Today’s historical food adventure takes us to 18th-century China during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912). As always, I will do my best to offer some cultural and historical context by providing some background on the recipe’s author and even some of the ingredients. Every dish tells a story, whether or not it was ever intended to.
Traditional Chinese Cuisine
Chinese cuisine is among the world’s oldest and complex. According to food historian Ken Albala, there are certain factors that influence whether a nation or culture develops a strong culinary tradition that can withstand outside influences. One of these three major conditions must exist:
- A strong family tradition that passes cooking techniques down for centuries and a general respect for old ways.
- A concentration of wealth through court culture, some social mobility and an influential “imperial” cuisine.
- Restaurant culture and plenty of customers. This is especially important where conditions 1 and 2 aren’t met.
For much of China’s history, all three of these conditions have been met.
In order for a culinary tradition to continue to thrive and to develop advanced cooking techniques there should also be access to a wide variety of ingredients available to a good portion of the population as well as a long period of peace and prosperity. Imperial China also met both of these criteria.
At certain points in history China had the most technologically advanced culinary arts culture in the world! Even today, Chinese cuisine continues to use an staggering variety of ingredients in everyday dishes.
Because China has such a symbolic and food-oriented culture it would be impossible for me to really delve in too deeply for a single blog post. However, it would be unscholarly and irresponsible of me to not at least mention that within the umbrella of “Chinese cuisine” there are 8 significant and distinct culinary traditions, largely based on region: 鲁菜 (Shandong/Lu), 川菜 (Sichuan), 粤菜 (Cantonese), 闽菜 (Fujian), 苏菜 (Jiangsu), 浙菜 (Zhejiang), 湘菜 (Hunan), 徽菜 (Anhui).
Each style of Chinese cooking has a number of other localized sub-styles (up to 50 total!), which can be read about in depth here.
Emperor Qian-Long and Qing Gastronomy
The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799), like all Qing Dynasty emperors, was Manchu. He was known to regularly enjoy Manchu snacks like “bobo” buns and drank his tea with milk. Banquets featured Manchu or Eastern Shandong cuisine and sometimes dishes from the Ming dynasty. But his favorite cuisine was Suzhou 苏州菜, a sub-style of the Jiangsu culinary tradition. The emperor loved duck, dumplings, soup, and bean curd-based dishes were often served in court. Despite being a devout Buddhist, he regularly ate animal foods or, during certain religious festival days, their vegetarian imitations. Beef was never served at the emperor’s table.
Freshness and quality of the ingredients were of the utmost importance in the 18th-century imperial court, which were subsequently also of great importance to influential gourmets and writers throughout China. Though the focus on health appears to have been minimal, at least some attention was also paid to nutrition by working toward achieving a yin-yang balance in the health properties of foods.
We know exactly what the Qianlong Emperor ate, the times he ate it and the vast quantities served in court thanks to the meticulous records kept during this time. One of his major achievements was the development of massive libraries and the compilation and preservation of thousands of Chinese texts on a wide variety of subjects. The arts, in particular, thrived in the 18th century as the Emperor himself was a poet.
The 18th-century saw a rise in the popularity of a literary genre centered around food culture, good taste and eating for pleasure. Recipe and scholarly gastronomy books were hardly a new concept, but the lavish food culture enjoyed by the wealthy elite of many of China’s great cities increased the demand and “respectability” of these works. Qing gastronomes were dedicated to finding the best and rarest foods and writing about them. (Waley-Cohen).
Some of the great food writers of the Qing dynasty include:
- Zhang Dai, an essayist who bridged the gap between the Ming and Qing dynasties. He wrote a large quantity of essays, many of which are now lost. English translations of Dream Memories of Taoan and the Preface to The Old Glutton’s Collection can be found here.
- Li Yu is known for the essay collection Xianqing Ouji (Casual Expressions of Idle Feelings) and Jiezi Yuan Huazhuan (Mustard-Seed Garden Manual of Painting).
- Zhu Yicun, focused on both nutrition and dynastic history. One of the best known recipe collections is Tiao Ding Ji (Records of the Harmonious Cauldron).
- Li Dou wrote a detailed memoir about the elite food culture in Yangzhou, specifically relating to the infamous pleasure boats. His book, Yangzhou Huafan Lu (Record of the Painted Pleasure Boats of Yangzhou) was published in 1795.
- Gujin Tushu Jicheng (The Imperial Encyclopedia) contained volumes on pretty much everything, including food and commerce. This was an enormous 10,000 volume project headed up by scholars Chen Menglei and Jiang Tingxi.
- Yuan Mei is the author of the era’s best-known culinary work, Suiyuan Shidan (Recipes from Sui Garden), which is the source of the Almond Tea recipe below.
Yuan Mei was a very successful food writer who retired from the imperial bureaucracy to focus on his passion for gastronomy. Over the decades he collected many recipes from friends’ cooks and tested them at home. It is unclear whether he tested them himself or his cooks did it for him, but he did have personal knowledge about the art of cooking. Yuan had very high standards for food quality and was critical of others breaking rules of etiquette.
A Chinese PDF transcription of this book can be found here.
In doing research for this article I discovered another blog by Sean J.S. Chen called The Way of Eating, which has recently been published in book form with a full English translation! The blog currently contains translations for most of the recipes in Suiyan Shidan, but not the final sections where the Almond Tea recipe can be found.
This recipe was a suggestion from new friend and A Dollop of History reader, Wilma Yingqi Wu, who so kindly translated the original Chinese text into English. Thank you, Wilma!
