Cooking the books: making dreams come true
“Dream of the Red Chamber,” written in the mid-18th century by Cao Xueqin, is perhaps the most intriguing of China’s four greatest classic novels.
The masterpiece, entitled “Hong Lou Meng” in Chinese, has attracted generations of readers, numerous scholarly works and countless screen adaptations.
It is, in essence, a stylized soap opera of an ancient dynastic family, with dozens of main characters and a tangle of relationships reflecting life in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
In addition to the human dramas, food always figures in the plot.
Dishes described in the work have been preserved down the generations and found their way into modern cuisine.
Here are among the most famous.
Goji buds stir-fry
Perhaps the simplest dish in the novel is stir-fried goji buds.
The dish in Chapter 61 of the book is requested by Jia Tanchun, Jia Baoyu’s younger half-sister by concubine Zhao, and Xue Baochai, Jia Baoyu’s first cousin.
If all that sounds a bit complicated, the dish itself is not.
A servant girl in the kitchen was paid the equivalent of a month’s salary to make the dish.
Its centerpiece is the nutrient-rich goji plant, often called wolfberry in the West. The berry has enjoyed somewhat of a revival in the modern-day era of so-called “superfoods” like quinoa.
Goji berries have long been used in traditional Chinese medicinal tonics because they contain high concentrations of amino acids and vitamins, some of which are said to slow aging.
The tender fresh buds of the goji berry are harvested in spring and considered a healthy green that can help ease internal heat.
The natural flavor of the buds is bittersweet.
To stir-fry them, only oil and salt are needed. For extra flavor, a few cloves of garlic can be sautéed before the buds are added.
Goji buds can also be used in soups.
Sour bamboo shoots and chicken skin soup
In Chapter 8 of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Baochai falls ill and her mother, Auntie Xue, makes this soup for Baoyu and Lin Daiyu when they come to visit.
Sour bamboo shoots were not a common ingredient in the imperial capital, but rather a specialty from southwestern China.
Their use in this dish demonstrates the fondness Auntie Xue holds for Baoyu.
Naturally fermented bamboo shoots help with digestion because of the lactic acids they contain.
This soup has long been considered a hangover antidote because the sour flavor of the bamboo shoots can whet the appetite, while the chicken skin is rich in protein.
In the Qing Dynasty, chicken skin was widely used in many dishes. In Chapter 62 of the novel, Baoyu enjoys a bowl of shrimp balls and chicken skin soup.
Marinated goose feet and duck tongue
Although “Dream of the Red Chamber” is set in Beijing, many dishes described in the book originated in the south, like marinated goose feet and duck tongue.
In Chapter 8, Baoyu’s Auntie Xue brings him a plate of this cold dish she made herself on a snowy winter’s day. It’s an excellent dish to accompany wine or other liquors.
The marinade contains the mash extracted from distillation, adding a sweet and sour flavor to the cooked ingredients.
Goose feet and duck tongue were delicacies in the imperial court and on the tables of the wealthy. They are first cooked in chicken broth with salt, and then marinated to take on deeper flavors and help preserve them.
Today, this dish is considered part of the signature cold cuisines of the Yangtze River region.
China has a long tradition of drinking yao jiu, or medicinal liquor, as a health remedy.
In “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a variety of yao jiu called tusu wine is mentioned in Chapter 53, which recounts a banquet to the Chinese New Year. It is served before any dishes.
Traditionally, tusu wine was a special drink marking Spring Festival celebrations. It was made by infusing wine with eight herbal medicines to fend off the flu and other ailments.
When drinking tusu wine at formal events like family banquets, the youngest person present at the table drinks first and the eldest last.
In Chapter 41 of the novel, a complicated dish called qie xiang is described in detail. In Chinese, qie means “eggplant,” and xiang refers to a split-open dried fish.
The dish starts with peeling the eggplant and cutting it into pieces that are fried in oil extracted from chicken fat.
Then, chicken breasts, mushrooms, including a special kind called xiang jun, fresh bamboo shoots, spiced dried bean curd and assorted nuts are chopped and added to the fried eggplant. The mixture is stewed in chicken stock and finished off with a sprinkling of fragrant sesame seed oil and a marinade made with jiu niang (fermented glutinous rice).
The mixture is then sealed in a jar. For serving, it is mixed with freshly stir-fried chicken.
In the novel, Granny Liu tastes the dish and says, “You can’t fool me. If eggplant can taste this good, we wouldn’t grow any other crops.”
In older times, the dish required expensive ingredients and showcased a family’s wealth.
Venison appears several times in “Dream of the Red Chamber.” It was a staple of Manchurian cuisine.
In Chapter 49, Cao described a feast of grilled venison on a cold, snowy day, with Baoyu and the girls huddled around charcoal grill with a fresh venison leg hanging above.
Meat was sliced directly off the leg. Shi Xiangyun, Baoyu’s younger second cousin, says in the novel that she loves to drink strong wine when eating the dish. Without such sustenance, she says, she wouldn’t be able to compose any poems that day.
Among the girls, Shi is the most healthy and energetic, while Lin Daiyu, Jia Baoyu’s younger cousin, is on the sickly side and doesn’t enjoy grilled meat.
Today, venison is considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. For the kitchen, sika deer are favored. The protein-rich meat can be cooked in classic stir-fries or in soup simmered in clay pots. Venison braised with soy sauce is a classic in northeastern regions of China.
Sugar steamed curd
When Jia Yuanchun, Baoyu’s elder sister and later an imperial consort, pays a visit to the Red Mansion, a gala reception is held. Even Grandma Jia is courteous to a fault. A special garden called Da Guan Yuan is built to welcome the visit.
After Yuanchun arrives and rests for a while, she begins testing the knowledge of her younger brothers and sisters. She says Baoyu’s poem about a wine shop is superb and awards him with a dish of sugar steamed curd.
The wine shop’s doors are open to receive customers.
As I gaze toward the mountain villages,
Geese are playing in the water,
Swallows are flying for nesting.
The spring leeks shine an emerald sheen.
The scent of rice flowers fills the air.
There’s no hunger in this thriving land.
So why can the plows not be stilled?
Sugar steamed curd is really just a bowl of yoghurt, but because of its imperial status, it is an honor for Baoyu to eat it.
In the Qing Dynasty, yoghurt was an authentic Beijing snack. In one ancient poetic reference, it was described as being as “white as the skin of a beautiful woman, relieving one’s troubles and leaving cheeks like butter.”
In the traditional way of making yoghurt, fermented glutinous rice was used to ferment the yoghurt.
Old-fashioned sugar steamed curd
Fresh milk, 500 grams
Fermented glutinous rice, 100 grams
Some raisins and walnuts (optional)
1. Pour the milk into a clean pot and heat thoroughly. Then pour into a large bowl and add a dash of sugar.
2. When the mixture is cooled slightly, add the fermented glutinous rice at a proportion of 1 portion to 3 portions of milk.
3. Stir and pour into small bowls. Cover with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the top.
4. Put it aside for an hour, then cook it in a steamer for 15 minutes. When chilled and ready to serve, top with raisins and walnuts.