Back in the day, if you got a hankering for dumplings and chow mein, you had two choices: Book passage around the Cape of Good Hope, or strap on your chaps and ride ten thousand miles across Eurasia.
In 1719, John Bell opted for the latter when he signed on with a diplomatic mission bound for the Empire of the Great Qing. His travelogue, published 40 years later, wastes little ink on the international affairs that compelled the embassy. Instead, like a true foodie, Bell dwells wistfully on the provisions from that long-gone expedition. His first meal inside the Great Wall was, he confesses, the best dinner of his life. And when he arrived in Peking, the all-out, daylong entertainments hosted by palace insiders left him grasping for superlatives. A reader gets a sense of the writer as an old man tantalized by the memory of meals that graced his palate years prior with flavors and preparations he couldn't dream of replicating back home.
History buffs who wish to fully savor the perils and rewards of Bell's journey should not hesitate to seek out his memoir. The rest of you may enjoy our modern updating of his travel notes.
Destination: Qing dynasty, 1720 AD
The overland route from Europe to the Empire of the Great Qing is no walk in the park, but an adventurous foodie with a take-it-as-it-comes attitude and a passion for offbeat travel will find it rewarding. Despite growing Czarist influence over Inner Asia, sections of the old caravan roads remain lawless and beset with dangers, yet these anarchic territories offer some of the most enchanting culinary experiences available to the independent traveler.
Picture yourself hunting for your dinner on snowshoes through boreal woodlands for the evening’s dinner, and returning at night to dine with your Tartar host in a mossy cabin fixed with windows of pure ice. Imagine climbing from the saddle after a long day’s ride to sip rye whiskey of local manufacture in a remote caravanserai. You’ll forage for wild rhubarb with Mongols while waiting at the border for your entry papers. If you don’t starve in the Gobi Desert, you’ll share a celebratory cup of tea with the officer in command of a Great Wall guard tower. And that’s just the outbound journey!
Within the borders of the Great Qing you’ll marvel at the achievements of Chinese cookery, the sheer artistry of which defies the current (and woefully inaccurate) view back home of the Chinese as a humorless nation.
Before you go
Though the trade routes fall mostly under Russian jurisdiction, it is strongly recommended to acquire introductions to the heathen princelings along the way. A letter of safe passage from the local strongman goes a long way in the backcountry.
Be sure to write ahead to the Forbidden City to confirm your itinerary. The Great Qing doesn't take kindly to pushy guests, so phrase your letter with care. Address the note to the Barbarian Control Office, care of the Mongolian lamas on the northern frontiers. The lamas will forward your correspondence to the headquarters in Peking.
Allow for travel time of six months to a year, depending on your point of departure. Bring plenty of tobacco and brandy to trade with the natives along the way. While passing through the marshy plains of the Baraba steppe, you'll want to hire a 50-man cossack detail to safeguard you and your baggage train from slavers and highwaymen. If the Kalmyks go on the warpath, make a beeline for the nearest Russian fort to wait out the hostilities.
Fair warning: Travelers with dietary restrictions will perish at higher rates. Vegetarians and vegans may survive on bread and oats in the agricultural regions, but across the wild country, the art of cookery cannot be separated from the art of the chase. A luncheon begins when the hunter takes up his net and tinderbox, and ends with charred bones beside an open fire. Saddle food consists mostly of smoked or cured meats.
Upon arrival at the Chinese border, a bureaucrat from the Barbarian Control Office will spend several days assessing you and your reasons for travel. Only after he reports back to the imperial court will you receive orders to proceed onward or, if refused, to return to your point of origin. The application process may drag on as long as two months. Take that time to hunt, fish and change money. Trade goods available for barter in the border town include sable pelts, gold ingots, and Chinese damask (among other fine textiles). In the absence of a common currency, goods are valued by their worth in medallions of dehydrated rhubarb root.
If approved for entry, visitors on state business may be remitted a stipend of one sheep per week, courtesy of the munificence of the Emperor Kang-hsi. His livestock, though middling in size, surpasses any other meat for flavor – and good thing, too, because mutton is the only thing on the menu for the two-plus weeks you’ll spend crossing the Gobi, a no-man’s land between the border checkpoint and the Great Wall.
When the Mongols, who eat anything, refer to a place as a “Hungry Desert,” you had better assume it’s for good reason. There’s nothing in the Gobi to consume but brackish water drawn from sandy wells and whatever livestock you’ve brought along. But the rigors of the passage are not without their cultural attractions. Have your sketchbook handy when the drivers from the camel train prepare their dinner by slicing open the skin of a living sheep and reaching between its ribs to squeeze the life from its beating heart. In this bloodless slaughter, the nourishing juices from the animal’s vital fluids keep the flesh moist and succulent.
