Red Mansions' sweet dreams
Ancient Ways is a series profiling the Chinese lifestyle and the people’s way of eating and drinking through literary texts, from the four great classical novels to ancient recipe books.
Cao Xueqin’s “A Dream of Red Mansions,” a masterpiece piece written in the mid-18th century, is among the most studied literary works in Chinese history.
The novel, in essence, is a stylized soap opera about a rich feudal family with dozens of characters and tangled relationships that reflected the life in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It has generated numerous scholarly works and countless screen adaptations, and among the topics in studying the novel are the dishes described and the extravagant lifestyles they represent.
The most famous foods from the book include qiexiang (an eggplant and chicken dish), hairy crabs, grilled venison and goji buds stir-fry, but Cao also describe an array of delicate Chinese desserts enjoyed by the characters on a daily basis.
To the people of Da Guan Yuan, eating desserts was part of their lifestyle, much like the afternoon tea tradition in English culture. And in different cultures of different times, desserts and pastries have always been the food of comfort.
In Chapter 34, after Jia Baoyu was beaten, his principal maid Xiren brought him sugar rose syrup, a sweet drink made of rose extracts that had soothing properties.
And in Chapter 11, when Qin Keqing, the daughter-in-law of Jia Zhen, was ill, Grandmother Jia asked to bring her yam cake with jujube paste, which made her feel better.
More than a sweet treat
Chinese pastries come in all shapes, colors, sizes and tastes, and they are commonly known as dianxin — it’s not the dim sum in Cantonese cuisine, but derived from the phrase diandian xinyi, meaning compliments and tokens of gratitude.
There’s an ancient tale about how the word originated. It’s said that a general in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420) was greatly touched by the soldiers who fought hard with honor, so he gave orders to bake delicious cakes and pastries and send them to the battlefront as tokens of gratitude, diandian xinyi, and the name dianxin has been in use ever since.
Chinese pastries and cakes are also called gaodian.
By the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), there were hundreds of dianxin like jujube flower pastry. These snacks were eaten between meals to satisfy hunger.
Many Chinese pastries have symbolic names, positive meanings and social functions.
Take kaikouxiao for example. The deep-fried sweet sesame seed snack, the name of which means “laughing with the mouth open,” would burst open when fried in hot oil, resembling a smile.
There are also “longevity peach buns,” a peach-like sweet bun with a red bean paste filling that’s often served at birthdays to wish someone a long life.
And fagao is a steamed sweet cake with a name that’s a homophone for making a fortune.
Mooncakes, the food for the Mid-Autumn Festival, were originally named hubing, because Zhang Qian, a Chinese diplomat in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), introduced sesame seeds and walnuts into the making of the cakes when he journeyed to western regions of central Asia. People in the northwest were known as Hu in ancient China.
In the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), Emperor Xuanzong and his concubine Yang Yuhuan (Imperial Consort Yang) were eating the cakes and enjoying a view of the glorious full moon, the emperor thought the name hubing was not elegant, and Yang recommended they be called yuebing, meaning mooncake.
The desserts are also seasonal and change according to the solar terms, like the mung bean cake in summer and chestnut cake for the Double Ninth Festival (ninth day of the ninth lunar month).
Desserts like the lotus flower pastry are much more complicated and sophisticated, the vivid flower-shaped pastries are a true test of pastry chefs’ skills and craftsmanship.
Craving something sweet?
The fillings in Chinese pastries are generally thicker and denser when compared to those cream-based fillings found in Western pastries, such as pastes made of red bean, jujube, taro, sweet potato and nuts.
The pastes are also used as wrappers, like the yam cake with jujube paste mentioned above, the cake is actually a combination of two pastes — yam as the wrapper and jujube as the filling.
For contrasting flavors, fruit jams like hawthorn are incorporated, as they can bring a much-needed acidity to sweet cakes and pastries.
In the novel, the characters also enjoyed treats such as chestnut cake with osmanthus sugar or cream and pine nut pastry. These were all great with tea or served as dessert to conclude the meal.
With the large amount of lard and sugar used in recipes, Chinese pastries are not healthy choices. Today, chefs have cut down the sugar and replaced some of the lard with butter to meet modern tastes.
Besides the cakes and puff pastries, sweet soups, pastes and yoghurt are also popular desserts in Chinese cuisine.
When Jia Yuanchun, Baoyu’s elder sister who later became an imperial consort, paid a visit to the mansion, the reception was at the highest level, even Grandmother Jia was courteous to the extreme. The Da Guan Yuan garden was especially built to receive her visit. Yuanchun tested the knowledge of her younger brothers and sisters and commented that Baoyu’s poem was the best, and she awarded him with a dessert called tangzheng sulao, sugar steamed curds.
It’s actually a bowl of yoghurt from the imperial palace. Yoghurt is an authentic Beijing snack, while the classic recipe used fermented glutinous rice to ferment the yoghurt, providing richer nutrients.
Another signature sweet dish from the book is almond tea. When Grandmother Jia felt hungry in the evening (Chapter 54), the house chef prepared savory duck meat congee and sweet round-grained rice congee with jujube, but she felt the two were either too heavy or too sweet. Wang Xifeng (Sister Feng) then offered the option of almond tea, a lighter sweet dessert.
Though it’s named tea, almond tea is actually a thicker dessert made of sweet almonds. The nuts are soaked, peeled and ground, then cooked with glutinous rice flour and sugar.
Chinese sweet almonds are different from American almonds which are very popular today. They are smaller and heart-shaped. In traditional Chinese medicine, sweet almonds are said to ease chronic coughs and aid digestion.