NYHS: The Chinese Festive Board

I haven't decided if this image is racist or super racist.

“It would be well perhaps if we first altered some of our preconceived notions regarding the Chinese diet.  Many people think that the Chinese live entirely on rice; some believe that rats also occupy and important place on the daily menu.  Both ideas are mistaken and should be discarded.” – Corinne Lamb

In our ongoing look at the culinary holdings at the New York Historical Society, today we explore the The Chinese Festive Board published in 1935 by author Corinne Lamb.

Written by a woman who seems to have lived in China for a number of years, it’s one of the earliest books I’ve seen on Chinese cooking in China (as opposed to Chinese-American cuisine).  The first half is all about Chinese dinner customs and the second half is an extensive recipe book.   Lamb also includes helpful vocabulary for ordering in Chinese restaurants.

The tone of the book’s writing is bizarre: it simultaneously condescends to Chinese culture, while praising the deliciousness of its food.  The author straight-up uses ethnic slurs throughout the book.  Keep in mind, this is a time in our nation’s history when immigration was banned from China.

The book is a window into another era and we are definitely looking through the lens of an American perspective on Chinese life.  The recipes are interpreted to use ingredients readily available to an American housewife.  I decided to throw a 1930’s Chinese dinner party, following a sample menu from the book, as well as her description of a formal Chinese dinner party.

Below, a menu Lamb describes as a typical dinner in the home of a middle-class Chinese family:

Dinner parties, the author points out, were nearly always given in restaurants, and were nearly always for men alone; but since I wanted to cook and eat the recipes myself, I decided to bend the rules a little bit and have the party in my own home.  First, an invitation was necessary.  Lamb provide an example of one in her book, printed on an elegant piece of rice paper that had been gently pasted into one of the pages (see left).  Translated, it says: “The fifth month, the twenty-third day, one o’clock in the afternoon ‘the cups will be cleaned and your presence will be awaited’.  Mr. Ma Lien-liang respectfully writes: ‘The feast is arranged’ outside of Hataman Gate, Bean Curd Lane, No. 7.”

I should have mailed a beautiful rice paper square to my guests, but instead I just texted them.  They accepted: two friends from Brooklyn, Brandon and Madeline, the latter of whom spent a year living in China for work.

They came over on Friday evening, and while I finished prepping the food, I fed them peanuts and cups of green tea, which Lamb describes as the proper way to begin a feast.  Then, just before I began cooking the food, we sat down for a round of drinking games.

Lamb says drinking takes up only the earlier courses of the meal and is set aside once substantial foods come out.  The drink of choice is Chinese rice wine, which Lamb describes as being close to sherry, and Madeline describes as “gross.”  The liquor store didn’t have it, so I selected a nice bottle of sake, that I poured out in handsome shot-glasses, for lack of the appropriate vessels.

The game of choice in China is hua ch’uan, or “matching fingers”, a drinking game still played to this day.  It involves two people throwing fingers, similar to rock-paper-scissors, and each player “loudly shouts his estimate of the total number of fingers shown on both hands.”  If one player guess correctly, the other has to drain his glass.  Examples of hand positions are below:

It’s harder than it seems.

Madeline also mentioned that beer was now an equally acceptable drink in China, which Lamb mentions was gaining popularity in her time.  Madeline also said that drinking now seems to last through the entirety of the meal, accompanied by a tradition of toasting:  Madeline toasted me for having them over, and we both drank.  Madeline toasted Boyfriend Brian as well, and they both drank.  I toasted Madeline to thank her, and we both drank… and so on.  After we ran out of sake, and turned to beer, it begun to feel a little bit like a power hour.

Then, thankfully, it was time to eat.  Lamb describes her recipes as coming “…Mostly from well known restaurants in Peiping…”  known today as Beijing, in the north-east of China.  I got four pans going on my stove top, three melting lard, one with olive oil, and continued to play the drinking games while I cooked.  The recipes seemed so simple that they couldn’t possibly be delicious, let alone authentic.  But I was ready to find out.

Homestyle Chinese spread.

My menu was as follows, based on the recipes Lamb provided in her book.


I was nervous about this recipe, it being vastly different than the “one cup of rice to one and a half cups water” formula that I know of.  But I tried it, using my big Calphalan pot with the inset strainer.  And the rice turned out just as promised: not too wet or gooey, not too dry either.  Just perfect, with every grain an individual.  I was amazed.

Fried Pork Balls

I made these slightly differently, after looking at another of Lamb’s recipe for Pork Meat Balls.  I rolled them and then squashed them flat, which let me use less lard to cook them and allowed a greater surface area to get crispy.  These were hands-down my favorite.  Crispy on the outside, soft and tender in the middle; so savory with an appealing texture.  I ate the leftovers for the next two days and I would absolutely make them again.

Sauteed Leeks and Pork

String-Beans and Pork

The sauteed pork dishes were the favorites of my guests, who loved to combine them both in one bowl of rice.  The soy and ginger made a lovely sauce, and the string beans were cooked to perfection.

Eggs and Mushrooms

There wasn’t a recipe for this dish in Lamb’s book, so I created one based on the recipe she gives for “Scrambled Eggs with Shrimps.”

