Featured Cuisine: complex by design
Cuisine from Qufu is relatively obscure in China and it might not be known at all if not for the fact that the city, in southwest Shandong province, was the home of Confucius. Hong Kong diners can sample some of its finest dishes at Island Shangri-La from Monday to February 3.
The qualities that make the cuisine stand out are richness and delicacy, and it was the Kong family - Confucius is known as Kong Zi in Chinese - who helped it to develop.
It has two regional influences: Lu cuisine, derived from Shandong cuisine, is centred on seafood; and Su cuisine, which comes from Jiangsu province and is noted for, among other qualities, its soups and a focus on retaining the flavour of each ingredient.
On top of these influences comes imperial cuisine, based on the personal favourites of several generations of emperors and the food served at royal banquets. It is complex, labour intensive and demands great attention to detail.
"All the dishes we're creating are backed by an important Confucian teaching: 'Food can never be too good, and cooking can never be too sophisticated'," says chef Washington Lin Shu-cheng, who studied the cuisine in Shandong. "It hints at the fact that Kong family cuisine is made so meticulously."
Lin, together with chef Ng Kok-leong and three others, designed a menu inspired by the history surrounding Confucius and his writings, such as the Analects.
Each item of the Six Arts Cold Appetisers, for example, is inspired by the six arts and skills that Confucius suggested should be adopted by nobles and seen as the virtues required of a well-rounded individual.
Ng says the Confucius Mansions' Three Ingredients Soup is a must-try because it shows just how deeply rooted in history the cooking method is.
"The soup contains ingredients such as chicken, duck and pig's trotters. It takes us more than six hours to make it into a milky-yellowish soup that's so fragrant," says Ng.
"We do it just as they did it in the past, when there was no gas. They used wood, which gave off less heat, and cooking took longer and needed more attention - which is why we insist on simmering the soup now."
Wisdom Frees Perplexity is another dish that shows the complexity of the cuisine. Pork ribs are braised for more than two hours until they are so tender that the bone can be removed easily while leaving the meat intact.
The ribs are stuffed with spring onion and then deep-fried before being topped with a dark, thick sweet and savoury sauce that's typical of the cuisine.
Another highlight is the Kirin Imperial Book. Fresh fish is deep-fried with skin and scales still on, which makes for a very crispy dish. The name comes from its shape, which resembles the mythical scaly creature. Legend says that just before Confucius was born, a kirin appeared with a jade stone in its mouth that featured engravings hinting at a future leader's birth.
Minimal seasonings of ginger, spring onion, rice wine and Hua Diao wine are used to marinade the fish for four hours.
Ng learned Cantonese cuisine before other cuisines, and Lin was trained in Lu cuisine but became a Cantonese chef when he started working. Ng says Cantonese cuisine is lighter and doesn't have the intensely flavoured, thick and sticky sauces that Lu cuisine is known for.
"They eat very savoury food because the summer is so hot and people sweat a lot. Eating saltier food makes it easier for their bodies to retain water," says Ng.
The dishes will be less salty to suit local tastes.