Cixi, a Gourmand on the Lam
In 1900, when the EightNation Alliance conquered Beijing, 13 royals and officials from the imperial court, including Empress Dowager Cixi and Emperor Guangxu, fled the city in three horse- drawn carriages and evacuated all the way to Western China.
Precious Corn Soup
Along the way, the shopkeepers shut up their business to escape from the disaster caused by the defeated troops and the Boxers ( the Boxer Rebellion a. k. a. the Yihetuan Movement). There was simply nowhere to buy food, even if you had money. On the night of the evacuation, they arrived at a village, and the entire force was exhausted. The coachman suggested buying some cowpeas and a few earns of corn from the villagers for food.
After a while, the cooked cowpeas and corn soup were served on the table.
“The Empress Dowager found it difficult to swallow soup so plain and unrefined, but everyone else scrambled for it. Emperor Guangxu also finished a bowl of soup.” Cixi’s maid Rong’er recalled, but she didn’t mention anything about oil and salt, so it is easy to picture how bland and insipid the food was. She ultimately had to peel off the corn kernels for Cixi.
It was red hot inside the carriage, and everyone was thirsty. Cixi and her maids had to chew cornstalks to quench their thirst. The next afternoon, they arrived at Xiguanshi Village in Changping, a settlement of the Hui ethnic minority. The Imperial Eunuch Li Lianying asked for a bowl of “liquid rice” (a cool mixture of boiled millet and beans, soaked in cool water) from a villager. Cixi had no other option but to take a little.
Fighting for a Pot of Congee On the day after Cixi fled Beijing, Yanqing County issued an official document, saying that the local officials on the way must give a reception to the Empress Dowager and the Emperor, and the standard of which should be a Manchu Han Imperial Feast, “First- class Hotpot” for each prince, and some rations and forage.
When Wu Yong, the magistrate of Huailai County, received the above- mentioned document, Cixi’s carriage was only a few miles from his county. He was suddenly stuck between a rock and a hard place. Being a small county magistrate, how could he handle such a grand feast? However, if he didn’t follow the order, he would offend the great Empress Dowager. After pondering the matter for a spell, he decided to give it his best effort and demanded that his attendants cook rice, steam buns, bake pancakes and boil congee. Upon hearing the news, the local bandits in the city rushed to the
county hall, grabbed the food and stabbed the cook, leaving only a pot of green bean and millet congee. Wu Yong had to carry weapon himself with his subordinates to defend the pot of congee.
His efforts were eventually paid off. As soon as Cixi met Wu Yong, she asked if there was anything to eat. “There is only a pot of green bean and millet congee.” Wu Yong answered. “In times as hard as these, a pot of congee is good enough. Why worry about the quality?” Cixi said with a hint of weariness in her voice. Wu Yong served the congee with a pair of chopsticks at once. Then, Li Lianying thrust a difficult task onto his shoulders; he asked Wu Yong to find some eggs and cigarettes for Cixi. After rummaging through the whole village with his attendants, Wu Yong only found five eggs, and he even tore off the window paper of a villager to make five cigarettes and presented them to Cixi.
Wu Yong set up a cozy bedroom in his official residence, so that Cixi and others could rest there. He also rummaged through his cabinets and dug out a padded jacket from his late mother for Cixi, and he also prepared a full dressing set, with combs and cosmetics inside, for Cixi and her princesses. Besides, Wu Yong offered them a dozen fine white linen socks, so that they could change out of their socks that were literally drenched in sweat.
Wu Yong was later promoted, and his official rank rose incrementally. Even his cook Zhou Fu was awarded the position of a sixth-rank official, all just for a bowl of hand-stretched noodles and a plate of stir-fried shredded pork.
A Parade of Local Shanxi and Shaanxi Cuisine
After staying at Huailai County for three days, Cixi gathered more people to join her posse, with 30 carriages and nearly a thousand members in total. Cixi then moved on to the west, and the official documents asking for reception had been sent to various regions in Shanxi and Shaanxi, provinces yet to arrive on their map, in advance. Hearing that Wu Yong had been promoted, the officials in those places had a tacit understanding, and, with the selfimportant wealthy merchants giving alms liberally, such as taels, delicacies and foodstuffs, they were fully prepared to greet Cixi and her group.
Datong County magistrate Qi Futian had asked a chef famous in his locality to make a specialty called “Phoenix Lying in the Nest,” which was a dish made of deep-fried spring chicken served with fried sweet potato noodles, eggs and tofu. Cixi liked the dish very much and asked about the name of it. At that moment, Qi Futian thought it inappropriate to call it “Phoenix Lying in the Nest,” so he changed the name into “Golden Phoenix Lying on Pure Snow,” which was highly appreciated by Cixi. In the prefecture of Taiyuan, Cixi was also pleased with a dish called “Fish- shaped Noodle with Crab Cream and Shark Fin” presented by Shanxi Provincial Governor Lu Zhongqi. Besides the main courses, Cixi tried all sorts of local snacks and treats on the way.
In the intercalary August of 1900, there were two midautumn festivals. Seizing the opportunity to serve the Royal family, the renowned Shanxi Qiao Family of merchants offered “Snow Lotus Cakes” to Cixi on the second mid- autumn day. It was a crystal white pastry with a flower shape, meaning to present the “flower” to the Buddha, as in the imperial Palace, Cixi was addressed as “Lao Fo Ye” (Grand Empress Dowager), literally meaning the old Buddha. Cixi was highly satisfied with the dessert, and after she arrived in Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, she sent people back to the Qiao family hundreds of miles away to pick up more Snow Lotus Cakes. In the subsequent mid-autumn festivals, Qiao Family would send people to