Chairman Mao's cook
By Zhang Kun, Shanghai Star. 2001-01-18
'Pork braised in brown sauce, which was his favourite, and fish, for it represents good fortune in the new year.'
WHAT was the grand Chinese New Year dinner like in Chairman Mao Zedong's home?
"Nothing much different from his ordinary dinners - pork braised in brown sauce, which was his favourite, and a fish, for it represents good fortune in the new year."
This authentic message came from his private chef Dong Linfa, who worked in Mao's home of Fengzeyuan for nearly five years.
Dong was only 23 when he went to Zhongnanhai to work as the chef for Chairman Mao.
He was working as an apprentice cook in Shanghai's Jinjiang Hotel in 1960, when the manager told him to take a special train the next day and report for duty in the central office of Zhongnanhai.
The excited young man borrowed a bicycle and rushed home. "Mum, I am going to work in Zhongnanhai," he woke up his mother and told her.
His mother asked him when he could come back and he said he didn't know. It was five years later that he came back to his parents in Shanghai and to Jinjiang.
Dong cooked in the big kitchen of the central guards regiment for the first month in Zhongnanhai. He cooked in Deng Xiaoping's home for four days when Deng's cook was away.
It was in July, and Chairman Mao was having guests to dinner. Mao asked the big kitchen to cook some new dishes - he didn't know there was a new cook from Shanghai. The big kitchen entrusted the task to Dong.
That was the first time Dong entered Fengzeyuan, Mao's home.
He cooked two special dishes on that occasion: crystalized pork and a baked black carp. Mao liked them so much that he asked the guard who the cook was.
The early 1960s saw the worst famine in China since the Liberation in 1949. Leaders in the central government started eating vegetables instead of meat, as a means of sharing the hardships with people in the country.
In the winters, Beijing couldn't supply a large variety of vegetables, only the most common big cabbage and radish.
An official from the service department asked Dong one day: "Are there any vegetable in Shanghai that Beijing doesn't have? Do you have any idea about cooking some different dishes for Chairman Mao?"
Dong contributed lots of ideas, such as bean curd cooked into many different forms and tastes. The next day, he was transferred in to Mao's home as his private chef.
Dong cooked two meals for Mao every day, both very simple, even after the years of hardship. Mao's lunch was eaten around four or five in the afternoon, and supper between two and five in the early morning.
Dong was especially careful in cooking the midnight or early-morning supper for Mao. After a whole day's work, Mao would be very tired. And he became a little dizzy at that time because of the sleeping pill he took 20 minutes before the meal.
Dong usually cooked a
small dish of veg-
etable or fried red
pepper with a bowl of
"I would pay attention and make sure that there was no bone in the night meal," said Dong. "Or it might hurt his teeth, or cause other trouble."
At that time, his wife, Jiang Qing, had her own chef and usually didn't dine with Mao. His daughter and other family members were required to dine with staff in the public dining hall.
Only on Saturday did the whole family gathered for a dinner, when Jiang's chef cooked a dish and Dong cooked the rest of the meal.
Mao's favourite dish was pork braised in brown sauce and had Dong make it for him twice every month. Dong cooked it to suit Mao's preference, with more salt and sugar than was commonly used. Mao was happy every time he ate the dish, and said it helped his brain to work better.
Dong found a culinary treasure in Zhongnanhai lake, near the central government buildings. They were tiny shrimp and there was an abundance of them, but they were too small to be caught in the net provided by the logistics department.
"I borrowed some bamboo baskets from the department, put in baits and set the trap to catch the shrimp," Dong said.
Dong could catch five or six kilos of shrimps every day. Some he cooked for Mao, and the rest he gave to the kitchen of Liu Shaoqi, another top Chinese leader at the time, and some other leaders whose chefs were his friends.
Dong sometimes accompanied the chairman on his trips - Mao rarely ate food cooked by local chefs except in Hunan, his hometown.
On a morning in 1965, Mao was walking by the lake when he saw Dong catching shrimps in the baskets. He asked whether Dong had a girl-friend, and whether he would like to find a wife in Beijing and settle down.
Although Dong enjoyed his time in Zhongnanhai, he still felt that the responsibility was heavy, and he missed his parents. So he answered that he would like to go back to Shanghai one day.
Mao let him go less than a week after that talk. He said he hoped Dong could find a wife in Shanghai and return to Zhongnanhai the next year.
But a year later the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) started, and the plan was not mentioned again.
Dong went back to Jinjiang Hotel, and found himself a wife there. Every time Mao went to Shanghai, Dong would go to cook a few dishes for him.
After working for five years for the Chinese ambassador to Gabon in Africa, Dong was sent by the Jinjiang Group to San Francisco to manage the kitchen at the Jinjiang Restaurant. A mistake in the translation of his visa forced him to return to China after only one year.