplings topped with ham and filled with vegetables), Yechun Dumplings, Yangzhou Pickles, Fine Snack of the Red Mansion, Layered Oil Cake, and Crisp Short Cake.
Special Non-Banquet Cuisine Traditions
"Period" Cuisine: Xi'an Dishes in the Tang Dynasty Style
In order to maintain their continued authenticity, Xi'an Dishes in the Tang Dynasty style must comply with the following general characteristics...
Firstly, each dish must be grounded in the verifiable historical record, such as in historical accounts, history books, etc.
Secondly, the ingredients used must have existed during the Tang Dynasty, meaning that many of them will no longer be in widespread use in China, but will instead belong to a niche production that caters precisely to Tang Dynasty period chefs. The existence of these ingredients during the Tang Dynasty must also be historically verifiable.
Thirdly, the preparation of these dishes must adhere as much as possible to the original method and sequence of preparation, albeit, with the understanding that the modern kitchen entails methods of boiling, braising, steaming, baking etc., that have improved somewhat since the Tang Dynasty period. For example (not necessarily a relevant example, but it demonstrates the principle), if a Tang Dynasty custard was always baked, then preparing the same custard today by means of stovetop cooking via a double boiler (i.e., a pan within a pan, where the outer pan contains the boiling water) would not be considered a genuine Xi'an dish in the Tang Dynasty style, whereas baking a Xi'an custard in a convection oven is an acceptable compromise.
Xi'an dishes that are prepared in a genuine Tang Dynasty manner will not only preserve their original character, but will taste uniquely different than dishes prepared according to more commonplace recipes. But only by adhering to original recipes and original preparation methods can one be assured that the end result genuinely reflects the culinary traditions of the Xi'an dishes of the Tang Dynasty period.
The Xi'an style dishes of the Tang Dynasty period made use of refined, if age-old, cooking methods, where the emphasis was on highlighting the natural flavors of the raw ingredients by the judicious and modest addition of spices. Xi'an style dishes of the Tang Dynasty period are characterized not only by their unique tastiness, but also by their high nutritional value.
Mosque Dishes are special dishes in the tradition of the Islamic Hui ethnic minority. Since mosques in Hui areas were typically located in residential neighborhoods, and since these dishes belong to everyday (and not-so-everyday) Hui cuisine, this type of cooking came to be known as "Mosque Dishes". These dishes have a history of more than a thousand years. Most non-Muslims are aware that Muslims may not eat pork, but few realize that dog, donkey, mule, horse, scale-free fish and a number of other aquatic creatures as well as predacious birds and beasts are forbidden to Muslims, just as is animal blood and any non-forbidden animal or fowl that is not slaughtered in keeping with the Muslim Halal tradition (Halal signifies "purified" in a religious sense, reminiscent of the Jewish Kosher tradition). The latter proscription means that even non-forbidden animals that die of natural or accidental causes - i.e., are not slaughtered - are forbidden ("Road Kill" recipe books for Muslims simply do not exist!).
The result of these restrictions is that beef, mutton (lamb), chicken and duck are the staple meats of Hui Muslims. The cooking methods, once the animal or bird has been slaughtered in keeping with the Halal tradition, resemble closely those of the Beijing cuisine tradition (note that the Beijing cuisine tradition is considered as a branch of Shandong Cuisine, one of the Eight Great Cuisine Schools of China - to learn more about Shandong Cuisine, click on the referenced link in the Kongfu Banquet Service section above).
Mosque Dish chefs excel in the stir-fry method, both with and without sauces - including natural "sauces", or juices ("jus", in French), that result from drawing out the liquids of meats and vegetables, and sauces, or gravies, that are thickened with the help of, for example, corn starch. Many Mosque Dishes are made by other quick-frying and quick-boiling methods. Mosque Dishes are typically fried in vegetable oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, vinegar and sugar. The result is a series of tasty dishes whose meats are tender and whose vegetables are prepared al dente. The sauces are generally fragrant and somewhat thick. In particular, the Hui are fond of mutton, and are specialists at whole roasted lamb.
Famous Mosque Dishes include: Stewed Sheep and Ox Belly, Stewed Scalper's Tail with Gravy, Sautéed Mutton, Braised Mutton Strip, Barbecued Meat Platter, Fried Sheep Filet with Sweet Sauce, Translucent Lung (a delicacy!), Deep-Fried Lamb Slices, Crystal Sheep's Head, Quick-Boiled Mutton, Baked Mutton Slice, Five-Spiced Mutton, Quick Fried Ox Tendon, Sautéed Duck, Soft Mutton, Sheep's Tail in Hot Sauce, Braised Sheep's Eye with Mushrooms, Simmered Mutton, Deep-Fried Sheep's Eye, Brain and Spinal Cord, Fishbone in Clear Soup, Quick-Boiled Belly, Ball Filled with Fruit, and Ruiyi Winter Bamboo Shoots.