Thick Almond Tea (1792)
From Suiyan Shidan 随园食单 by Yuan Mei
Beat almonds (apricot kernel) to make pulp. Filter out the residue. Boil with [sticky] rice flour. Finish off with sugar.
This tea is still served in China, especially during the Cold Food Festival (han shi 寒食) I’ve never personally tasted Almond Tea, so in order to get the right texture and balance of flavors with nothing to compare it to, I created my redaction below using a variety of traditional Chinese recipes for reference.
- 4 oz. apricot kernels or almonds
- 3 cups water
- 2-3 Tbsp. sticky rice flour
- 2 1/2 Tbsp. sugar or to taste
The Chinese character for ‘almond’ and ‘apricot kernel’ are the same! This is why it is called Almond Tea but it doesn’t actually contain almonds. A true almond tea is made using apricot kernels.
Apricot kernels, also known as “Chinese Almonds,” are considered a medicinal food that comes in two types: Northern Bitter and Southern Sweet. Eating too many raw apricot kernels can cause cyanide poisoning, especially the bitter ones, so take care not to ingest too many!
Legend has it, there was a famous doctor Dong Feng 董奉 (220-280) who would ask his patients to pay him by planting an apricot tree. Over time he had an enormous apricot tree forest which later become a Chinese cultural symbol associated with physicians and hospitals.
It’s likely you may not be able to find any apricot kernels outside of a Chinese grocery. If that’s the case, just substitute regular almonds. I, however, am a stickler for historical accuracy so I special ordered some Chinese sweet apricot kernels online. It took a couple months for them to arrive on my doorstep but it was worth it!
Step ONE: The Almond Milk
Soak the apricot kernels for 30 minutes to an hour or as long as the package directs. If you’re not sure what the package says, just soak for a couple hours. Blanch and skin them beforehand, if necessary. Strain and discard the water.
Grind the kernels/almonds with water in a food processor or blender. The traditional Chinese method of grinding is with a stone mill. Watch the video below to see how this is done.
Line a strainer with a cheesecloth and sieve out the pulp. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible. This will be your almond milk. The finer the sieve the less gritty your milk will be. You don’t want it to be gritty.
Step TWO: Thicken with Flour
Many modern recipes process the almonds directly with soaked rice. However, the 1792 recipe specifically filters the milk first then adds the flour. So we’ll do that.
Bring the milk to a boil over medium heat and add the rice flour. Experience thickening things with rice flour tells me it will get lumpy, so scoop some of the milk out to make a slurry. In a separate bowl, gradually whisk the flour in with the hot milk then add it back to the pot. Whisk or stir over heat until thickened.
Make sure you use sticky rice, which will give you the desired creamy texture and flavor. Sticky rice flour is also called Sweet rice flour or glutinous rice flour. I used Mochiko sweet rice flour, which is the type often used for making mochi.
Step THREE: Sweeten and Serve
Bring the milk to a boil and add sugar. Sweeten to taste. If the tea is too thick you may add additional water. Serve hot or cold.
I ended up using a decent amount of sugar because my tastebuds told me it needed it, probably between 3 and 4 tablespoons. This tea can be adjusted somewhat in thickness and taste but it has the potential to be almost like a drinkable pudding.
Modern Chinese recipes call for rock sugar, which is lumps of crystallized white sugar. I’m assuming in this case they’re referring to monocrystalline granulated rock sugar often used to sweeten beverages. The flavor might not be the same concentration of sweetness as granulated sugar but it’s basically the same thing. Unless someone out there has additional insight I am missing, I’m pretty sure you can just use regular white table sugar as a substitute.
This tea smells wonderful and it’s sweet and creamy. I especially like it cold. I’ll be honest though, I would personally classify this as an acquired taste. This doesn’t mean it’s not good! The apricot kernels are a new flavor for my palate and I couldn’t immediately decide whether or not I liked it, but the more I eat it the more I begin to enjoy it. This may or may not be against the rules, but I actually prefer eating it with a spoon.
If you’re like me and you’ll try just about anything, give it a go! Otherwise, I would suggest you ease into it by following a 21st-century recipe and blend soaked rice and almonds together rather than thicken with flour.
As an added bonus, I made another delicious traditional apricot kernel treat known as Almond Tofu or Almond Jelly. This recipe has ancient origins possibly dating back to the Three Kingdoms (222-263 AD ) but I was unable to find any period recipes.
Instead, I just followed modern “traditional” recipes like this one for Chinese Almond Tofu. If you live in a location with limited access to apricot kernels and agar agar, check out this simplified version using almond milk and gelatin.
Almond Tofu is one of the most delicious and unique desserts I’ve had. It’s traditionally served cut into cubes with fruits or honey but sometimes eaten like a pudding. I ate mine with some strawberries macerated for a couple hours in sugar, which will definitely become a new household staple. If this type of food is unfamiliar to you, think of it as something similar to panna cotta. Definitely a must-try!
- Albala, Ken. Food: A Cultural Culinary History. The Great Courses. Audio lecture on CD.
- Campbell, Duncan. “The Obsessive Gourmet: Zhang Dai on Food and Drink.” Australian National University Research Publications. 2013. Digitized Print. Accessed August 2020.
- Newman, Jacqueline M. Qian-Long: Qing Emperor and his Foods. Flavor & Fortune. Spring Volume 2008. Digitized print magazine. Accessed August 2020.
- Waley-Cohen, Joanna. Edited by Paul Freedman. Food: The History of Taste. University of California Press, USA. 2007. Print