Outside of culinary circles, the art of plating is a seldom appreciated mode of expression. The presentation of food is often an afterthought to flavor. Even for the most die-hard gourmands who do recognize great presentation, what first comes to mind are typically Western dishes and plating techniques. The arrangement and decoration of traditional Chinese cuisine are hardly ever considered part of the conversation.
However, Chinese food plating has a much deeper history than most might give it credit for. Looking to shine a spotlight on the unsung art, the Instagram account Chinese Plating was born. The account, operated by Dieter Mackenbach, demonstrates a wide berth of creative presentations that’s been served up by Chinese chefs for the past few decades.
除非你是大厨和学者、或莅临某美食大赛现场、亦或是去“黑珍珠”或“米其林”餐厅就餐，现实中，你也许很少有机会能领略食物摆盘的艺术。尤其在快节奏生活的重重围困下，有多少人还会在意食物的艺术价值呢？或许提到传统的中餐摆盘艺术，普通人可能最多会想类似到松鼠鳜鱼、拔丝山药这种常见的菜式。当中餐摆盘艺术逐渐在日常中褪去轮廓，Dieter Mackenbach 的 Instagram 社交账号 “美食美器：烹饪美学档案”（Chinese Plating）的确让人大开眼界，令人仿佛置身于中华食物的大观园。各路创意摆盘令人眼花缭乱，天马行空的想象力让人惊叹，手中的盒饭顿时少了许多仪式感。
Mackenbach is a self-professed epicure who loves all aspects of food. While studying in university, the Los Angeles native had the opportunity to learn about gastronomic culture from across the world—which included recipes, food history, and nutritional knowhow. After graduating, he traveled extensively to learn more about food culture from around the world first hand, with a particular curiosity towards how food is prepared differently from region to region.
生于洛杉矶的 Dieter 是一位不折不扣的美食专家，不光会吃、会做，并一直对食物的方方面面充满强烈兴趣。藉由大学时期在洛杉矶攻读的图书馆与信息科学专业，他曾有机会研究大量食物方面的课题，其中包括了食物史、烹饪档案收藏、食谱搜索引擎、健康食谱规划等等。毕业后的几年，他甚至还前往不同地方学习不同国家的烹饪方式。
Though he’s experienced and learned about food from all over the world, Chinese cuisine holds a special place in his heart. Growing up in California, he lived in a neighborhood with a large Chinese population, and Chinese food was a staple cuisine for him and his parents. At the age of 17, he was invited to go back to Taipei with a Taiwanese friend, and his culinary experiences there cemented his love for Chinese food. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology, Mackenbach decided to further his studies in Taipei, where he studied Chinese language at National Taiwan University. As his love of Chinese cuisine deepened, he decided to truly dedicate himself to the craft. He moved to mainland China, studying at both the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and Sichuan University to learn more about Chinese gastronomy. After concluding his studies, he landed a job in Beijing at The Hutong, a cultural exchange program, where he shared his knowledge of Chinese cooking with interested students.
关于 Dieter 对中餐的喜爱，可以算是他从小便培养起来的某种兴趣。他儿时生活环境住有很多华人邻居，吃中餐自然成了家庭惯例。虽然那时候大部分都是美式中餐，但几乎每周总会有机会吃到。直到 17 岁那年，他受朋友邀请前往台北做客，天花乱坠的味觉盛宴让他彻底沦陷。大学之后，他决定用两年时间在台湾大学（National Taiwan University）攻读汉语，期间，他又前往四川烹饪高等专科学校（Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine）练就川菜手艺。随后，他在四川大学（Sichuan University）进修，并最后在北京一家名叫“The Hutong”的公司内从事烹饪教育的工作，这一呆又是两年。
“A lot of Americans have misconceptions about Chinese food,” Mackenbach notes. “They stereotype it as greasy or unhealthy, but they don’t truly know the cuisine outside of a few dishes. Chinese food is remarkably delicious, nutritious, sophisticated, and playful. So much thought goes into ingredient combinations, color appeal, textural contrast, and plating design with Chinese food. The names of dishes, in particular, are often highly poetic and allude to historically important events or places.”
Some of Mackenbach’s favorite dishes are typically more homely though, with dishes such as stir-fried Yunnan sticky rice cake, Sichuan boiled fish, and stinky tofu topping his list.
Mackenbach’s fascination with the creativity of Chinese plating and food design came about by chance. One day, while perusing old magazines at a library in Beijing, he discovered a collection of vintage culinary magazines. In them, photography showcasing plating presentations by chefs from all over the country captured his imagination. In 2015, he decided to compile an archive of images culled from these publications. He sourced books and magazines from second-hand markets, and even found digitized versions of otherwise unobtainable material to curate a compendium of creative Chinese dishes from the past few decades. The latest posts have mostly consisted of Sichuan cuisine and food photography from the ’80s and ’90s, an era that he believed to be an especially creative period for Chinese chefs.
一次在北京游逛图书馆的经历，让 Dieter 对中餐摆盘看得入迷，“当时在馆藏的杂志里看到这些图片，绝美、独特的呈现方式令感到不可思议。”不久之后，他很快于 2015 年决定开启了 “美食美器：烹饪美学档案” 项目。Dieter 在跳蚤市场成箱订购大量二手杂志和图书、一些仅存的数字版也被他统统买到，然后通过手机和扫描工具对书中的图片进行采集，并发布于网络。
对于现代人来说，图片上的菜式令人眼花撩乱，一些菜式甚至是闻所未闻。像“东方明珠”（Brilliant Peal of the East）、“兔年吉祥”（Year of the Rabbit Masco）、“孔雀迎宾”（Peacock Receives Guests）等菜肴，以极具直观的制作手法，挑战观众的想象力。而透过菜式颜色的搭配，还能看出当时的中国，人们对于鲜艳、耀眼颜色的追崇，放在现在来说“土气十足”，却令人联想到曾经喇叭裤、蛤蟆镜、霹雳舞盛行的年代。
His collection features a dazzling array of original delicacies that capture the imagination, such as “Brilliant Peal of the East,” “Year of the Rabbit Mascot,” or “Peacock Receives Guests.” The colors of the dishes and photos also reveals an affinity for vibrant palettes in China at the time. Though it may now seem gaudy and out of style, it’s an aesthetic that reminds of simpler times in the country.
The presentation of Chinese dishes tend to find inspiration from every aspect of the country’s culture, drawing from art traditions, architectural styles, literary history, and even folklores. Mackenbach’s intensive studies in China and input from Chinese scholar friends has helped him give context to each image, which he’s captioned in both Chinese and English. With these titles, the photographed food arrangements allude to Chinese history, mythology, and the country’s literary lineage.
Even though he’s since moved back to Los Angeles, Mackenbach has continued maintaining the account. However, due to logistic hurdles and the increase in difficulty of sourcing material being an ocean away, updates eventually slowed. Even with these headwinds, Mackenbach has no plans of abandoning the project. He’s currently working at a local university, and a jam-packed schedule has meant a short hiatus for his account. He’ll be resuming regular updates in the coming future and even has plans of organizing an exhibition for his collection of vintage food photography. “Food history is an interesting subject, and there are many librarians and archivists who dedicate themselves to researching and preserving these stories,” he says. “I want to be someone who helps pass down these culinary legacies and history. They deserve to be preserved.”