We do have several accounts from the period where those visiting the Mongolian lands would attend feasts with the Khan and/or his court. Below is my take on just what I would expect if I received His invitation. I hope you enjoy it:
It was an adventure to ride with one of the Khan’s household from Khanbaliq to the summer palace in Šandu. His Serene Holiness, Mongo Chinua, Master of Tea Dreams had seen to my travels throughout the great Khan’s lands and in fair honesty, I am no less nomadic than the others of my kind. But, I had never been to Šandu.
Like the other palaces I had walked through, this was a display of wealth in excess. A city within a city and a palace as well. The imperial city and palace were made of quarried rocks and fine marble. Amazing paintings of bright colours and gold enveloped the walls and the floors and roofs were lacquered and shiny.
We had spent two weeks in the Imperial City; that is, we had our rooms in one of the greater buildings and were invited to wander the large gardens there. I was amazed at the variety of flora and fauna found within. The Khan was a fair falconer and he kept many of these flighted beasts within a great mew. But it was not just the birds that took my attention. As I would stroll quietly in the forested places of this park, I would often happen upon a large white stag. Birds flushed from the late summer bushes often showed the jewel-colour of exotic animals from far distant lands.
Alas, my days could not be spent wholly in this wondrous place. I was sequestered many hours daily in the imperial kitchens, learning the flavours and fare of this place. With such foods I had not much experience and I studied the ways of the kumiss as they related to this food. Any imbalance in the menu could cause imbalance in the Court. The cooks and physicians explained it all to me. I was fortunate to investigate the book of medicinal foods for the Khan. To spend even a few minutes in the presence of this tome was well worth the long journey to get to Šandu.
I was sitting reviewing my notes from my latest venture to the kitchens when the room servants brought in the ornate scroll and handed it to Mongo Chinua. He, and thus I, had been invited to the last banquet of the season.
Mongo Chinua sat at the low table below the dais and I beside him. My cushion was a riot of gold and green, causing me to think it better for show than for actual function. The low table was set with gold cups and bowls with handles forged as imperial dragons. The ceramic plates were in hues of pale blues and browns; my own plate was light olive with two carp swimming along the surface.
A servant carrying an ornate gold pouring vessel sidled to our table and began to fill our gold goblets with the thick white liquid. I placed the cup to my lips and allowed the trickle of kumiss to run down my throat. I had long before this become accustomed to the flavour and intoxication.
Soon, a silver basin was brought before the Khan. He took a fair share of what was within and spoke quickly to the server. From here, the man went to several of the guests and family members and discharged the cuts required by the Khan to those he had selected. After this, all in attendance receive a small taste of the roasted lamb within. My bite was succulent and cooling.
The first of the food settings were then produced upon platters of artful design. Here were the delicate flavours and light dishes. I was surprised to see that both fish and fowl courses – for certainly we were far from the large waters of the seas on the coast. But these were fish of the river and lake waters and Mongo Chinua explained unto me that the Khan had servants who tended to the breeding of these fish for the occasion of want to feed those at His table.
The fowl was plentiful and lightly seasoned as to bring out the nutrition and goodness of the meat. Here too were vegetables and milk cakes and all things light and tasty.
Upon completion of this course, and goblets recharged, we set about our next level of food. All that was of greater or heavier flavour was served here – meats from cow, horse, wolf, bear, badger, and, of course, lamb or sheep – and all as good as the last except for the badger which was bitter. We ate until we were full. And all was washed down with kumiss, wine, and tea.
When all in attendance were satisfied and ready to fast, the tables were secreted away and a space in the room before the plinth the Khan sat upon was transformed for performance. Hereafter, the kumiss and wine were offered freely and those in the party did sing and dance before the Khan. There was poetry and feats of magic, offerings to the gods.
When planning a Mongol Feast, please keep in mind the following points:
- It is believed that Yüan Mongolian feasts would have been elaborate events with great riches and spectacular sights; however, the subtleties found in Western feasts would not have been common because everyone at the feast ate the same food. Some of the items found in Yüan cookbooks are fairly amazing in themselves and their beauty alone make them ‘subtleties’.
- The head table was elevated above the other tables and there was a hierarchy of who sat where. The high table would seat the Khan and his favoured wife and children. Below them, his other family in order of precedence. Amongst these tables would sit special guests and envoys; each foreigner would be flanked by trusted members of the household who would see to the needs of the guest and help them through the etiquette of the evening. Those who did not hold high enough place in the court, would be seated on the floor behind the tables or outside if the feast was too large to fit in the feasting hall.
- In China, like in the Western lands, there was a well-developed and sophisticated system of the value of foods. Many cooks may be familiar with the ‘humours’ of foods and the Chinese and Mongols used a system of the cosmos and how things interrelate. A good, basic breakdown of this system is outlined in The Food of China by Anderson.
- In A Soup for the Qan, Paul Buell outlines how the manuscript, Yin-shan cheng-yao, suggests that dishes would be served together based on the system of Five Smells and Five Flavours. Certain foods would be served together and others would not. In general, lighter dishes would be served earlier in the meal moving towards more substantial dishes later in the evening.
- Palace courts from the Steppes and pastoral lands would have more meat dishes and dairy dishes provided from the herds and the wildlife in the area. Palace courts located close to the larger rivers or coastline, would serve more fish dishes and vegetable dishes. This is due to the ease of acquisition of food items. It is still important to remember that aquaculture was practiced during the Yüan period and lakes by palaces would have been stocked with fish for supplementary dining.
- Most, if not all, of the Yüan period travel journals suggest that once the eating was finished, the tables were cleared away and singing, dancing, feats of amazement and magic, and poetry readings were common.
Until next we meet, may the hulk sore high above you.