Braised Mutton: A Beijing Delicacy
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.