SILK ROAD, JAN 1, 1999

Food For An Emperor

A humble home in Goat House Lane draws epicureans eager to sample authentic recipes of Beijing’s old imperial court





The oddly named Family Li’s Dishes Restaurant never advertises. There isn’t even a sign to indicate that this decade-old establishment is anything other than one more traditional house tucked away in a tiny alley called Yangfang Hutong. Yet this north-Beijing eatery—which specializes in the imperial cuisine of the Qing Dynasty—once counted as its regular customers the surviving relatives of Pu-yi, the Qing ruler made internationally famous by the movie The Last Emperor. Although the restaurant normally serves only one meal per day (in the evening), high-ranking government officials are said to come by for specially arranged lunches.

Evenings are usually booked solid two to three weeks in advance. To avoid disappointment, visitors to Beijing are advised to reserve early—ideally, before they book their flight.

While a lot of Beijing restaurants boast of being home-style eateries, the Family Li’s Dishes Restaurant takes this claim to heart. When I walked into the traditional courtyard complex, which is divided into several separate living compartments, I mistakenly barged into the family’s bedroom. On my second attempt, I managed to find the door, which led to the two small, nondescript rooms in the family’s living quarters that comprise the dining area. Two tables seat the restaurant’s capacity of 22 diners.

Eating here is like dining at a friend’s house. The proprietor, 75-year-old Li Shan-lin—whose name card modestly introduces him as “advisor to Family Li’s Dishes restaurant”--personally, greets each visitor. The dishes are all prepared by Li’s eldest daughter, a former medical doctor. Busy helping in the kitchen is a small contingent of young kitchen helpers, all of whom beam smiles to the customer who pokes his head through the kitchen door. Neighborhood children occasionally drop by to play.

A retired professor of applied mathematics, Li clearly relishes his role as master of ceremonies, personally delivering many of the dishes to the table, while providing a running commentary of the food and the restaurant’s history.

In the 1880’s, Li Shunqing, Li’s grandfather, was chief of the palace guards in the Forbidden City, responsible for the royal family’s security. He was also in chare of the kitchen of the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi, the power behind the Qing throne for 48 years, until her death in 1908.

The soldiers serving under Grandfather Li would march three eunuchs into the kitchen just before each meal was to be served. “One eunuch tasted the food,” Li explains. “The other two made sure he swallowed it.” 

If the eunuch didn’t keel over, Cixi was served. This alone was no mean feat, as the imperial kitchen prepared some 150 dishes for each of her meals, though she touched just a few. Li maintains that the system worked well.

“From the first Qing emperor to the last, not one was poisoned,” he proudly declares, ignoring the widespread belief that Cixi herself may have poisoned her nephew, the Emperor Guangxu, who died several days before she did.

Several restaurants claim to prepare authentic imperial cuisine, but Li points out that the actual recipes are hard come by. “In those days, no one was permitted to take anything out of the Forbidden City,” he explains. “If anyone did so, he was severely punished.”

Grandfather Li got around this by memorizing the various recipes and dictating them to his secretary. The collection was handed down to Li’s father, who handed them down in turn to Li, who passed them on to his children. In 1984, Lili, his second daughter, competed with 2,900 other candidates in a nationwide cookout marking the 35th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Lili won first prize. Six months later she opened the restaurant.

There is no menu. Just say how much you want to spend—there are four price categories, from 200 to 450 yuan per person—and the kitchen will serve up your banquet.

A middle-priced banquet includes ten small cold dishes and seven hot ones, including imperial dishes and others once enjoyed by high-ranking Manchu officials, as well as a few of the Li family’s own Beijing favorites. These include green pine-tree scallops, baked Peking duck (not as greasy as traditional Peking duck), fried mung beans, mandarin fish (caught fresh each morning in Houhai, a lake just north of Beihai Park) and sugared walnuts.

Li is one of the few restaurateurs in the world who openly admits that he can’t match the quality of the old days. “For one thing, the ingredients today are not as good as before,” he explains. “The ingredients reserved for Cixi were undoubtedly the finest. Cixi was a strong woman, and everything for her had to be the best.”

Li adds that an imperial meal should be washed down with baijiu, or Chinese spirits distilled from sorghum or maize. Complaining that modern baijiu just isn’t the same as the traditional brew, he apologetically offers beer, wine and soft drinks instead. He solves the problem of sourcing rice wine good enough to cook his famous chicken fillet in by making it himself “in the traditional way”.

Li further notes that, whereas in the old days sweet-and-sour pork ribs used only black-haired pigs, nowadays you can get only inferior, cheaper white-haired pigs. (This diner couldn’t tell the difference. The ribs were extremely tender, but the imperial sauce bore an uncanny resemblance to that served up by the American restaurant chain Dan Ryan’s.) Second, Li says, cooking skills are not what they were.

“In the Qing Dynasty palace kitchen, they had 128 of the best cooks serving the empress every day,” he says. “Some of these cooks spent their entire lives cooking just one dish. How can my daughter—who prepares some 50 dishes herself---compete with that?”

Although his small restaurant is full every night—with many people failing to get reservations--Li insists he will never expand, explaining that he could not control the quality if the restaurant got any bigger. Some suspect that Li’s real reason is his reluctance to let outsiders learn the recipes his grandfather smuggled out of the Forbidden City more than a century ago.

Li did agree to open a Melbourne branch after some Australian businessmen journeyed to Beijing, compared the handful of restaurants serving imperial cuisine in the Chinese capital and agreed to back a larger restaurant Down Under. The secrets stayed in the family, though, as Lili and a brother went to run the new branch. This was when the eldest daughter, the doctor Aiyin, traded in her scalpel for a butcher’s knife.

When asked who will save these ancient recipes from extinction when his children get too old to run the restaurants, Li smiles and explains that his grandchildren are already showing interest in the business. “From generation to generation,” he explains, adding wistfully, “I hope so.”

Family Li’s Dishes Restaurant is located at No. 11 Yangfang Hutong (Goat House Lane), Beijing. Tel 86.10.6618.0170

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney