Located in Yangfang Hutong, Houhai, Family Li Imperial Cuisine is an upmarket restaurant with a high reputation in Beijing. It nestles in a small courtyard, marked only with a house number. On the wall of the courtyard hangs a signboard with the three Chinese characters li jia cai (Family Li Imperial Cuisine), which are said to be written by Pu Jie, whose elder brother was the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Many famous figures have frequented the restaurant, including the former U.S. President Clinton, the former British Prime Minister Major, Mei Baojiu (a celebrated master of Peking opera), Jackie Chan and Louis Cha.
Li Shanlin, the owner of the restaurant, printed his name cards in traditional Chinese characters, introducing himself as the founder and consultant of Family Li Imperial Cuisine and as a professor of applied mathematics. He introduced himself as a professor because he did not want to be seen as only as a cook.
Family Li Imperial Cuisine provides customers with over ten meal packages, each containing 18 to 22 dishes. For example, if you choose the cubilose (based on traditional birds nest) and shark fin package, then you will be able to enjoy the following dishes and desserts: appetizers will be served, including sauté pickles, sauced cucumber, fried shrimps with celery, sauté tender mustard, Beijing bacon, dried chicken, peach seeds, sugared lotus with osmanthus, jujubes with rose and fried haws; then hot dishes will be served, including braised shark fin, sauced abalone, deep-fried scallops, sauced fish, roast duck and stewed cubilose; finally soups and desserts will be served, including chicken soup with fish and eggs, fried eggs with minced meat and walnuts in sweet sauce.
One of the striking features of the dishes served in Family Li Imperial Cuisine is that no chemical raw materials (such as MSG) are added and the seasonings and spices are all natural. Furthermore, no modern kitchen utensils can be found in the restaurant; it relies on traditional fire stoves. As a restaurant specializing in imperial cuisine both the cooking materials and techniques are superb.
The restaurant serves dinners daily, with the price ranging from 200 to 2000 RMB. If you want to taste what it has to offer, you will need to reserve a couple of days in advance. It takes almost a day for all the members of Family Li to prepare such a dinner until the guests arrive, to ensure that each of the dishes is well and delicately prepared. Unlike other restaurants, it does not offer menus, which means that the guests do not have to order food. What they eat is decided by the owner. Nonetheless, the fame of the restaurant still holds a great fascination to a number of people. In 1986, the Chief Executive of Merck Petroleum (U.S.) visited China for business. He paid a special visit to Family Li Imperial Cuisine to taste what it had to offer and became the first Westerner to taste the dishes here.
One particular thing about Family Li Cuisine lies in its seasonings. For example, sweet and sour dishes are cooked with the right proportion of sugar and vinegar. When the cooks purchase new sugars and vinegars, they taste them in advance as the new seasonings might be different from those purchased in the past. Then, with these new seasonings, the cooks explore how many should be added to the dishes until they find the right proportions. In this case, experience and knowledge really count.
The cooking techniques also call for a large efforts Take sauté pickles for example: carrots, dried slices of tender bamboo shoots, celery, parsley and shredded ginger are all needed. So, how to mix these ingredients? Different ways of mixing them will determine the color of the dish. If there are more carrots in it, then the color will be red; if more celery, green. So different ingredients should be mixed properly so as to ensure the final look of the dish. A dish with rich colors will always render the guests a visual feast. In this case, the knowledge of architecture that Li learned in college can be applied to cooking.
When the dishes are ready, the way they are served must be considered. How should plates of different sizes be arranged on the table so as to please the guests? Generally speaking, dishes of similar colors cannot be too close to one another while guaranteeing that they do not cast a sharp contrast to one another in terms of their colors. Li acquired the knowledge of aesthetics from what he learned in architecture. The seasonings and cooking techniques here are unrivalled elsewhere.
During the National Holiday of 1984, Li Li, Li Shanlin’s second eldest daughter, signed up for an invitational cooking competition. Within two hours, Li Li cooked 14 dishes all by herself and eventually won the first prize. Later, she received constant phone calls and letters that encouraged her to run a restaurant of her own. In April, 1985, she turned her house into a restaurant, giving it the name Family Li Cuisine.
Evans, the then-U.K. ambassador to China, was the one who contributed to the increasing popularity of the restaurant among Westerners. After having a meal in Family Li Imperial Cuisine, he said to Li Shanlin, “I’ll recommend your restaurant to my colleagues in the embassy, which I think will save you from hyping it up.” What the ambassador said remained vividly fresh in Li’s mind. Following the ambassador’s visit, there witnessed a line of Westerners streaming into the restaurant. Erwin Schurtenberg, the then-Swiss ambassador to China, even accredited the dishes here as the most delicious in the world. And Le Junjie, Hewlett-Packard’s chief representative in China, commented that there were two things leaving him an everlasting impression during his stay in China, namely acupuncture and Family Li Imperial Cuisine.
Li Shanlin, the owner of Family Li Imperial Cuisine, was born to a prestigious Manchurian family. His grandfather was a high-ranking official serving the Imperial Court, taking care of all household affairs in the Imperial Court.
Back in his college days, Li Shanlin learned many subjects, his favorite one being mathematics (which indeed was not his major). Before his retirement, he was a professor in the Department of Mathematics of Capital University of Economics and Business, teaching mathematics, mechanics, introductory chemistry and analytical chemistry. But what makes him famous is his hobby—cooking.
As an only child in his family, Li was always been the apple of his parents’ eye. When he was young, he would follow his parents into the kitchen and learned how to cook. Yet his parents were always reluctant to teach him. When his family received guests, he was given a chance to help in the kitchen as his parents were too busy to take care of everything. It was in this way that he came to learn some cooking techniques. He always regarded cooking as a way of enjoying life. When cooking, he would asked all his kids to help in the kitchen. Under his influence, Li’s son and three daughters naturally became the successors of Family Li Imperial Cuisine when they grew up.
Li would always like to communicate with Westerners in English. He could still recall his conversation with Bill Gates, who visited his restaurant on a wheelchair. Back then, Bill Gates joked, “You are a mathematics professor. I left college in my second year without getting a degree.” “You are way better than me for you have rich experience in business,” responded he. Back to the U.S., Bill Gates sent him a CD of Computing in the 21st Century as something to remember him by.
According to Li, he managed to practice and improve his English when studying in Fu Jen Catholic University. In 1939, he was admitted to Fu Jen Catholic University (Beijing), which was run by Westerners. As a big fan of foods, he would try to figure out all sorts of cooking materials and seasonings. That was also the reason why he would choose chemistry as his major. Back then, as most of the teachers were not Chinese, the lectures were normally given in English.
As he recalled, he acquired excellent spoken English there. Afterwards, he was enrolled in Peiyang University (today’s Tianjin University). After the founding of the P.R.C, he had the chance to learn architecture from Liang Sicheng, a famous architect and professor of Tsinghua University.
“Our guests are from various backgrounds,” said Li. He could communicate with them smoothly as he had rich life experience and cross-cultural knowledge. Many Westerners would never believe that he was simply a cook. As he joked, “After all, I am supposed to showcase the best of the Chinese people to friends from afar.”