Fragrant dish led them into temptation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2011, 12:00am


This elaborate soup, served to US President Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth on their visits to China, is known as one of the most prestigious Chinese dishes. Attributed to Min cooking, or cuisine from Fuzhou, Fujian, it contains almost every expensive ingredient in Chinese cookery - abalone, Shiitake mushrooms, sea cucumber, dried scallops and fish maw, as well as the much-disputed shark fin, and numerous other ingredients: fish lips, quail eggs, and pig trotters.

Some say that the name comes from a story of a young monk, unable to resist the delicious smells of the clearly non-vegetarian soup, sneaking into his neighbour's kitchen to taste it. When caught, he claimed it was so delicious even the Buddha wouldn't be able to resist. There is also a less controversial legend that dates back to the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908). Some versions of the legend pin it down specifically to 1899.

An official in the finance bureau is said to have invited Zhou Lian, then vice-governor of Fujian, to his home for dinner. The official's wife, having heard that Zhou was a gourmet, was keen to make an impression. She gathered the most expensive ingredients she could find, as well as various meats, and cooked the broth over a very low heat to bring out the flavours. She called this fu shou quan, meaning 'luck, longevity and all good things'. As soon as she brought the dish out from the kitchen, a delicious aroma filled the room, and Zhou loved it.

When Zhou went home, he told his cook, Zheng Chunfa, about the dish and asked him to recreate it. He failed the first time and consulted the official's wife. Flattered, she gave him the recipe. Later, Zheng opened a restaurant in Fuzhou called Ju Chun Yuan, which primarily served a high-class clientele. He decided to serve this soup, and adapted the original recipe. He cooking it in pots that had held a fragrant Shaoxing wine, and sealed the top with a lotus leaf before putting a cover on.

Once he served it to a group of top scholars. They were so taken with the taste that one of them came up with a poem, saying that the smells emitting from the wine bottle were so sweet, that when it wafts all around, even the Buddha would forget to meditate and jump over a wall to come and taste it.