To feed between the lines
Recreating dishes from a fictional description can be as problematic as bringing literary scenes and characters to the silver screen. There are bound to be conflicts with different readers' imaginations - even when there are detailed accounts of the presentation, smell and taste.
But that challenge never stops chefs at restaurants in different parts of China attempting to serve their own versions of a Red Mansions Banquet, which is traditionally prepared for special occasions and important people and features the many sumptuous dishes described in the 18th-century novel A Dream of Red Mansions.
One of the classics of Chinese literature, A Dream of Red Mansions was penned by Cao Xueqin and includes detailed descriptions of various Huaiyang-style delicacies, intertwined with a plot set in the Qing dynasty revolving around the aristocratic lifestyle of its central characters.
Anthony Dong, chef de cuisine of Shang Garden at Futian Shangri-La in Shenzhen, is one of the latest chefs to take up the challenge. Until February 6, Shang Garden is offering a 36-dish Red Mansions Banquet.
This slightly daunting but delicious affair begins with 19 starters, ranging from four kinds of nuts, various pickles and braised cold plates. There are also three display dishes made of flour and dyes depicting a butterfly, swans and a peacock inspired by key scenes or settings in the novel, before the main dishes are served. Each of the 10 main courses symbolises an allusion to the writer or a passage in the text.
The fun starts with the menu, a huge paper fan with names of dishes written on it in Chinese calligraphy mounted on the wall of a room decorated in the Qing style. However, the menu isn't always much help as many of the dishes are given poetic names lifted from the book, and unless you have committed the text to memory, you may not know that Plum Blossoms Amidst the White Snow is actually fried shredded pigeon with braised shrimp paste, or that Old Clams Reminiscing the Beauty of Pearls is braised tortoise with whitefish ball and winter melon.
Dong follows the recipes as closely as possible while adding a modern twist. Most of the dishes are extravagant and inspire diners to roam back in time, but on occasion guests are amusingly yanked back to the present as when the controversial ingredient of shark's fin is replaced by lobster from Australia served on a bed of milk curd.
Elsewhere, there is braised bird's nest with egg in chicken soup, steamed sliced mandarin fish with black mushroom, braised minced pork and crab meat (lion head meatball), sauteed 'luhao', braised shrimp and fish soup with egg and 'Yangzhou' fried rice with sea cucumber, shrimp, ham and chicken.
'The Red Mansions Banquet is the best representation of how culture and food are closely linked,' said Dong, who specialises in Huaiyang cuisine and has more than 20 years of experience.
The skills of Yangzhou chefs are a highlight of the Huaiyang way of cooking, and are on full display in the preparation of the Red Mansions Banquet.
'To perfect their knife skills, they spend at least two years slicing tofu into hair-thin pieces, which is no challenge to them even if they're blindfolded,' he says.
The banquet ends with a dim sum dessert platter (presented as a scenic view) and fruit platter (in the shape of a red lantern). This is certainly a labour-intensive meal, with a strong emphasis on presentation and mood.
Those who want a taste of this experience of another time should book at least two days in advance as the meal is so labour intensive only one table of 10 can be catered for each night.