6 eggs
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
3 tsp Chinese Wine
2 tsp lard
1 pinch salt
1 pinch black pepper

With a pair of chopsticks, beat eggs thoroughly. Add salt, pepper and wine and beat again.  Heat the lard in a frying pan and sautee the mushrooms until tender, then add the egg mixture, and cook as you would scrambled eggs.

On Chinese wine, Lamb says “It will be noted that many of these recipes call for Huang Chiu. or Chinese wine.  Sherry is recommended as a substitute.  With the repeal of the 18th amendment it should not be long before Chinese wine will be available in every American city, and when that is so its use in in preparing Chinese food will be found preferable.”  It wasnt’ available at my local liquor store, so I used a Japanese plum wine that taste very much like sherry.  This, mixed with the eggs, was AWESOME.  I don’t even like eggs, and I hate  mushrooms,  but this dish was just as good as everything else on the table.  The wine was really a star when mixed with the eggs.  It was a surprise.

We ate in the way lamb suggests, Family-style, using only bowls and a pair of k’uia tzu, or “quick little boys,” or better known here as “chop sticks.”  We topped big piles of rice with the sauteed dishes, sometime two or more at once.  We ended in a very Chinese-American way with more tea and a few baked sweets: sugar cookies, lotus seed cakes, and “R-rated” fortune cookies; all of which were from Chinatown in Manhattan.

Madeline somehow found "R-rated" fortune cookies.

The food was delicious–really delicious.   But was it authentic?  I have no clue– but I’m looking in to it.

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “NYHS: The Chinese Festive Board

  1. I was looking at the anglicized pronounceable and it sounds like the dialect is Cantonese rather than the more common dialect of Mandarin Chinese. To my knowledge, Lamb was British. The latter editions were published in Hong Kong which made me wonder about the food.

    The food doesn’t seem very authentic (olive oil really threw me off) and seems to cater to Western tastes during a very sensitive time. If the book was indeed published in 1935, Hong Kong had already gone through decades of British occupation. China is huge so each region varies — it’s actually quite hard to pinpoint what is “authentic” if you look into the areas that have been occupied by various countries throughout its history.

  2. I would like to try the rice cooking method, but I don’t really understand the use of the kettle — do you really put your rice in it, or am I confused? Could you elaborate on how you did it?

    • Yeah, the rice is well worth trying, i was really amazed. Here’s what I did:

      I took 1.5 lbs rice (which will be enough for about 10 servings) and I put it in the strainer from my pot (looks kinda like this: http://www.amazon.com/Calphalon-VMP8P-Simply-Stainless-Multipot/dp/B00005Q5I8 otherwise known as a “pasta insert” but I use it for projects like this). I used two pots: one I filled with hot water an put on the stovetop, the other I filled with cold water and put my rice in it to soak. After 45 minutes, I brought the water on the stovetop to a boil, then removed the rice from the cold water, and put it in the boiling water. I let it boil for 15 minutes and that was it! I pulled out the strainer, and set it inside a clean, dry pot on the back of the stove to dryout. You can see how simple keeping the rice in a strainer makes the entire process.

  3. I think the dishes came out nice! It must be a fun experience to make a historical meal from sending out invitation to eat. I think it might be fun to look for some photos / video of the dishes you cook online.

    I think I will start with the game you played – “Matching fingers”. I searched for online video. So far the three below are the most interesting:

    1) This one is a self-recorded video from somewhere in China. People are eating in a courtyard of an old-style building. Seems like people are having some fun time. On 05:00, the two main “characters” played a round of game. I enjoyed watching the kid wandering behind.

    2) This one I think was shoot somewhere in Taiwan. Usually, the game was played by man when they have their outings. It is a game that goes with alcohol.

    3) The third one is from a movie by Hsiao-Hsien Hou named “Flowers of Shanghai”. It depicted love between men and women in a 19th century high class brothel. There is a scene of a group of man sitting around the table in the brothel playing the game. You can find it from 01:00 – 03:00.

    I hope you have fun watching the movie!

  4. As someone Chinese, some of the translations made me giggle! To be fair, Chinese as a language is chock-full of homophones and the same word can mean many things, so I can’t really blame Lamb.


    Instead of leeks, I’d describe the vegetable in question (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allium_tuberosum) as closer to chives.

    The name of the meat balls sound like a Cantonese phrasing, which ties in with what Annie said about Hong Kong.

    The vegetable soup would not be ‘thin’ (though almost all Chinese soups are relatively clear, thin, and brothy). The phrase in question refers to a particular type of pickled vegetable that I have seen cooked into an odds-and-ends stew with pork and other leftovers.

    “Eggs and mushrooms” are translated from the equivalent of “moo shu pork”, a dish I am not familiar with.

    Instead of wheat bread in the usual(?) sense, the last item is a steamed bun that is not filled, think a version of braided dinner rolls that have the taste and texture of the bread in dim sum buns.

    (and now I return to what I was procrastinating from!)

    • Oh, and the character for “kuai” sounds exactly the same as “quick”, but I have only seen it used to refer to chopsticks, and “zi” can refer to little boys or sons, but also anything little or diminutive.

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