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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 11 SEPTEMBER 2012The Seductions of the Palate is a relatively small, temporary exhibition (until 30 September) at the spectacular Quai Branly Museum in Paris, but it is not exactly what its French title (Les Séductions du palais: cuisiner et manger en Chine) would lead you to believe. Informative it might be, but seductive it is not.

If the truth be told, with its plodding pedagogic, chronological presentation, it is just a tad…..boring for the layman, all the more so for being shown in this superbly theatrical museum, one of the most fascinating in the French capital. It is primarily an exhibition for Chinese specialists, historians, or, why not, culinary chefs.

Les Séductions du palais
Photo: Musée Quai-Branly, Paris

It is an introduction to visual Chinese table traditions presented through objects on loan from the National Museum of China supplemented with pieces from the Guimet Museum in Paris and it opens with artifacts dating back some 7000 years, from the Neolithic and  Bronze Ages leading  up to the years of the last Emperors. Of course these objects are interesting and of course these unique objects are magnificent, but peering at them through the gloom, I could not work up much enthusiasm. I meandered dutifully through the Shang dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty, the Qin Dynasty, and the Han Dynasty, only stopping short to read some of the menus hanging on the walls.

Braised dog, 750 grams of him smothered in turtle’s blood fairly turned my stomach, while what to make of King Zhou’s favourite dish of braised bear paw, the problem being not the animal’s foot, but rather the fact that the amputated paw had to be ‘matured’ for a year or two prior to being cooked, after which it was subsequently left to go rancid for another two before being consumed.

Gold Cup with handle
Tang Dynasty (618 - 907)
© Dong Qing/ National Museum of China

However, it was in front of a menu of a rather elaborate dish of stuffed geese roasted inside a whole lamb, the lamb being discarded after cooking that a visitor standing next to me, the only other person in the exhibition at the time, commented that it was all enough to put her off her food for a week, let alone ever set foot into a Chinese restaurant again.

But eating Chinese in Paris, despite the dearth of good Chinese restaurants here, is a far cry from eating in modern day China, when a memorable meal for my husband consisted of a lobster the size of a baby elephant being placed, raw and shell-less, upon the dining table before he was politely asked to choose his snake from a plastic sack of the squirming reptiles, the aforementioned snake being roasted and served up with a cup of its own blood, cold. Friends have only corroborated these stories, the majority of Chinese food being not only unrecognizable, unidentified and somewhat alien to Western tastes, but also deep fat fried and heavily greasy.

Ceramic Duck Teapot
Qing Period (1644 - 1911)
Photo: Musée Quai-Branly, Paris

However, back to the exhibition, to the last sections which also contained the prettiest exhibits, small though they were. After ploughing through centuries of stone, ceramic, lacquered, gold and silver, one finally got to a small selection of the exquisite hand-painted porcelain present throughout the reign of the Song dynasty. State banquets at this time could include many hundreds if not thousands of guests, and dishes would be sent up from the kitchens in a rigorous order. Being the most eminent person present, the Emperor would be served as many as 106 dishes, his wife being offered 96, and so on in diminishing quantities down the line, prince, princess or concubine.

Imperial Bowl
Imperial Commission for Emperor Kangxi, 1720
Collection Grandidier
© Thomas / Musee Guimet, Paris

From the seventeenth century, bowls were decorated with a variety of motives including children playing, fruit, flowers and insects. Several of those presented at Branly were decorated with designs of peaches, peonies and chrysanthemums, each pattern symbolizing love, honour, happiness, or peace, and they vyied in beauty with a ceramic teapot in the form of a duck and yet another in a superb deep green enamel glaze.

Eight commodities are essential to family life, the poet Wu Zimu tells us. Wood for warmth, rice, oil, salt, wine, soya sauce, vinegar and tea.  Would that it were only that simple today.

Seductions of the Palate
Through 30 September 2012

musée du quai Branly
37, quai Branly
75007 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 56 61 70 00

Headline image: Enamel Teapot
Qing Dynasty, 18th Century
Photo: Musée Quai-Branly, Paris

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the French choreographer Philippe Decouflé.

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