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Dishes to dream about

By Fan Zhen ( China Daily ) Updated: 2012-10-15 11:13:34

Dishes to dream about

Braised eggplants [Photo by Fan Zhen/China Daily]

 
Dishes to dream about

Steamed assorted mushroom bun  [Photo provided to China Daily]

 
Dishes to dream about

Sauteed luhao vegetable [Photo provided to China Daily]

There were more than 40 dishes described in great detail in A Dream of Red Mansions. Most are classics in Huaiyang cuisine, but some are delicacies that only rich and decadent families could afford. In the world of the author Cao Xueqin, himself a Bannerman aristocrat of high social standing in his better days, these were everyday dishes for the pampered lords and ladies in his novel. Look at these examples:

SCENTED AUBERGINE STRIPS (Qie Xiang)

"Lord Buddha! That's 10 chickens gone into the making of this. No wonder it tastes so good!" Poor Granny Liu was astounded by how good the eggplants tasted when she was offered some at the Jia Family mansion.

To make it, her hostess Wang Xifeng explained, you needed to harvest the aubergines at their peak in the fifth lunar month. The vegetables are skinned and cut into strips that are steamed over a pot of chicken stock. They are dried and the whole process repeated nine times until the essence of chicken has thoroughly soaked through the vegetable. Store them in tightly sealed jars and stir-fry them with slivers of meat from chicken drumsticks.

For Wang Xifeng and the Jia Family, this was a simple recipe that was everyday fare, nothing special, but for Granny Liu, it was an epicurean eye-opener.

SHRIMP BALLS WITH CHICKEN-SKIN SLIVERS

We all know that shrimps are naturally sweet, and the best flavor in the chicken is in the skin. When you combine both elements in one dish, you may get unexpected chemistry.

This was another dish brought to Jia Baoyu, the pampered young lord of the manor. He took one look at it and turned up his nose, saying it was too greasy for his liking.

But after one sip, he decided that it was delicious and finished it all up.

The soup base is clarified chicken broth, of course, and the shrimp balls were made with the freshest crustaceans. The chicken consomme is filtered several times for absolute clarity and slightly reduced to intensify the flavors. Then the cooked chicken skin is finely shredded and added to the soup again, to increase the tactile and taste contrasts.

YAM CAKE WITH DATES

Qin Keqing, one of the young ladies, had been feeling tired after a night out playing cards, and she fell ill, growing listless and even too weary to eat. There was only one thing she did put into her mouth, and that was a date-and-yam cake that the Grand Dowager had sent to her. She told Wang Xifeng: "I found it quite easy to digest."

The little cakes are made by steaming Chinese yam and the dried red dates or jujubes. These are then pureed and sieved several times until the texture was silky soft.

Then the puree is allowed to set into a layer that is then sliced into tiny slivers. Fresh dates are easily digestible and have lots of simple sugars like fructose and dextrose to replenish energy and revitalize the body instantly.

Steamed yams are also easy to digest, low in fat, high in fiber and packed with important nutrients. The yam-and-date cakes were definitely an energy booster.

Other dishes served in the Jia Family Mansion included deep-fried quails, lotus-and-jujube sweet soup, bamboo shoots braised in chicken marrow, buns made with tofu skin, lipstick-tinged goose breasts, salt-and-pepper wolfberry shoots, civet cat jerky and snowflake pastries.

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