This is a time for feasting, whether it’s the traditional Christmas dinner that only makes sense in the wintry northern hemisphere at this time of year, or cherries, mango and prawns in our summer heat. Whatever our local traditions, eating together is a sign of friendship. The word ‘companion’, like the French copain, has at its root the word pain, bread, so companions were originally the people we broke bread with. Friendship through food – an excellent idea, but occasionally it involves difficulties when there are serious cultural misunderstandings.
On 2 November 1838 Captain Laplace and the officers of the French exploration frigate Artémise were invited to a grand banquet in Canton [now Guangdong], by Minqua, a senior member of the Hong, or merchant organisation, that controlled trade in Canton. Minqua dealt in particular with French traders, but the invitations went out more widely, and the trader and diarist William Prinsep has given a memorable account of what must have been a memorable occasion:
‘We assembled at about 4 P.M. – a large party. There were seven square tables placed in a semicircle fronting an arcade of three arches at the windowed end of the hall. On the first side of each table hung a crimson drapery embroidered with gold in a dragon pattern. On each of the other sides were two of the party seated, the master of the feast in the centre. In the centre of each table stood a pyramidal kind of dumb waiter turning on a pivot & bearing on shelves down each side small porcelain cups vases & other vessels with the required condiments for a good dinner with a cup of soy at the apex.
‘I kept my eye upon Minqua the host to know how to make the most of the good things before me. For instance, the first thing handed round to each person was a cup with a porcelain spoon of birds’ nest soup. It was pure gluten without any flavour whatever. I noticed that he first put in a little soy, then a little sugar, salt & chilli pepper & some spice. The tables were being constantly turned to supply the condiment required.
‘Now there were 60 different things served to each person ending with the never omitted cup of rice, water & all in most elegant porcelain cups, saucers, bowls, little platters, perfectly clean & brought in on pretty lacquered trays & all like clock work and without any noise or confusion, and some idea may be formed of what the kitchen & pantry must have been like & how organised.
‘I must add that every now & then were carried round Porcelain kettles of hot samshee [Shaoxing] the sour medicine kind of wine of the country. It was poured into little cups with deep rims underneath acting as handle. When challenged you drank it standing & with both hands presented the empty face of the cup to the party you drank with to show you had swallowed all, and with a Chin Chin [ts’ing ts’ing] sat down again. The host kept the kettle going in the liveliest manner among the sailors, & I confess it was lucky that it [i.e. the wine] was hot otherwise it would have been too sour to be palatable.
‘My impression is that as all the dishes seemed to have been prepared with a kind of oil, this hot sour wine seemed to neutralize the effect of the greasiness; – I tasted (for there were too many to eat) of as many as I could for curiosity sake, & I found many of them very nice, especially delicate little legs & wings of poultry & game in a kind of fritter – delicate little bones doubtless of rabbits and puppies, perhaps of frogs or rats were so tinted as to look tempting, and please the taste.
‘Everything except the liquids had of course to be eat[en] with chopsticks, but I had learnt to handle them exactly – Not so an unfortunate officer of the frigate in full uniform sitting near to me whose white trousers bore unmistakable marks of his want of experience in lifting the greasy morceaux to his lips. He swore heartily at the best bits always escaping him.
‘Another man at my table lifted from his cup a thing prepared in sugar which created consternation all around “Mais Mon Dieu qu’est ce que c’est que ça?” [‘My God, what have we got here?’] exclaims the alarmed eater for there was no doubt of its being a preserved centipede. I thought this was carrying the joke against us too far, and I appealed to Dent who sat at the chief table. Up jumped Minqua himself who ran to our table to explain “But number one Good – number one!” meaning that nothing possibly could be better, but remarking nothing but disgust in each of our faces, he seized the chopsticks, balanced the sweet creature at least 4 inches in length & slowly swallowed it, patting his stomach with extreme satisfaction.
‘But the action had quite a different effect upon most of us. The Frenchman who had held it up & was nearest to the Mandarin was compelled to run to the open window when he poured forth his objections in a most undeniable manner – but he was not the only unfortunate at my table. The Doctor of the frigate turning to me to remark upon the peculiarity of the taste of the oil & in the cooking, and doubting what it could be, was quickly assured by me that I knew that which was much used was Castor oil which grew in all their gardens. He turned deadly pale declaring that all his life he had avoided this oil with a hatred never to be conquered. A minute after, his head was also out of the window with a piteous moan. The dinner was an uproarious one from the astonishment & laughter which these many little incidents caused.
‘While dinner was going on, there were jugglers & dancers of a mild kind alternatively exhibiting their performances in the vacant space of the hall between the tables & the three alcoves. When the coup de grace, alas, the rice water had gone round, Minqua rose with his guests & stretched themselves in this same vacant place calling for his pipe & inviting others to smoke. I remarked a peculiarity about his pipe which had a largish bowl of silver in which a servant placed some loose shreds of tobacco which on the light being applied to it was commenced with one long inhale. A quantity of fine scented smoke seemed to come out of the Mandarin’s mouth, nostrils, ears & eyes so completely was he surrounded with smoke.
‘It seemed quite to satisfy him for he handed his pipe to his servant & clapped his hands as the signal for us all to take our seats again, which we had no sooner done than enter the whole cortege of servants & the entire 60 dishes had to be handed round again. The Chinese Gentlemen began again seriously, but it was too much for the Europeans, and Minqua finding that no one partook of the dishes, clapped his hands again & in came 3 tables ornamented with embroidered draperies like our own. One was placed in each alcove & there followed immediately 3 large dishes carried by 2 men each in uniforms. Then entered a cook to each dish in a splendid costume armed with large knives & forks with which they at once attacked the three large joints of Beef, Mutton and Pork.
‘The sailors at one table exclaimed with an oath that now they saw something like a dinner & turned to with much vigour to satisfy appetites which had not been appeased by the many little entremets. But there were many like myself who after so many tastings were quite unable to partake of these grands pieces de resistance which were cooked to perfection.
‘In time however there was an end to this as well as to wine drinking – the evening had drawn on to dark. The whole side of the chamber behind us seemed to open by the removal of shutters & screens & we looked into a Court in the middle of which was exhibited a whole course of miniature fireworks of the most elegant kind, of many colours & contrivances quite Chinese which is as much as to say totally different from anything we had ever seen before.
‘The party broke up at their termination & we were saluted at the door by the most effective feu de joie it was possible to conceive. Conceive the whole Prussian army firing with exact precision one after the other, but this could only be accomplished by the Chinese method. At the door of the Hong two very high poles had been planted & to the very top of each had been hoisted a string of Chinese crackers which are small joints of Bamboo connected by a quick match & strung together by tens of thousands….
‘Every one suffered from the effects of the party and I never was so ill as I was all that night & next day.’
Chin chin, everyone. Enjoy the festive season – and keep clear of centipedes.
Reference: Memoir of William Prinsep, in Prinsep Papers, MSS Eur D1160/3, India Office Records. Transcribed from the original handwritten diary. I have adjusted the punctuation where needed for greater clarity.