Before dressing and cleaning the carcass, the grill master will first carve out the raw brisket, skin and all, to fling upon the coals. Thanks to the quality of the meat and the method of butchery, you won’t need seasoning to appreciate this quick-fix steak, but do make sure to scrape off the singed wool before tucking into your rustic fireside dinner.
Eating in the Empire of the Great Qing
The view from a distance of the Great Wall snaking across the far ridge line will be a welcome sight after the rigors of the desert crossing, for here is the gateway to the sumptuous bounty of China. Having the rare distinction of admittance to the realm of the Great Qing, you’ll begin to enjoy the flip side of the arduous entry process: You are one of very few international tourists in a place where a host spares absolutely no expense to entertain a guest. So save space in your camel train to transport the countless fruit baskets you’ll receive at every village from here to Peking: watermelons and walnuts, sweet and bitter oranges, peaches and apples, chestnuts and muskmelons.
Local notables will throw daily banquets in your honor. A typical North China banquet includes several varieties of tea and a smorgasbord of meats: roast pig, mutton, poultry and venison. Servants carve the roasts into bite-sized portions for the guests. The tables are set with napkins, not of old laundered cloth but luxurious paper squares, and little saucers of pickles and bitter herbs, and bowls filled with broth, or heaped with noodles, or piled with steamed mantou. For dessert, expect a spread of fruits and cakes. The host may hire an opera company or jugglers or circus acrobats to perform at designated intervals, or host an exhibition of quail-fighting, which scholarly types consider a more refined pastime than the vulgar sport of cock-fighting.
Social receptions among the Peking leisure class take place at private mansions and banquet halls around the capital. The largest event spaces can accommodate up to 800 revelers at once. These halls are booked in advance, with expenses divided evenly among the invitees. Such an occasion won’t come cheap. Expect to pay up to three or four ounces of silver for a day-long affair – but what an affair. Around ten in the morning, sedan chairs will arrive at your residence to convey you through the picturesque streets of Peking to the venue: a great hall propped up by rows of varnished wooden pillars. Be prepared to spend the whole day eating and celebrating, as these shindigs can stretch well into nightfall. The hours are broken up by endless servings of meats and fruits, by theatrical performances, and by gambling contests where impossible fortunes are won and lost over the rattle of dice or the clap of chess tokens upon the game board.
Stroll through the city markets for a glimpse of daily life in Peking. Food markets feature a gravel-lined space for purchasing animals like chickens, sheep or deer. Butchers keep shop under the awnings along the periphery. Cool your heels in a teahouse for some prime people watching. While you’re at it, try a puff of powdered Chinese tobacco, which has a mild though distinct flavor.
If you get the chance, take a tour of a working kitchen. Thanks to the population density, fuel prices in the city are through the roof, but Peking restaurateurs have developed a number of ingenious adaptations to keep costs down. Stoves come installed with hand-operated bellows to coax the maximum combustion from the barest fuel. Cast iron cookware, hammered thin and polished to an oily sheen, is likewise designed for efficient thermal conduction. With a scant handful of straw and twigs, a skilled chef can quickly fire his pots to a blistering heat.
Travelers longing for a taste of home can drop by one of the Jesuit missions situated throughout the city. The Jesuits act as concierge for out-of-towners, and offer sightseeing tours to otherwise off-limits attractions such as the elephant stables and the imperial greenhouse. The Italian convent, by the far the most luxurious, promises a friendly reception, but take a raincheck on the mediocre wine vinted and aged on-site by the missionaries. The French delegation, though housed in a less spectacular property on the west side of town, have been known to borrow the services of the Emperor’s personal acrobatic troupe to perform at dinner parties. In winter, the French priests stock their larder with fresh Amur sturgeon, flash-frozen moments after the catch and transported from the Siberian frontier to Peking in blocks of solid ice.
Ask if the Jesuits can help to book a table at the most longed-after dinner engagement in the realm: a meal with the Emperor. Though Kang-hsi has governed an ancient and populous nation for decades, the cares wear lightly on the good old Emperor, who endures his ceremonial duties with an ever-present twinkle in his eye. Don’t be surprised if he honors you with a swig of pungent grain liquor to stimulate the appetite before this once-in-a-lifetime meal.
The court food is, like the court itself, aloof from overly showy presentation. The meats are boiled plainly, or stewed with pickles. But they are cooked to perfection every time. A humble boiled pheasant becomes, in the hands of the palace chefs, a dish for the ages. Don’t miss out on the rare fruits from the southern provinces: longan, tamarind and the little mandarin oranges from Canton. If you’re lucky, you may go home with the leftovers, paraded by palace staff to your boarding house on litters draped with imperial yellow silk.
For more on Qing dynasty cuisine, check out “Woods-to-Plate Eating in the Empire of the Great Qing” from issue eight of our print magazine.
If you can suffer through ye olde English printing style that writes a long "s" as an "f," you may enjoy volumes one and two of John Bell's memoirs, Travels From St. Petersburg In Russia To Diverse Parts Of Asia.