A disappointing number of accounts deal with the history of Chinese food with a hand-waving, folkloric lack of due diligence. While it is important to the modern-day owners of the Imperial Carriage Stops on a Hill (Nian Zhi Po) restaurant in Xi’an that the Empress Dowager Cixi was once so taken by the smell of mutton stew that she halted her carriage and demanded some in 1900, I find the whole story suspicious. It’s not that Cixi didn’t go there, or didn’t subsequently donate the calligraphic sign it bears to this day. It’s rather that the Tong family’s restaurant was already a famous local fixture, and had been for the previous two centuries – she knew exactly where she was going that day, so the whole story amounts to little more than “Cixi Ate Here”.
Some stories are more fun, although their historical value is questionable. Go to the Seven Days restaurant in Cambridge, England, and you will be told that Stir-Fried Potatoes and Chili (hejin tudou pian) was “Stephen Hawking’s favourite dish”, the first stage in an evolution that may well turn it in future into Hawking Hot Potatoes or something similar. But did Stephen Hawking ever go there?
“Oh yes,” the manager tells me. “I saw him here, once, at that table.” He points to the one right next to mine. “He was in his wheelchair with two or three carers. He couldn’t really chew, but they had this liquidiser thing with them.”
Or you could go to Falls Church, Virginia, where the Peking Gourmet Inn boasts the safest view in America. Table N17 was the favourite seat of George H. Bush and George W. Bush when they would meet for father-son presidential chats, and now boasts bullet-proof windows, courtesy of their security details.
Bush senior, for his part, served from 1974 to 1976 as the USA’s emissary in Beijing, where he developed a love for Sichuan food and heaped praise upon his cook: “The food again perfection in our house as far as we are concerned. The tangy beef cooked in a dark brown sauce with oranges has to be the greatest.” He was presumably describing Orange Spice Beef (chengwei niurou), and I am surprised that some enterprising restaurateur hasn’t already decided to rechristen it as Bush Orange Beef.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.