Cuisine has always been considered a cornerstone of art, rising above and beyond the need for sustenance. This month, the Westin Bund Center Shanghai is crossing the boundaries and fusing food and literature at Asian dining outlet EEST, Crystal Garden.
"Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is the Chinese equivalent of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Epic in scale and written in classical Chinese, the tome is considered one of the four great Chinese novels. The historical tale recounts the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) and spans the hundred of years leading up to unification under the Jin Dynasty (265AD-420AD).
The promotion comes after last year's successful "Dream of Red Chamber" special, where 12 courses were prepared reflecting each major character's story. This time, the task has been difficult and the culinary team at EEST has had to double their efforts in conjuring masterpieces while staying true to the text.
The result is impressive. While such promotions (they are popular outside the Chinese mainland in cities like Hong Kong) have the frightening potential to be cheesy, what was served at the Westin managed to impress with its creativity.
A problem the outlet faces, however, is explaining the dishes to English-speaking guests. While a prior reading of the book is not absolutely necessary, a basic grasp of the characters and events add volumes to the enjoyment. Many of the puns employed are lost in translation, however, so diners will have to take the word of this reviewer that they are funny.
An example would be the Three Angers of Zhou Yu (188 yuan/US$26.50), a trio of cod, preserved vegetables and egg, all steamed. As the story goes, the famed strategist was out-witted by his opposite counterpart, Zhuge Liang three times and the resulting pent-up frustration supposedly led sickness and death. The same Chinese character is used for anger and for gas (qi), thus the dish is steamed by Zhou's rage.
If this link seems a little tedious, then the taste more than placated any fury. The cod was perfectly cooked and well-balanced by the egg and vegetables.
Another playful pun is Zhao Zhilong's Solo Rescue (98 yuan). The courageous warrior's name includes the character for dragon (long), which in turn lends itself to lobster (long xia, or dragon prawn). In the novel, Zhao rides solo to rescue his king, Liu Bei's son, who was born in captivity. Longevity noodles are a traditional staple during birthday celebrations, even though the ingredient itself is far from luxurious. To highlight the heroic nature of the rescue and the Liu heir's destiny for greatness, the dish was covered in a rich, tangy sauce simmered for more than 10 hours. Rich but fresh, it made the humble pasta a mere delivery device for the sensational sauce.
Thankfully not every dish resorted to word play. The Three Ambushes of Gratitude (88 yuan) relied on presentation to illustrate a key scene in the novel. The invading armies are once again outwitted by Zhuge Liang, this time with three concealed assaults. The line of steamed high-quality slightly-sweetened bean curd made with minced pork and mushrooms resembled the winding Huarong road Cao had to embark on, and the bacon-wrapped crabsticks suggested the danger he faced.
The most amusing, however, had to be the Great Debate (68 yuan). Basically a representation of a few scholars talking shop, the boiled glutinous rice balls were meant to be the participating orators, the pumpkin it came served in signified the pavilion they met in and the rice wine was meant to indicate a lot of spittle was sputtered during the heated discussion. Charming.
All prices are subject to 15 percent tax.
Address: 5/F, 88 Henan Road M.