Braised Mut­ton: A Bei­jing Del­i­cacy

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated By Re­becca Lou Edited by David Ball

With fans such as the Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi, braised mut­ton has long been a firm favourite in Bei­jing. Restau­rants such as Baikui Lao­hao and Yuesh­engzhai have also con­trib­uted much to spread­ing the fame of this lo­cal del­i­cacy.

Braised mut­ton with soy sauce is an au­then­tic Bei­jing dish. How­ever, be­sides a few time-hon­oured restau­rants such as Baikui Lao­hao and Yuesh­engzhai, which still make it, the com­plex­ity re­quired to make this dish has pre­vented more Bei­jing eater­ies from serv­ing it. Back when Bei­jing was called Beip­ing, braised mut­ton was much more com­mon, with al­most every butcher sell­ing it from Au­gust right through to Oc­to­ber.

Mut­ton has long been a favourite meat in Bei­jing. It is warm­ing, stim­u­lates the ap­petite, helps dis­pel the cold and can be pre­pared in a va­ri­ety of ways such as fry­ing, sautéing, stir-fry­ing, roast­ing, boil­ing or brais­ing. Three of the most pop­u­lar mut­ton dishes in Bei­jing are braised mut­ton with soy sauce, boiled sheep's head and sauced mut­ton.

Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Qian­long (1736–1795) of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644– 1911), the braised mut­ton with soy sauce served in the Baikui halal restau­rant was the most pop­u­lar amongst the city's res­i­dents. The restau­rant was orig­i­nally called Dongchang­shun, but over the years be­came known as “Baikui,” a name which has be­come synony­mous with the pop­u­lar dish of braised mut­ton with soy sauce.

Mak­ing “Baikui” braised mut­ton with soy sauce is a com­pli­cated process. Gen­er­ally, only the meat from the sheep's waist is used. Bright red and with just the right amount of fat, it is ten­der, not greasy and the ten­dons are a de­light to savour. The dish is more flavour­some than sauced or stewed mut­ton. The braised mut­ton served in the Baikui Lao­hao restau­rant only comes from a cer­tain breed of twoto three-year-old cas­trated sheep from In­ner Mon­go­lia. The meat is cured with 26 dif­fer­ent sea­son­ings, and goes through six pro­cesses of be­ing dipped in sauce, ten­derised, stacked, boiled, stewed and

fried be­fore it is ready to be served.

In the past, many literati and well­known fig­ures in Bei­jing were fond of eat­ing mut­ton, with Guo Moruo, Li Wanchun, Hou Xirui and Li Shaochun all hav­ing been fre­quent cus­tomers at Baikui Lao­hao. Writer and gas­tronome Wang Zengqi was also known to be fond of the dish. When­ever he was en­ter­tain­ing guests at his home, he would have his ser­vants go get mut­ton from the shop and serve it along­side fine liquor. Fang Junyi, a Qing Dy­nasty scholar, once wrote about the pop­u­lar­ity of the dish, say­ing: “Sea­soned crabs and braised mut­ton with soy sauce are the ul­ti­mate del­i­ca­cies to be served with liquor.” This shows how dif­fi­cult it is to over­state the pop­u­lar­ity of the dish.

In the past, there were only a few restau­rants recog­nised for their mut­ton. Each of them cooked the meat in dif­fer­ent ways, cre­at­ing dif­fer­ent flavours with unique recipes and in­gre­di­ents. Just like with Bei­jing's fa­mous snack brands, some peo­ple like Gongy­ifu while oth­ers pre­fer Daox­i­ang­cun, while the two dif­fer from each other even for the same snack, at least in terms of sweet­ness. When speak­ing of fa­mous time-hon­oured brands for braised mut­ton with soy sauce “Yuesh­engzhai” will come to many peo­ple's mind. Leg­end has it that Yuesh­engzhai's braised mut­ton was the favourite of Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi (1835– 1908), es­pe­cially cooked with noo­dles. Dur­ing the pe­riod of the Em­peror Ji­aqing (1760–1820) and Em­peror Guangxu (1872–1908) of the Qing Dy­nasty, Yuesh­engzhai's big­gest cus­tomer was the im­pe­rial court, with Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi as its most loyal ad­mirer. Old sto­ries of Yuesh­engzhai al­ways men­tion Cixi's love for braised mut­ton noo­dles. It is said that when­ever she toured Kun­ming Lake in the Sum­mer Palace, there would al­ways be two small boats along­side her plea­sure-boat, one serv­ing snacks made by the im­pe­rial chef and the other serv­ing Yuesh­engzhai's braised mut­ton noo­dles. On the lake, Cixi would en­joy the freshly cooked mut­ton noo­dles with crispy and ten­der mut­ton, light yel­low soup and white noo­dles, along with a layer of shred­ded cu­cum­ber, green pars­ley and two small roses. The cool noo­dles in warm soup with ten­der mut­ton greatly pleased the Em­press Dowa­ger. The won­der­ful taste of the braised mut­ton came from Yuesh­engzhai's spe­cial cook­ing process. In its early days, Yuesh­engzhai served braised mut­ton in the front hall while pre­par­ing the raw mut­ton in the back­yard. Above the restau­rant's main en­trance was a stele which read: “best gift for the im­pe­rial court of the Qing Dy­nasty and pop­u­lar brand among cus­tomers from all sec­tions of so­ci­ety” writ­ten by Wang Enxi dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty. In the mid­dle of the hall stood the counter, be­hind which there were two large iron pots on stoves made of black bricks en­graved with flow­ers. The pots could cook about 50 kilo­grams (kg) of raw mut­ton, pro­duc­ing less than 25 kg of cooked meat. Be­side the pots, there were three large bam­boo steam­ers filled with mut­ton, and wire strain­ers made of brass, which had turned bright from fre­quent use. Be­cause of the dif­fer­ent cuts of meat, the wire strain­ers were used to keep the meat con­tin­u­ously mov­ing to en­sure it was evenly heated.

