If you have fine dining in one of China’s major metropolitan cities today, chances are you’ll be served something fusion-y on a piece of stoneware ceramic. Your main course, as big as a sushi roll, will sit shyly on the lower quadrant of your plate while your sauce, smeared or drizzled, will cover the remaining sector. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an edible foam of some sort and a tiny decorative flower along with it. Simple and elegant, your meal will resemble a Japanese, minimalist slice of food art.
It wasn’t always like that, however. There was a time in China that the art of food presentation was more pictorial, ostentatious — and authentic.
Peacock Flies to the Southeast (prepared by Rao Xuegang)
Dieter Mackenbach is on a quest to draw attention to these times through Chinese Plating, an Instagram account that unearths and presents Chinese food art photographs from the 1980s and ’90s. They are more than just a register of superior knife skills and creativity — they also reflect a paradigm shift in modern Chinese history.
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“When I look at these images, I think of the unique historical conditions of the Reform and Opening Up period which gave rise to this fascinating phenomenon,” Mackenbach says, referring to the period after which Deng Xiaoping opened the Chinese mainland up to international business in 1978. “Until then, China had gone through a prolonged period of scarcity and austerity.
“These images [by contrast] are celebratory, frivolous, and humorous — rare sentiments in Chinese 20th century history. The creation of such colorful and irreverent works of art for celebratory occasions is like a sigh of relief.”
Plated Landscape (prepared by Yang Cuili, photographed by Yang Zhongjian)
Mackenbach himself studied at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu, before moving to Beijing to work in culinary education. It was there that he first came across these images in culinary magazines that he found in The National Library. This self-initiated project takes the form of an archive made public on Instagram, a platform Mackenbach thought was suitable to raise public interest.
Right now, he says, “I also believe that there’s a movement in food art and design away from austerity, minimalism, and seriousness, and towards irreverence, humor, and camp. Some people might see these images as ‘kitschy,’ which is fashionable now. Whether or not people’s interest in them is ironic, I do not know.”
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Aside from their decadence, the dishes in the photographs are highly pictorial, in most cases alluding to Chinese iconography. They commonly depict soaring dragons, Buddhist figures, landscapes, symbolic animals and plants, and scenes from literary classics such as Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Their titles are also revealing and poetic — Goldfish Tease Lotus (金鱼闹连), Two Dragons Play with a Pearl (二龙戏珠), and Lotus Pond Scene (荷塘小景) are just some examples.
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The artists behind the craft were typically chefs at high-end restaurants and hotels in major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, and Hangzhou. Particular culinary traditions from the region rarely make a cameo — they are, according to Mackenbach, unnecessary for the result. “These works are more like sculptures than food,” he tells us. “Some of them were submissions in culinary competitions that award skills like carving, for example. Flavor was unimportant in this case.”
Though the compositions were usually all edible — made from fruits and vegetables, and sometimes meat and grains — that doesn’t mean that they would have tasted good or that people should eat them. For instance, one of the most common ingredients was raw pumpkin — excellent material for carving, but not a recurrent ingredient in the Chinese diet.
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When the chefs made them for people to eat, it was for special occasions. “Because these dishes were so extravagant, wasteful, and labor-intensive to prepare, they were for special elite banquets,” Mackenbach explains. “Many of these intricate carvings and detailed plates must have taken many hours to prepare, if not days.”
Food carving first appeared in China in the Tang Dynasty (618-906 BCE) and throughout history it was common, as was plating art, on the tables of the elite — the only ones who could afford such extravagance. However, the idiosyncrasies of the country’s 20th-century history resulted in a temporary halt to the art form. It was only in the 1980s that it made a comeback, and with newfound glory.
“The fact that preparing such wasteful and fanciful food for wealthy people was even possible, considering how soon it came after the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, is startling,” Mackenbach says. The culinary magazines in his archive are state-produced publications designed to convey a message of wealth and power. They appeared in the early 1980s, during the period of Reform and Opening Up.
Undercover (prepared by Shu Guozhong, photographed by Luo Jiyuan)
“During [this] period, China became much wealthier. It was when banquets and opulent business meals became more common. There were also more opportunities and resources for chefs to be creative.”
Mackenbach laments that this phenomenon as represented in the photographs has almost completely disappeared in favor of a more austere and minimalistic style. Yet, he believes that the irreverent and humorous aesthetic can still find its place in the dining world.
“I think this is the case in fashion and interior design,” he observes, “a move away from Scandinavian and Japanese minimalism, for example, and towards something more lighthearted and bold.”
Spirit Launched from the Sea Foam (prepared and photographed by Li Kai)
When asked if he’d like to taste any of the dishes from his Instagram account, he has curious choices: “One dish called ‘Upside Down Almond Flour and Intestines’ [杏仁粉肠扣] sounds delicious. I’ve seen nothing combining intestines and almonds, which are both very fatty.”
Another of his favorites is chicken rolled up in sheets of rice noodles and covered in aloe vera.
“It sounds so ethereal,” he says.
Header image: Millennium Dragon Dance (prepared by Lu Fei) All images: courtesy Chinese Plating
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