*This article is a featured post on Channel NewsAsia*
A tradition dating back to the ancient Tang dynasty and one that has become a tradition in Henan, the Luoyang Water Banquet, also known as the Water Feast (洛阳水席), is one of the most ancient Chinese banquets preserved till date. But this is not just a grand feast.
The Luoyang city government has such high regard for their culinary heritage that in 2013, they tabled an official set of service standards and guidelines for restaurants serving the banquet. Included in the stipulations is a strict 8-4-8-4 serving sequence, and that only natural mineral water has to be used for cooking. The requirements even state the ingredients that must be used for certain dishes. It is little wonder that the Water Banquet has been named as one of the top three icons of Luoyang city, alongside with the peony flower and Longmen Grottoes.
The entire banquet is made up of 24 courses, starting with 8 appetizers, 4 main courses and 8 complimentary dishes. The feast concludes with 4 finale dishes. Different restaurants may have varying combinations of the individual dishes, they may also interpret the same dish differently. However, the menu should include some of the more commonly recognized signature dishes of a Water Banquet.
A sweet and sour appetizer, this is served to whet the guests’ palates. The bright colours and airy texture make this dish a perfect starter to a long feast.
Stir-fried vegetable with savoury soup base
You may wonder how did this unappetizing plain Jane become one of the main dishes? Some say it appeared at a dinner in 1973 between the ex-Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai and then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when the chef impressed his honorable guests with a soup topped with a stunning yellow peony flower made of cooked eggs. Guests today may still find such elaborate decorations in most high-end restaurants that serve the Water Banquet.
Sweet and Sour Pork and Assorted Sweet Congee
Due to their popularity, these two dishes can be commonly found on Chinese meal tables and not just the Luoyang Water Banquet. They are normally served as complimentary dishes to add a sweet twist to the otherwise spicy and savoury combination.
Meatballs in Soup
One of the finale dishes – the word “meatball” in Chinese is “Wan Zi” (丸子), which sounds like “completion”, which is why it’s one of the last dishes to be presented.
The trick to experiencing a truly authentic taste of the Luoyang Water Feast is to remember that chain restaurants are amongst the first places to avoid. One of the most well-loved Water Feast restaurants is Guan Ji (管记). This a family-run restaurant which also boasts of a 50-year history in dining. But that’s not all. It offers an experience too.
Located in a family courtyard along a side alley of the Luoyang Old Street, its humble and inconspicuous facade is so discreet that you might easily miss it.
The dining experience is called the Water Feast, based firstly on its literal description since the dishes mostly take a soupy form. Secondly, it’s a metaphorical reference to the unique feast through its rapid serving speed – dish after dish, just like waves hitting the shores one after another.
The Water Feast has a direct relationship with the climate of Luoyang, with winters that tend to be dry and cold, even in the ancient times. In order to keep warm, soup-based cuisine was favoured along with a generous dose of spice. With the passage of time, the Water Feast became a highly localised and popular cuisine that was not just limited to the dinner tables of the privileged.
Read more about my journey in Henan, the cradle of Chinese civilisation:
- Peony Festival in Luoyang (洛阳牡丹花会）
- A Visit to Emperor Wu Zetian’s Palace （一代女帝，武则天）
- The First Buddhist Temple in China （中国第一佛教古刹）
- #1 Attraction in Henan – The Longmen Grottoes（龙门石窟）
- Cultural Sites in Kaifeng – One of the 6 Chinese Ancient Capitals（开封古迹）
- Luoyang and Kaifeng Old Streets (洛阳与开封老街)
- Tasty Treats (and Insetcts!) at the Kaifeng Night Market