The history of Family Li Imperial cuisine started during the Ming dynasty. It was during this time that Li Shunqing was in charge of overseeing the security of the imperial palace and thus also of the banquets and meals that were prepared and served there. After the Empress Dowager Cixi passed away, he returned to his hometown and wrote down the recipes for the dishes he saw being prepared at the court. This book was then passed on from generation to generation, to reach the owners of the current restaurant.
In an era were many haute cuisine restaurants are forced to tell a “unique” story to attract media attention this family isn’t showing off its history, just cooking traditional dishes with symbolism, tradition and craftsmanship.
At this moment there are two branches of this eponymous family’s restaurants, one in Beijing and one in Shanghai. The Shanghai branch is located in the heart of the Huangpu Park, and sits in graceful and elegant surroundings. Its main architecture blends harmoniously with the park’s wooden bridge, murmuring streams, traditional pavilion and secluded benches. Once you step inside, you will find the restaurant divided into several private dining rooms, each of them having its own character. Sadly the rooms in the somewhat sterile interior look a bit outdated; they are shabby and worn out.
Most people think that dining in this
special place will break the bank, and that's true in a way. However, eating
here at lunch is quite affordable. The cheapest menu then costs 400 RMB (42
euro) while dinner can cost up to 2000 RMB for menus including expensive
ingredients such as bird nest and shark fin.
Every menu consists of three sections; a section of 8-10 small dishes,
5-7 main courses and 2-4 desserts. But relax, you will not be full at the end
of the meal, on the contrary, the dishes are small, digestible and very light.
The food does live up to the expectations; it's complex, subtle and showcasing great technical skills. A perfect example of that is the fried garoupa with soy sauce. The high temperature cooking of the fish makes it savory and results in beautifully textured meat. It's a dish that is richly fragranced with soy sauce and shallot and may sound a bit simple. But, it works, as the execution is flawless. Similarly to this is a fried lobster with fungus and bamboo shoots in Beijing style. The lobster, slowly cooked is as tasty it can be, the bamboo and fungus adding a lot of complexity to it. Maybe not the easiest dish to analyse but it has bags of refined flavors.
A dish that looks cheatingly simple is the fried egg custard. This is a traditional and difficult dish. To be made properly, the ingredients must be mixed completely, and beaten more then 600 times. Once properly whipped, it is cooked, which gives a refined taste both soft and glutinous without being sticky. Needless to say that this custard tastes absolutely divine.
To taste what the taste meals of the emperors of the Qing dynasty were like, go to one of the two branches of the Family Li and discover that not only the French people had a monopoly on refined cuisine. The only disappointing thing is that the entourage does not match the quality of the food.