A tasting of the Forbidden City at Family Li Imperial Cuisine, Shanghai

Jun 11, 2015

Sadly,  Family Li Imperial Cuisine has closed its doors in Shanghai.

A best-selling author once wrote: “If you have 1000 things to do in your whole life, one of them would be to dine in the Family Li Restaurant”. I am deeply honored and pleased to have had the opportunity to strike this off my foodie bucket-list this early in my life.

Originally only operating in one traditional villa in Beijing, Family Li Imperial cuisine has since opened an official branch in Shanghai, located on a quiet northern corner of The Bund.

The amount of history and lineage that goes behind this restaurant is un-precedented, and as such, I am going to spend a big part of this article writing about it.

Family Li Imperial Cuisine traces all the way back to Li Shunqing, formerly the Lord Secretary to the household of the Qing Dynasty. Specifically, he was the imperial chef to Empress Dowager Ci Xi, long before she became Empress Dowager. After Ci Xi passed away, Li resigned and retired in his hometown, recording down the intricacies of the imperial menus as best as he could. These hundreds of records would later be passed down through many generations, and be featured today at Family Li Imperial Cuisine.

The founding father of Family Li Imperial Cuisine is Li Shanlin, whom lived through the last Chinese dynasty and through the cultural revolution. As a boy, he lived luxuriously and enjoyed fine food. What was most peculiar was, unlike other wealthy sons, Li Shanlin was unusually curious about cooking. As a result, he often spent a lot of time in the kitchen, quietly observing how many dishes were prepped and prepared. It is said that because the chefs were unwilling to impart their knowledge, little Li Shanlin would visit the kitchen during busy hours so he would become an impromptu assistant. It was through such a childhood that he amassed a wealth of cooking techniques. Li Shanlin then spent 7 years of the cultural revolution honing his cooking skills with his ancestors notes, eventually founding the Li Family Imperial Cuisine we know of today.

Since opening the first Family Li Imperial Cuisine in a small Beijing villa in 1985, Li Shanlin’s only son and successor, Li Xiao Lin has expanded his family’s cuisine to from Beijing to Melbourne, Tokyo, Shanghai and Tianjin. For 3 consecutive years since 2008, the Tokyo branch of Family Li Imperial Cuisine had been awarded 2 michelin stars.

It is worth noting that while Li Family Imperial Cuisine has had this fine lineage of cooking, some of it had been lost over the generations, therefore some of the dishes today are adapted modern interpretations.

A very big thank you to Family Li Imperial Cuisine for inviting me to this marvellous treat and experience, where I had the opportunity to taste a number of their specialties.

Eating at Family Li Imperial Cuisine is a fine dining experience, and the prices reflect that. Due to political changes in recent years, they are now embracing change to accommodate a wider range of diners.


The restaurant is quite hidden behind a park on the north side of the Bund. Once I entered, I found the restaurant to be exceptionally clean and refined. It was a mixture of traditional chinese design with western elements. During my visit, there are no public dining spaces, only private rooms. This used to be the place where you bring president Obama to; It still is. However I expect they might try to create some solutions for smaller less formal dining groups. All that said, the general feel of the restaurant was quite cold — like a palace. Maybe it was because I visited during an off-peak timing. 8.0/10


As usual with invited tastings, I give an unbiased score of 7.5 for service. Family Li Imperial Cuisine takes special pride in its service, whereby every guest is treated as if they were dining with the emperor. It is worth noting that the staff at Family Li Imperial Cuisine would give an introduction of every dish when it is being served, along with changing cutlery and napkins several times throughout the dinner.


Usually, one makes a reservation over the phone for dinner, where 10 courses would be served. Kind of like a Japanese Omakase style dinner. The restaurant would ask if there are any special requests or ingredients that the diners would not eat, and accommodate accordingly. A 10 course dinner would then be prepared on that day, some dishes might take over 24 hours to prep.

Family Li Imperial Cuisine adopts a completely natural approach to cooking, whereby no artificial seasoning or ingredients are ever used. One other very interesting note, is that all the dishes at Family Li Imperial Cuisine are never cooked using the common chinese ‘big flame stove’, but instead caressed gently with slow even cooking.

Family Li Amuse Platter

Amuse Platter

My meal started with an amuse platter, consisting of marinated hawthorn, ‘XO sauce’ and candied cashew nuts. I was delighted to find the hawthorns un-seeded with just a small opening at the top; Much time and effort was put into deseeding them.


They tasted both sweet and sour, and was very appetising. My favourite of the trio was the cantonese style XO sauce, which is usually made with dried shrimp and dried scallops, fried together with chilli and seasonings for a very long time until the flavours have matured and melded with each other.


This was less spicy, but pleasantly full of scallop shreds, which filled my palate with umami. The cashew nuts were lovely, but nothing to shout out for. 8/10


Fruit Platter

Surprisingly, the next course was a fruit platter. A sequence I’ve never encountered before on the second course. Nonetheless, the fruits were lovingly selected and presented. Fresh and sweet. However, I will omit scoring for this.


