By Benjamin Cost
The restaurant could be the latest item in a long list of revealed-to-be Chinese inventions! Formerly misattributed as Western creations, gunpowder, printing, and even New World exploration have all been claimed thoroughly as Chinese in origin.
According to scholar Nicholas Kiefer’s article, although Paris is widely cited as the birthplace of the modern restaurant, eating areas were well established in Song Dynasty Kaifeng in Hebei and Hangzhou in Zhejiang, almost half a millennium prior to the so-called “French Restaurant Revolution” (at a time when your “cultured” Parisian likely gobbled rotting mutton off a trencher).
Although your Song Dynasty eating establishment may not conform to the modern notion of a restaurant with immaculate crystal-ware, linens, and a wine list, it matched up closer than today’s diner would believe.
Kiefer’s theory posits that to be defined as a restaurant, a venue needed to provide individual table service, fixed prices, menus, and general stability. This stood in stark contrast to an inn, where travelers ate whatever was served that day for a negotiable price while seated at a table with total strangers.
In fact, Song Dynasty establishments had to contend with the booming economy of 13th century Hangzhou (the then largest city in the world!) which spawned many wealthy merchants who would not accept just any run-of-the-mill service. A 1275 account included in Kiefer states:
“As soon as the customers have chosen where they will sit, they are asked what they want to have. The people of Hangchow are very difficult to please. Hundreds of orders are given on all sides: this person wants something hot, another something cold, a third something tepid, a fourth something chilled; one wants cooked food, another raw, another chooses roast, another grilled…..”
And the restaurants not only fulfilled their hospitality duties, but also offered a diverse and scrumptious selection of dishes, including goose, duck, fresh and saltwater fish, and even fragrant shellfish soup in rice wine. So you can discard images of ancient Chinese restaurants as bamboo huts ladling millet out of steamy cauldrons.
Ultimately, the discovery that our modern idea of an eating establishment didn’t come from “La Ville-Lumière” but rather Song Dynasty China, indicates that as today’s prospering China garners more and more global attention, more credit will hopefully be given where it is due.
Our historical man in Italy Marco Polo knew the score, and devoted an enormous section of his Travels of Marco Polo, in which the city was known as Kinsay:
There are also two islands, on each of which stands a rich, beautiful, and spacious edifice, furnished in such style fit for the palace of an emperor. And when anyone of the citizens desire to hold a marriage feast or to give any other entertainment, it is done at one of these palaces.
And everything would be found there ready to order, such as silver plate, trenchers, and dishes (napkins and table cloths), and whatever else was needed. The king made this provision for the gratification of his people, and the place was open to everyone who desired to give an entertainment.
(Sometimes there would be at these palaces a hundred different parties; some holding a banquet, others celebrating a wedding; and yet all would find good accommodations in the different apartments and pavilions, and that all was so well ordered that one party was never in the way of another.)
Sounds fit for a culinary bunga-bunga party of epic proportions!