Friday, September 20, 2013

Historical celebrity legend Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival feast

As a long-time Chinese history geek and not-as-long-time kitchen geek, I decided that this year's Chinese Mid Autumn Festival would be the perfect time to bring two of my biggest passions together. I would put myself to work on a possibly unprecedented culinary project, where history, legend and food intermingled at the dinner table.

It's not my first historically-oriented meal; I pulled together a Mayan meal around the time of the last purported doomsday, and did a meal themed on the Three Sisters of traditional Mesoamerican agriculture last year. But this one would be special, because each dish has a legend associated with its conception - a legend specifically associated with a significant figure in Chinese history.

I'd had this in the back of my mind for a while, having already arranged for Chinese beverages weeks before. The morning after Mid Autumn, I began preparations for an historical dinner that would go down in history.

Jiao'er Soup and the legend of Zhang Zhongjing

Legend has it that Nanyang got really chilly during one winter solstice. So cold that the people were suffering from chilblains of the ears. Thankfully, there was a doctor in the house. And not just any doctor, but renowned Han Dynasty physician Zhang Zhongjing (张仲景), whose hometown Nanyang happened to be.

He could not handle a whole town of shivering people with the local clinic, so he had a cauldron set up over a fire, and whipped up a special "food therapy" of dumplings stuffed with meat and herbs, cooked in a soup. He served the soup piping hot to each person, along with two dumplings - which he shaped rather like ears - calling it 祛寒娇耳汤 (chill-expelling "tender ear" soup). The hearty, herbaceous dumplings and the hot soup (and possibly the shape of the dumplings as a psychological supplement) made everyone's ears warm again, and the winter solstice tradition of jiao'er (娇耳) soup began.

I first salted about 400g of chopped Chinese cabbage, and allowed it to strain dry, then squeezing the remaining moisture out (this is important, because you don't want a dripping filling when it comes time to make the dumplings). I then mixed it with 300g minced pork, half a cup of chopped scallions, a tablespoon of light soy sauce, a teaspoon of sesame oil, a pinch of ground pepper, and a teaspoon of cornflour, to make the filling.

For the dough, I dissolved a teaspoon of salt in 150ml water, and folded it into 300g flour, adding water until all the loose flour was part of the dough. I left this to rest for 15, kneaded it again, let it rest for another 15, and rolled it into a long cord, from which I cut smaller pieces. Meanwhile I started boiling a pork stock.

I rolled each piece into a flat circle, placing a little filling in the middle, and folding over, dabbing water on the inner edge to seal the semi-circular dumpling.

Finally, I slowly dropped these into the boiling stock, and let them cook until they expanded and became firm. Served hot, two a bowl, as the doctor ordered.

Longjing Prawns and the legend of the Qianlong Emperor

A man steps into an ordinary restaurant in Southern China during the Qing Dynasty, clutching his jacket around him. He orders a plate of stir-fried prawns, and shakes off the volatile weather of the day so far. Just then, he remembers the handful of leaves he picked from a field not far from the nearby West Lake of Hangzhou. He tells the waiter that he would also like some tea, and absentmindedly opens his jacket to pull out the fragrant Dragon Well tea leaves. As he does this, the waiter's jaw drops, for under the plain outer jacket is the dragon robe of the emperor of China.

The waiter might have heard tales of the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝), who was known for his frequent exploits in disguise. In fact, one of these excursions is said to have resulted in the tradition of tapping the table with three fingers to thank a fellow diner for pouring you tea. But here he was, at their restaurant.

From this point, things descend into chaos. Waiter starts steeping tea. Cook starts with prawns. Waiter can't hold it in anymore, and tells cook about emperor sitting outside. Cook loses cool, and mistakenly dumps tea leaves into prawns, thinking them to be culinary herbs. Waiter brings stir-fried prawns to emperor. Emperor recognizes distinctive aroma of Longjing. And Longjing Prawns (龙井虾仁) was born.

I washed 600g raw, peeled prawns, patted them dry with a strong paper towel, and let them marinate for 15 in a mixture of 3 tbsp egg white and 3 tbsp cornflour. In the meantime, I let 3 tablespoons of Longjing tea (gosh, I'm so glad I still had them) steep in 3/4 cup of boiling-hot water. I strained out the leaves, and set aside about 6 tbsp of the tea-infused water for the stir fry.

I tossed the prawns  marinade and all, with 3 tsp cooking oil over high heat, until they were about half-done, then set aside. I cleaned the wok, and put the prawns ack in, with the tea leaves, tea water, 3 tbsp cooking wine, 1/2 tsp salt, and a little chopped scallion, stir-frying to completion over high with another 3 tsp cooking oil.

Best served super-fresh, so I prepared this just before serving.