Ge Cha 炸咯馇

The name of this snack is inspired by the sound/feeling once encounters when biting into it. Made using chickpeas which are mashed into tofu consistency and fried like a fried tofu. This was fabled to be a snack passed down from Empress Dowager Qixi’s time, and was reportedly a delicacy she enjoyed very much. The initial appearance and texture resembled fried tofu, however after chewing on it, there is a faint bouncy yet crumbly texture that made it unique. The outer layer was a stark contrast, being ultra light and crisp. 8/10

Fun Fact: Notice how this snack came only in 2 pieces when they could have easily served 4? In olden imperial times, a typical meal for the Emperor/Empress would consist of over 100 dishes, however, they would only be allowed to take 2 bites of each dish. Any more than 2 bites and somebody’s head would roll. This was to prevent favouritism towards a certain dish, to minimise assassination attempts through poison.


Imperial Platter 1

Next up was the first of two platters of small bites.


Jade Tofu 鱼豆腐

This was a dish far more complex than it’s name. Made using minced fresh imported scallops, stir fried over low heat with fresh soy bean puree and served with a dash of chilli powder which magically brings out the flavours of the scallop. Upon first taste, the seafood umami flavour was apparent, and very pleasantly so. It was a very amusing because texture wise, it felt grainy like soy bean puree, however flavour wise, it tasted like fresh scallops. The jade color comes from the fact that fresh, not dried soy beans were used. Teaspoon by teaspoon, my appetite started to open with wonder. 9/10


Ma La (Sichuan pepper) beef 麻辣牛肉

This was quite a surprise, when I found out the name of the item was Ma La Beef. It’s a piece of marinated beef tenderloin, battered and deep fried before being slathered with a sichuan pepper sauce. Flavour-wise it was not the usual high powered sichuan flavours that one is accustomed to, with only a hint of numbness and spiciness. The beef, while tender, was a little dried out, a common result of working with tenderloin due to the low fat content. For me, this was quite lacklustre for imperial cuisine, even though it didn’t taste bad. 6/10


Fried Mixed Vegetables 炒咸什

Deceptively simple, this item was composed of uniformly julienned carrots and bamboo shoots. The flavours were clean and simple, just the right amount of seasoning was used to allow the natural flavours to shine through, while still tasting like a cooked dish. It was quite remarkable because the dish was not oily at all; I had initially assumed the vegetables were boiled and then assembled, but was later informed that this dish was actually stir fried in very low temperature oil, a technique that has been passed down throughout the generations of Li Family Imperial Cuisine. Usually when one cooks in low temperature oil, there is a high tendency for the ingredients to absorb the oil and become very greasy — entirely not the case with this or the other dishes at Li Family Imperial Cuisine. Remarkable. This was surprisingly the simplest looking, yet the most impressive dish on the platter simply because it really tasted excellent. 8.5/10


Sweet and sour pork rib 糖醋排骨

A dish commonly found in Shanghai, that is very heavy handed on dark soy sauce and vinegar. The one at Li Family Imperial Cuisine is lighter in color, and much more light-handed on the use of vinegar. The quality of the rib was excellent, with a delectable natural sweetness and no off-putting smell. This goes back again to one of the core principals of Li Family cooking — they try not to mask natural flavours with seasonings and sauces, but instead use just enough seasoning/sauces to boost/complement the natural flavours of the ingredients. 7.5/10


Imperial Platter 2

Next up was a second platter of small bites.


Fermented Mung Bean 炒麻豆腐

This is a very traditional Beijing ingredient. Old Beijing people enjoy drinking a beverage made from this — fermented mung beans. I had the … opportunity to try it once, when I was in Beijing. The drink tasted like… sewage water, or how I would imagine sewage water to taste like. However it supposedly contains a lot of useful enzymes to nourish the body.

Fast-forward to the fermented mung bean puree at Li Family Cuisine. Obviously they would not serve something of such an acquired taste to the public, hence they fried their fermented mung bean with some minced pork, along with a special concoction of seasoning to offset the original unpleasant flavours, resulting in a remarkably tasty dish. This is perhaps one of if not the only dish where Family Li Imperial Cuisine tries to cover the original flavour of an ingredient. This dish far surpassed my previous encounter with ‘豆渣儿’ in Beijing. 8.5/10


Beijing style smoked pork 北京熏肉

My wife’s hometown of Hubei are masters of smoking pork, hence I was quite curious on how this might taste. Sadly, this tasted like plain steamed pork to me, both flavor and texture-wise. There was little to no smokiness present. I was told that this was because they usually smoke the entire piece of pork, and then slice it upon order. Hence the smokiness is usually only apparent on the outer surface. Still, I didn’t taste it. The amber color of the pork skin is not a result of the smoking, but rather from braising the skin in a sauce colored from a particular chinese vegetable with purple leaves. 6/10