Leg­end has it that the ear­li­est Yuesh­engzhai restau­rant, owned by the Ma fam­ily, was in Hubu Street in front of Tian'an­men (to­day's Tian'an­men Square), a few hun­dred me­tres from the Qing Dy­nasty Im­pe­rial Academy of Medicine. Since the Ma fam­ily had a good re­la­tion­ship with the academy, when Yuesh­engzhai served braised mut­ton for the court, tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine el­e­ments were added at the ad­vice of the im­pe­rial doc­tors. The back­yard of the Ma's restau­rant also be­came a gather­ing place for the doc­tors, who of­ten went there to drink tea, dine on braised mut­ton, ex­change ideas and then go watch opera at Qian­men­wai. De­scen­dants of the Ma fam­ily have re­told the sto­ries that have been passed down, say­ing: “The im­pe­rial doc­tors loved to drink tea in covered teasets: those from south­ern China pre­ferred green tea, whilst those from north­ern China pre­ferred jas­mine tea.” The im­pe­rial doc­tors whom of­ten vis­ited Ma's restau­rant in­cluded fa­mous doc­tors in the cap­i­tal, such as Quan Shun, Zhong Xu, Zhang Zhongyuan, Dai Ji­ayu, Shi Huan, Du Runx­i­ang and Yao Baosheng. When the doc­tors gath­ered in Ma's restau­rant, they would of­ten pro­pose adding or re­duc­ing some medic­i­nal herbs to the recipe to make the braised mut­ton taste even bet­ter. In this way, the recipe for the Ma fam­ily's braised mut­ton grad­u­ally im­proved. For ex­am­ple, at the sugges­tion of some of the doc­tors, car­damom was added since it was good for the spleen and stom­ach. Ma's braised mut­ton was then not only a de­li­cious dish, but praised by the im­pe­rial doc­tors as “de­li­cious and nu­tri­tious.”

The high-sta­tus of its cus­tomers made Yuesh­engzhai more pop­u­lar and well-known. Some­times, peo­ple needed to make a reser­va­tion and pay a de­posit to buy the braised mut­ton.

In the Notes of the Court and Or­di­nary Peo­ple Since the Daoguang and Xian­feng Em­per­ors, it states: “The sauced mut­ton made by the restau­rant on Hubu Street in Zhengyang­men­nei is the finest in the cap­i­tal and its goods are widely sold to other prov­inces. Not even the high price can dampen the en­thu­si­asm of the buy­ers.” These records clearly show just how pop­u­lar it was. There was also an old say­ing in Bei­jing about the braised mut­ton at Yuesh­engzhai: “As the em­peror ap­pre­ci­ated the braised mut­ton, the or­di­nary folk also fol­lowed suit.”

For the chil­dren of or­di­nary fam­i­lies, Baikui and Yuesh­engzhai were of­ten out of their reach. How­ever, they would of­ten com­pete to buy braised mut­ton from the shop at the en­trance of their hu­tong (al­ley), car­ry­ing with them a big bowl. The store as­sis­tant would wrap the mut­ton in a large lo­tus leaf and fill their bowl with mut­ton soup. When they got home, their par­ents would pour the soup over some hand­made noo­dles, add some shred­ded cu­cum­ber and Sichuan pep­per oil, and en­joy the feast of braised mut­ton.

Many records show that braised mut­ton with soy sauce was of­ten eaten in the sum­mer. How­ever, for Bei­jingers, mut­ton is a food to be en­joyed all year­round. No mat­ter the sea­son, it is al­ways a good time to share the dish with friends, along with a bot­tle of rice wine and freshly baked se­same seed cakes. A bowl of hand­made noo­dles with braised mut­ton soup is also a per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment, es­pe­cially with some Sichuan pep­pers dipped in se­same oil and shred­ded cu­cum­ber added on top.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.