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    Dreaming of Food in the Red Chamber

    Food is practically a character unto itself in the classic novel “Dream of the Red Chamber.”

    Whoever said literature is not for the hungry might well have been thinking of China.

    Food is everywhere in classic Chinese novels. The outlaws of “Water Margin” spend their days fighting and feasting, putting away inhuman amounts of wine and beef. In “The Plum in the Golden Vase,” the main characters offset the strain of their oversexed lifestyles by consuming foods that “nourish the blood.”

    But the great classic of Chinese food fiction is Cao Xueqin’s 18th-century novel, “Dream of the Red Chamber.”

    In a book full of memorable characters, food takes on a life of its own, providing clues to explain the characters’ actions or advance the plot. In one scene, the novel’s hero, Jia Baoyu, strengthens his resolve by snacking on a piece of purple ginger. Women in the household compare a bowl of yogurt to the value of motherhood. A medical concoction made from a stewed lamb fetus is served to ward off the infirmities of old age.

    Most of the novel’s dishes reflect the refined tastes of the wealthy Jia family at its center. Luxurious meals punctuate their unrushed days. As the characters languish about their mansion, we see them discussing lotus leaf soup, enjoying a banquet of fresh autumn crabs, or sipping tea over verses of poetry. A party to welcome the Lunar New Year starts with hampers of dainty cakes and preserved fruits before moving on to heartier winter dishes like duck congee. Like millions of Chinese families today, the family marks the occasion with warmed wine and firecrackers.

    The book’s most famous dish, a preparation of eggplant called qiexiang, appears in different guises depending on which version of the Chinese text you read. In one version, the dish is a tasteful mixture of eggplant fried with chicken and melon seeds. In another, it is an impossibly extravagant dish that requires 10 chickens and days to prepare. Either way, the effect is the same: the opulent dish overwhelms the family’s poor relatives, first with envy, and later with terrible flatulence.

    The story itself never specifies exactly where the “Dream of the Red Chamber” takes place. Some say Beijing, but other clues point to the author’s hometown of Nanjing near the Yangtze River Delta. That would place the book at roughly the same time and place as another great classic of Chinese food writing, Yuan Mei’s “Recipes From the Garden of Contentment.” In fact, most of the food mentioned in “Dream of the Red Chamber” can be found in that era’s culinary writing — not just recipes, but a whole culture of refined gastronomy.

    For example, the piece of pickled ginger that Baoyu grabs before going to meet the family matriarch appears in a cookbook from 17th-century Hangzhou, not far from Nanjing. From this source we learn that the ginger was prepared seasonally — young spring ginger was soaked for an entire summer in soy sauce, sugar, and the perilla leaves that gradually turned it purple. We also learn that this ginger was known to be effective at warding off various ailments, giving readers a clue to Baoyu’s state of mind at the time.

    The extravagant dish of qiexiang might sound like a pure invention of the author. As described by one of the main characters, the recipe calls for steaming eggplant 10 times over 10 pots of broth, each one made by stewing an old hen. In between each steaming, the eggplant is thoroughly sun dried. While this elaborate preparation certainly seems like fiction, the inspiration for the dish is very real. A Song dynasty (960–1279) collection includes a very similar recipe for “quail aubergine,” made by marinating and drying thin strips of eggplant — in this case, just once — for a simpler version of the book’s over-the-top 10-chicken extravaganza.

    As in real life, however, most of the foods in “Dream of the Red Chamber” are quite ordinary. Cross-checking the dishes against food writing of the time gives us a literal taste of history, and confirms that most foods served in the novel were made with high skill, but only a few relatively simple ingredients.

    Perhaps because of this, the novel provides ample inspiration to today’s cooks. Culinary cosplayers go viral with attempts to recreate the book’s most famous dishes. “Red Chamber Banquets” pop up in theme restaurants and special menus across China, and indeed worldwide. But if some recreations jack up the bill by plating Michelin-style settings of foie gras and sea urchin, the food served at the Jia family mansion was in fact probably very similar to traditional cuisine as it’s enjoyed today.

    Indeed, rather than a parade of impossibly opulent dishes, the food in “Dream of the Red Chamber” showcases the elegant aesthetic of China’s classical culinary culture. Humble ingredients were prized because they were in season. Autumn is when crabs begin fattening for winter. Bamboo shoots discovered hiding under a blanket of snow — winter bamboo — are larger and more flavorful than the bamboo that shoots up after a warm spring rain.

    The novel also shows that the ideal of eating well is about much more than just showing off wealth or even good taste. In describing the “sins of the kitchen,” Yuan Mei has no mercy for cooks who destroy food with too much seasoning or artifice. Look back further and the search for “true taste” is actually a religious ideal. It appears in Taoist texts two millennia before Cao and Yuan wrote their masterpieces as a metaphor for being aligned with the universe. “Dream of the Red Chamber” shows us this ideal in reverse when a sketchy family acquaintance who brags about enjoying food out of season is later revealed to have a dangerously violent temper. A “bad apple,” one might say.

    Like all great literature, the enduring popularity of “Dream of the Red Chamber” comes from its many layers of meaning. Readers can appreciate it as an engaging story, as a Buddhist meditation on impermanence, or both. The same can be said about the food. We can admire the culinary aesthetic, mine the text for historical clues, or seek double meanings in every bite.

    Editor: Cai Yineng.

    (Header image: A still from the 1987 TV adaption of “Dream of the Red Chamber.”From Douban)