Deep-fried prawns wrapped with egg 鼓板大虾

This little snack is hailed to have been passed down from the Imperial Court. The freshest prawns wrapped in a egg/tofu-skin, deep fried to a searing crisp while still retaining bouncy juicy prawns within. It reminded me of the tofu-skin rolls we have in Dim Sum. Surprisingly, given its heritage, this dish tasted the most commercial of them all, very much resembling what people enjoy eating today; I certainly enjoyed it very much, even though it was just 3 bites before I was hoping for more. 8.5/10


Deep-fried duck with prawn paste 芝麻鸭子

An interesting take on ‘surf and turf’. A piece of duck breast is carefully separated from it’s skin, combined with freshly minced prawn paste, and then the duck’s skin put back and then deep fried before a sprinkle of sesame seeds. This might be the original inspiration behind the prawn-stuffed chicken wings we find in some cantonese restaurants today? Except far more difficult to accomplish with a piece of duck breast. This is another dish passed down from the Imperial Court.

The taste? very interesting pairing of duck and prawns — almost unheard of. The duck was a little dry, but the shrimp paste bouncy and moist. The sesame seeds added an additional layer of crunch and flavour. Very unique and quite tasty. 8/10


Abalone Steak

Next up was serious business — A whole abalone steak. I think this is a modern addition to the menu, because this is actually a cantonese style dish I grew up eating occasionally during festive occasions with my family. A decently sized abalone that is pack full of flavour and lovely tender texture. Bringing an abalone steak to the table is a long arduous process. One has to wash and scrub dried abalone multiple times, before and after soaking and rehydrating them, before cooking, braising and sometimes also steaming it. The sauce is the other principal component in this dish, and the one at Family Li tasted light and natural. 8/10


Fried Australian Lobster in Imperial way

No, there were no lobster in the Qing Dynasty. This is one of the dishes where Family Li Imperial Cuisine tries to marry traditional cooking techniques with modern ingredients. I suspect back in the day, large prawns were used instead. The lobster meat is carefully fried in low temperature oil again, to achieve that very velvety yet un-greasy texture. Very luxurious on the palate, and worlds apart from normal boiled/steamed lobster. 9/10


Fried grouper with scallions

Scallions are fried in hot oil, before being continuously ladled over the fish to gently cook it. Another  traditional and modernly un-orthodox cooking method that is featured in Family Li Imperial Cuisine. The fish was tender and cooked just right, with a superb fragrance of the scallion oil and soy-based sauce. Very similar to cantonese steamed fish, yet with its subtle differences in textures. 8.5/10


Mastutake mushroom with cuttlefish roe soup

A lovely naturally umami soup made from the highly prized Matsutake mushroom. This was actually one of my few encounters with this prized ingredient, and a very memorable one. The cuttlefish roe was also new to me, and imparted a subtle seafood flavour to the soup. 8/10


Eggplant and minced meat

I thought it was interesting that our meal would end with a very common stir-fry, with some rice. However, a very excellently seasoned and executed stir-fry this was. I enjoyed its simplicity yet rich flavours with a bowl of rice. 9/10


Fried Egg Custard 三不粘

A very peculiar-looking dessert, said to be named by Empress Dowager Ci Xi herself, and one of her favourites. The chinese name literally translates to ‘3 that shalt not stick (to)’. Highly complex and tedious in preparation, eggs are beaten and whipped more than 600 times. Once the process is properly done, the eggs would be naturally cooked from the friction and achieve a soft and glutinous texture that doesn’t stick to the chopsticks, nor the plate, nor the teeth, hence it’s name.

In reality, it tasted like so, and flavourwise was very unique with just enough sweetness. Something that one truly needs to try. 9/10


Fresh Milk Yoghurt

Beijing has a interesting yoghurt making and drinking culture, naturally at Family Li Imperial Cuisine, house-made yoghurt had to be on the menu. Smooth and creamy with a slight tang. A perfect way to end the meal. 8/10

And thus ended the tasting experience at Family Li Imperial Cuisine. I felt full, but not bursting at the seams. I felt I could eat more, but didn’t want to. I believe that’s the type of feeling one gets after eating a very balanced and au naturale meal. There are only a handful of other places I know where I experienced this.

Family Li Imperial Cuisine is somewhat of a hidden gem in Shanghai. A hidden diamond rather. It is not suited for the average diner, as their dinner are fix price around 1000rmb per head. However recently they have started pushing out lunch sets at 288rmb and 388rmb with quite a good selection of food, which somewhat matches the other offerings along the Bund.

The flavours are light and subtle, the food here might and probably will not be everyone’s cup of tea. However what I admire most is the heritage behind the restaurant and cooking techniques, as well as their focus on retaining traditional and more arduous methods as opposed to fast modern shortcuts. Their take on no chemical/artificial seasonings also make it a plus.

Family Li Imperial Cuisine is definitely worth being on every foodie’s bucket list.

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