Mantou and the legend of Zhuge Liang

Of the great names that come from the Three Kingdoms period, the name of Zhuge "Kongming" Liang (諸葛 "孔明" 亮) stands tall. Synonymous with intelligence, cunning, resourcefulness and loyalty, the "Crouching Dragon" followed the longstanding (and somewhat typically Chinese) tradition of the master strategist, joining the likes of Jiang Ziya, Sun Tzu, and Zhang Liang before him in shining as bright as - or brighter than - those they serve.

After a successful campaign against the southern barbarians led by Meng Huo, Kongming was leading the Shu army on its return march. As they approached the violent waters of the Lu river, locals told them that an offering of human heads would appease the river deity, who would then permit them to cross. Kongming, unwilling to decapitate even his war captives for this purpose, had his men roll dough into human head shapes, steam them, and toss them into the river. The deception worked, and they were all able to cross the river and reach Shu safely. He named the buns mantou (蛮头), meaning "barbarian head", which was later renamed with the homonym 馒头.

I started by culturing a mixture of 3/4 tbsp of yeast and 3/4 tbsp of sugar in 4 tbsp of warm water for 15 minutes, then mixing with 3 cups of flour to make a dough. After leaving the covered dough to rise for about an hour and a half (with it doubling in size, and pushing it back down mid-way), I rolled it into a long sausage and cut out small rolls.

For added visual appeal, I stretched these out and rolled them over themselves.

Leaving enough space between the uncooked rolls, I let them steam until they darkened, expanded and became firm buns. They go great with any sauce, or even by themselves.

Dongpo Pork and the legend of Su Shi

Su "Dongpo" Shi (苏 "東坡" 轼) was a star of the Song Dynasty. An accomplished statesman (a causeway across the West Lake bears his name), he was also a writer, painter, poet, and more.

The legend goes that Dongpo was presented with pork and wine by the people of Hangzhou, in gratitude for the public works he had constructed. He began stewing the boiled and browned pork with the wine, but was interrupted by a visiting friend. His friend challenged him to a game of weiqi, in which Dongpo got so engrossed that he forgot the meal he had cooking. By the time they were done, the pork was so tender and delicious that it became famous as another of Dongpo's gastronomical achievements. And so, Dongpo Pork (东坡肉) was created.

I cut about 800g of raw pork belly into 3-inch-wide cubes, simmering them in boiling water for about 10 minutes, then browning them in a pan with hot cooking oil.

I then brought to boil a mixture 6 tbsp light soy sauce, 6 tbsp dark soy sauce, 3/4 cup cooking wine, 150g brown sugar, grated 1.5 inch piece fresh ginger, and 12 sliced spring onions. Once the sugar dissolved, I reduced the heat to simmer, and added the pork cubes I had reinforced by tying on all sides with strips of blanched spring onion.

I simmered this for almost 4 hours, adding water to keep it from going dry. Not as good as in Hangzhou, but a unanimous hit, nonetheless.

Mooncakes and the legend of Liu Bowen

Around the middle of the 14th century, China had been under the rule of the Mongols for close to a hundred years. As natural disasters and court intrigue weakened the Mongol dynasty, rebellions erupted across the land, the most significant of which was that of the Red Turbans. One of the most charismatic leaders of this rebel army was Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), a commoner who would soon be emperor. Zhu had in his employment another famed master strategist of Chinese history: Liu Bowen (刘伯温).

To overthrow the Mongols, they required all the rebels to coordinate their attacks and strike the Mongols at the same time. Liu hatched a scheme whereby they would bake messages into cakes (variously, as embedded slips, or in parts pressed into the surface of each cake, so multiple cakes could be assembled into the full message), telling everyone to begin the uprising at the Mid-Autumn time.

The plan worked; Zhu went on to become the founder of the illustrious Ming Dynasty. And thus, the mooncake became a Mid-Autumn tradition.

For the filling, I mixed up 1 cup each of apricot preserves, chopped pitted dates, desiccated coconut, and raisins. Not the most traditional filling, but I had few options. In any case, you should see what they put in mooncakes nowadays.

To make the mooncake dough, I mixed 4 cups flour, 3/4 cup milk powder and  1 tbsp baking powder, and 1 tsp salt. In another bowl, I beat 3 large eggs with 1.25 cups sugar, then added a cooled mixture of 3/4 cup melted butter and 1.5 tsp vanilla extract. Folding all this together gave me my dough, which I let sit in a refrigerator for a few hours to set.

I cut large coins out of the rolled dough, and flattened each out to make a wrapper for a suitably-sized lump of filling, pressing the sealed cake into a flat cylinder.

I didn't have an elaborate cake press handy, so I just carved "明" (the name of the dynasty founded by Zhu) into the top surface of each cake, before glazing with a basic beaten egg-and-water mix, and baking at 190C for about half an hour. Not traditional-tasting either, but they went down VERY well with my guests.

I still had a stash of flower tea from Suzhou, which was perfect for washing down the dishes we enjoyed that night.