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Luoyang Water Banquet

2012-09-06 15:01:45     CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Duan

Shui Xi or water banquet is considered one of the Three Wonders of Luoyang in central China's Henan Province, along with the peony and the Longmen Grottoes. With carefully selected materials and strict serving procedures, the banquet boasts a long history and rich culture.

Wearing costumes of the Tang Dynasty which date back over 1300 years and a white towel on his shoulder, a waiter is hawking, standing at the gate of a restaurant. This is the typical welcoming routine of Luoyang Shui Xi restaurants.

Shui Xi, or water banquet, is a Chinese meal comprising of eight cold and 16 warm dishes cooked in various broths, gravies or juices.

Li Yanting is deputy manager of Zhenbutong Restaurant, the oldest and the most reputed water banquet restaurant in China. He explains how the meal came to be known as this.

"One reason is that all the dishes are soupy. The other reason lies in the serving procedure. The 24-dishes are served and then removed in order from the beginning to the end. All the dishes are served only when the previous one is finished and removed, simulating the stream-like processing. The procedure is as smooth as flowing water."

According to Li Yanting, eight cold dishes are served first as accompaniment for drinks. The remaining 16 warm dishes are served in different sized glazed blue bowls. Four of them are 'end dishes', served at the end of the meal. The other 12 are divided into four groups, and each group contains three dishes with similar flavors which are mainly sweet, sour and hot.

The water banquet is an offshoot of Henan cuisine, and has existed since the Sui and Tang Dynasties. Li Yanting elaborates its history.

"In the Tang Dynasty, the official Yuan Tiangang foresaw Wu Zetian would become the Empress, but only for 24 years. Due to the political environment, he had to keep it a secret. Thus, he invented these 24 dishes, indicating the life of Wu Zetian. Every dish has a special meaning and should be served in a certain order."

The water banquet became popular because of the climatic conditions around the city of Luoyang - notably the dry climate, mountainous terrain, and lack of fruit - which makes a watery meal an attractive option.

Vegetables and meat dishes are all included in the water banquet. The key to an authentic banquet lies in the soup. It takes almost a day to produce the soup which is used to cook the dishes. The materials of the soup are of the highest quality and superb skills are needed in terms of timing and heating control.

The most recommended of the 24 dishes is Mudan Yan Cai or the 'Peony Swallow Dish'. A waitress in Yaoyao water banquet restaurant tells the legend of the dish.

"It is said that when Wu Zetian, the Empress of the Tang Dynasty was in Luoyang, a giant turnip grew in the field in Dongguan. Wu who was tired of sumptuous feasts ordered the imperial cooks to make the turnip a dish tasting like swallow nest."

The imperial cooks studied the material and decided to steam the shredded turnip mixed with starch, and then blend it with delicious soup. The Empress was very impressed by the swallow nest-like flavor, and complimented it highly, naming it 'Swallow Dish'.

In 1973, Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai accompanied the Canadian Premier to visit Luoyang. Renowned cooks there carefully prepared Luoyang swallow dish. The two premiers ordered it twice and both praised the dish. Because there was a carved peony in the dish, Premier Zhou humorously said, "Peony in Luoyang is best in the world. It even grows in the dish. The dish may be called 'peony swallow dish'." Ever since, the dish was renamed 'peony swallow dish' and has enjoyed a reputation both at home and abroad.

In recent years, the skills of cooking the water banquet have developed. Li Yanting says:

"In the late 1990s, we began to study the culture of the dishes. Based on the culture, we developed three more sets of Luoyang water banquet in 2002. They are similar in appearance but different in quality. The new products have been well-received in the market."

In 2008, the cooking skills of the Luoyang water banquet were listed as an intangible national cultural heritage. Over one thousand restaurants prepare the banquet in the city. With the growing popularity of the dishes, the culture they enrich will become better known to the outside world.

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