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A Bite of the West


Text by Su Yuan

Western food was not introduced to China until the mid-17th Century, when missionaries from the West began widely proselytizing in the Orient. Some missionaries brought along their native foods and even cooks, while others instructed Chinese cooks how to prepare food according to their native culinary arts. Western cuisine soon attracted interest in China, specifically amongst the ruling class. Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), for example, paid special attention to Western food as missionaries introduced him to more and more about the West. Along with increased communication between Qing Dynasty officials and Western missionaries, some simple Western dishes began to appear on dinner tables of high-class homes. Even so, the influence of Western cuisine on Chinese dining culture back then was no comparison to its impact today. In Guangzhou, China’s first port open to foreign trade, the Westerners seen “cutting semi-cooked meat with a sword” were considered coarse and primitive in the eyes of locals.

After Shanghai was opened as a foreign trade port, Western food found its way to China´s eastern and northern regions, and gained popularity with more Chinese people. In 1866, the fifth year of Emperor Tongzhi’s reign, Shanghai published a book, Foreign Cookery, compiled by Martha Foster Crawford, wife of American missionary Tarleton Perry Crawford. The cookbook was originally aimed at expats, but as Western cuisine gained steam in China, several more editions were printed to meet the demands of Chinese cooks. It included more than 100 Western recipes as well as an explicit introduction to desserts.

Back in the 19th-Century, dining at a Western restaurant was considered luxurious consumption. At the time, a meal at The Best Fragrance, a famous Western restaurant in Shanghai, would cost about 40 times the price of a decent Chinese meal. Thus, Western restaurants were primarily patronized by elites and dignitaries, as described in a poem: “Strange foods with exotic flavors puzzle the customers of Western eateries, where foreign visitors are outnumbered by high-ranking officials coming day after day.”

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