by Ernie Diaz
Food in China has always been scarce enough to treasure, obsess about, even fetishize. That’s why just about every dish, humble as fried dough or refined as dim sum, has its origins not in simple matters of filling the belly, but filling it while surrounded by intrigue, betrayal, or some other salient aspect of Chinese culture.
The Swimming Dragon Frolics with the Phoenix
(You Long Xi Feng)
Who else but the Chinese to conceive of stewing chicken soup, then adding sea cucumbers, squid and ginseng? A chef short on time will explain that the chicken is so tender it resembles the legendary bird, the squid its playful cohort.
In fact, or popular myth serving for such, the dragon refers to degenerate Emperor Zhengde of the Ming Dynasty. So busy was he ensuring his vast harem earned their keep that he entrusted all duties but procreation to his favorite eunuch Liu Jin, to the extent that Beijingers grumbled (quietly), “We have two emperors, Liu who stands, and Zhengde who lies.”
Nothing got in the way of Zhengde’s quest for dissipation. Having despoiled his land’s fairest beauties, his yellow fever dwindled to a flickering spark, he built the Leopard Mansion, where he housed the rarest birds and beasts of prey from the furthest-flung corners of the empire. Included in the menagerie were a host of Xinjiang maidens, fair, fiery, and with dance moves to make grandpa feel like twenty-one.
Eventually Zhengde tired of even these rare creatures, and ventured far south in search of new thrills. Unfortunately for him, word of the expedition spread before him, and the people hid their best booty from plunder, forcing Zhengde to wander southern cities clad as a commoner.
Famished from a day’s leching, he stopped in at the Lady Phoenix Restaurant. His instincts had not failed him, for the eponymous owner was a famous beauty. Babes like the cocky type, and despite his street clothes, his imperial demeanor found favor with Lady Phoenix. She even sang him a tune, which prompted Zhengde to produce a tael of pure silver as reward. Suitably impressed, she cooked him her daintiest dish, chicken and squid, two great tastes that taste great together.
Looks, talent, and skills in the kitchen made for an irresistible combo. Zhengde promptly whisked her back to Beijing, to a life of leisure, back-biting, and isolation. The dragon, of course, is the emperor hovering over the “chicken” – Lady Phoenix – “chicken” being a common metaphor in China for a woman of easy virtue. If apocryphal, the tale of Zhengde carrying on with a restaurant proprietress was adapted into a Peking Opera which never failed to bring down the house.
(Huang Jin Rou)
Of all the tales immortalizing China’s countless emperors, few are told of Nurhachi, founder of the Qing Dynasty. For he brought the Celestial Empire once again under the yoke of horse-mounted toughs.
The Kingdom of Jin had dominated China’s central plains during the twelfth century, subordinating even the mighty Song Dynasty to its uncultured will. By Nurhachi’s time in the late sixteenth century, however, Ming saviors had pushed Jin’s descendants, now known as the Nuzhen, back to the northern mountains whence they had spawned.
Nonetheless, Nurhachi’s chieftain was a gourmet, and demanded at least eight balanced courses with every meal, not including the soup. Once, when the chieftain was hosting a warlord party, his demands on the kitchen were dire enough to cause the head chef to swoon. Waiters came to the kitchen with requests for more food, only to find a passed-out cook and terrified staff. Brave Nurhachi, then but a simple attendant, took charge and grabbed a mound of the best pork loin, usually used for braising, and stir-fried it instead, as the process took less time.
His drunken chieftain stumbled into the kitchen hours later, demanding who had made the “golden pork”. Of course he looked furious; he always looked furious, a secret of effective leadership Wharton leaves off the agenda. Nurhachi had no choice but to step forward, not with the other cooks eyeballing him and pointing fingers. The chieftain’s perpetual scowl widened into a grin. “You’ve done well, lad! You have promise…”
Nurhachi was placed in the chieftain’s personal guard. By 1616, he played the lead role in uniting the Nuzhen tribes into the latter Jin Dynasty. By 1644, he had trampled the central plains into submission and founded the Qing Dynasty. Thus has kitchen skill been the Chinese people’s greatest bane, as well as their greatest delight.
Fish Heads and Toufu
(Yu Tou Dou Fu)
You turn your nose up at the thought of fish brains and bean curd? You’ve never been really hungry. Neither had Emperor Qianlong, the first Qing headman larger-than-life enough to be conferred honorary Chinese status by most of his resentful subjects.
Qianlong liked to go a-wandering in common garb, too, but not to catch hotties unawares and kidnap them. Well, not always for that … it’s good to be the king. Anyways, mighty Qianlong was on an inspection tour of Hangzhou when he decided to have his first “I’m a son of dirt like you lot” dress-up tours. He headed for Wushan mountain. Seems divine puissance deserted the emperor about halfway up, and a sudden downpour robbed him of his much-massaged dignity.
Bedraggled and shivering, he at last spied a shack. Its haggard old occupant welcomed him in kindly, building a fire and even exhorting the poor traveler to take off his clothes to stand by the fire, comic fodder for a cross-talk classic. Qianlong chose instead to stand by the fire, and once warmed enough to heed his growling belly, humbly asked if there were aught to fill it.
Even unaware of his visitor’s true status, the impoverished old man was abashed at having nothing but some stale tofu, and a handful of spinach that had seen fresher days. He decided to stew them, and then struck by inspiration, snuck out back to the refuse heap where a fish head lay, relatively unmolested by flies.
Unless you’ve ever been famished enough to eat Arby’s, it’s hard to appreciate the truth in the proverb “Hunger makes the best sauce.” Qianlong slurped down the broth, sucked up the brains, and slurped out the eyes, declaring the dish the finest he’d ever been privileged to devour.
Years later, Qianlong again toured Hangzhou, and summoned his old host Wang Xiaoer before him. Seeing Wang in his threadbare robes panged the emperor’s heart with guilt. Qianlong showered Wang with gold and silver, after the latter had cooked up the dish again, of course, this time with somewhat more quality ingredients. Qianlong even took the trouble to inscribe “Imperial Dish” on a placard with his seal, which Wang hung at his new Fish Head and Tofu restaurant. As for you fussy types, fish brains make you smart, you know, and eating eyes help you see better…