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Dream of a banquet

By Ye Jun | China Daily | Updated: 2013-08-17 09:55

Dream of a banquet

Red-robed shrimps is said to be a favorite dish of Jia Baoyu, the decadent protagonist of A Dream of Red Mansions. Photos by Ye Jun / China Daily

In Yangzhou, diners get a taste of the cuisines described in the literary classic A Dream of Red Mansions, complete with the right ambience. Ye Jun reports.

A 300-year-old food style in a very prosperous part of China is revived for present day gourmets in the Huaiyang culinary capital of Yangzhou. Cuisine masters of the city have recreated food recorded in A Dream of Red Mansions, one of the four most important ancient Chinese novels.

Called the Red Mansions banquet, the special dishes are served in Yangzhou State Guesthouse.

Not only does the meal bring back memories of a lifestyle that is three centuries old, the entire ambience of the guesthouse projects nostalgia. One musician plays guqin, a very soothing ancient stringed instrument, while waitresses clad in ancient Chinese gowns serve beautiful, delicate plates of dishes in a colorfully decorated room.

Guests get to try tasty and thoughtfully named dishes, such as "red-robed shrimp", "eight treasure" bean sauce, and "emerald" shaomai.

A waitress will tell you the red robed shrimp is a favorite of Jia Baoyu, the male protagonist in the novel, and the purple ginger sprout is the favorite of Lin Daiyu, the female protagonist.

Several of the dishes are named after roles in the classic novel. Qingwen bun has a special stuffing of bean curd. It is named after Qingwen, Jia Baoyu's servant girl and close friend with a strong personality. A crisp cake with turnip stuffing is named after Taijun, Jia Baoyu's grandmother, because it has black sesame on top, resembling the hairstyle of old women in ancient China.

One delightful thing about Huaiyang cuisine is, the dishes may look simple but they're tasty because of the complicated cooking methods. For example, dazhu gansi, water-boiled bean curd slices, and yangchunmian, or "plain noodle", with shrimp sauce, and pieces of green onion.

Located in the center of Jiangsu province, Yangzhou is a stronghold of Huaiyang cuisine, one of four major cooking styles of the country.

With the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal flowing past it, the area around Yangzhou saw the biggest flow of the country's salt business. In what was considered China's most flourishing ages, under the reign of emperors Kangxi (1654-1722) and Qianlong (1711-99), Yangzhou rendered one third of the country's annual revenue.

That's the reason why the two emperors often visited the area by boat, adding to the city's fame and prosperity. Visiting officials and business people contributed to the buoyancy of the local restaurant industry. Rich salt traders built their houses adorned beautiful gardens, and have their own chefs.

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