Life of the Emperors and Empresses in the Forbidden City (1644-1911)-V.
According to Qing custom, except at the time of a banquet, the emperor had his meals alone. All the dishes are served with a cover, which was removed only when he was at the table. There were three imperial kitchens: the tea kitchen which prepared butter tea (made with milk, cream, salt and yellow tea) and served other teas and drinks; the bakery which made all kinds of cookies; and the main kitchen which prepared all the dishes and staple food. There was another kitchen in the Inner Court to supply supper for the emperor.
Breakfast was served at six or seven in the morning; dinner, at one in the afternoon; and supper, around six in the evening. A menu was drawn up for each meal and had to be submitted to and approved by an Inner Court Minister before the meal was prepared. The menus were kept in the archives.
For example, according to the record made on the second day of the first month in the fourth reign year of Jia Qing (1799), the Emperor’s father Qian Long said that he would not go to Kunninggong to eat the sacrificial meat but let the Emperor Jia Qing, the princes and the high officials, altogether 36 persons, do so. At 7.30 in the morning, the emperor’s father had his breakfast in Yangxindian, with the meal served on the filled lacquer-flower table. It contained more than 40 dishes: bird’s nest soup, duck, chicken, deer tail, pork, buns, cakes, pastries, pickles, etc. The table set included enamel bowls, plates and dishes, blue and white jade sunflower tureen, and gold-and-silver thread embroidered napkins. Supper was similarly sumptuous. What was left by the emperor was given to others as a great favour.
Spring water from Yuquan (Jade Fountain Hill) was used for making tea and cooking. It was fetched daily in a special water-cart. On New Year’s Day, jiaozi (meat dumplings) were served. One of the dumplings was stuffed with some silver bits and placed among those on top of the dish. If the emperor got it with his chopsticks at the first go, it would be considered a sign of good luck for the whole year. On the fifteenth day of the first month, yuanxiao (floating sweet dumplings) would be served.
The kitchens and meals were supervised by two Inner Court ministers. The expenses amounted more than thirty thousand taels of silver a year, mainly for buying chickens, ducks, pigs, fishes and vegetables. Rice, flour, sheep, milk, dried vegetables and various delicacies were tribute from the localities or products sent in from the farms managed by the Inner Court, and no money needed to be spent on them.
(Next: ROYAL WARDROBE.)