“A Chinese fairy tale has it that the rooster, one of calendar’s most generous animals, gives people as many treasures as are the feathers adorning its gay plumage. And when the time comes to announce the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the one it is to head, it crows 1001 times!”
“Oh, really! 1001 whole times” – the little black eyes sparkle with astonishment.
“But there’s more to it! Just a second after the last crow, 1001 red hens all dressed up bring 1001 platters with 1001 dishes and serve them graciously on the table intended for the New Year’s Banquet.”
At that imaginary sight the little eyes spread into a pleasurable contentment with a mischievous smile and a little gluttonous tongue quickly slips adding:
“The Banquet of the Fire Rooster! With 1001 treasures!”
The author of this newly composed story is Charles, a close friend of ours, and the little eyes, mouth and tongue belong to Julien, his four-year-old son. Of French-Chinese origin, he was born and raised here, in Bordeaux and has celebrated all Chinese New Years in France. The Chinese community expands and there are quite a few children like him growing up with both cultures.
We are quite a big company made up of Chinese and mixed, mostly Chinese-French, couples as well as people like me, true fans who have had the chance to touch China a bit more thoroughly thanks to having worked and lived in the country. We have found each other a long time ago and under different circumstances. Instead of the traditional group visit to a restaurant this year we decided to have a proper celebration of the Chinese New Year by a party of our own. The stakes, however, are high: each of us must prepare some more uncommon New Year recipe and choose a matching wine!
At the time in question we are respectfully queued up a mile-long line at the cash desk of one of the local Asian stores waiting our turn. And while we, the adults are making exciting comments on the preparation, the children start murmuring and hopping from foot to foot. I am trying to dispel their boredom by telling them about the real Chinese Banquet, the one that is neither “le banquet”, nor “the banquet” but the true, ceremonial, Chinese one with all of its splendor in all dimensions. About the one I experienced during my stay in China a couple of years ago, about the one described in William CHAN TAT CHUEN’s books.
I can’t help sharing about this sinologist specializing in “Food Culture and Rituals” who is of huge importance for me. A long-time chronicler of the “Culture Comes with Eating” in the monthly magazine Péquin de Paris, for me he remains one of the most profound connoisseurs of Chinese culinary art. At the table of ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’, At the Table of the Chinese Emperor, Varnished Bird/Bloody Bird: Cultural Dialogues between Chinese and French Cuisine, Chinese Holidays and Banquets: hardly is there a francophone interested in Chinese history and gastronomic rites who has not tasted his stories and the recipes served in there. In fact, it is thanks to him that the magical world of a novel unfolded in front of me some time ago: the world of Dream of the Red Chamber.
The banquet is a feast in Ancient China to mark the holidays of Emperor’s family or members of nobility, the seasonal holidays and official ceremonies. There were 8 kinds of registered banquets:
-Banquet for announcement of progress:Fengguang jia mian
-Banquet for Emperor’s Birthdays: Qingzhu shenshou
-Banquet to celebrate military victories: Qinggong zhujie
-Banquet to celebrate the seasons of agricultural calendar: Yangqing shijie
-Banquet in honor of vassal princes: Cian zhu hou
-Banquet of longevity: in honor of the elderly: Qianshouan
-Sacred banquet: Jisi zhili
– Banquet for weddings and funerals: Huanshan zhili
These banquets used to be organized by the Banquet Bureau, or Guanlusi. The number of invitees varied, the hierarchy was strictly observed.
RUYI, or « May all your wishes come true! »
Now, back to our “Banquet Bureau” in Bordeaux and the decision we have made to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Depending on the skills and preferences of each of us we were assigned the task to prepare a dish by trying to approximate the one in Emperor’s banquet as much as possible: in terms of opulence, finesse, and rarity of the products used, their original combination as well as the beauty of serving on the table. Everyone knows my strong attraction to Asian desserts with their delicacy. They do not stress on sugar, they rely on the natural sweetness of fruits and other components, their basic ingredient is rice flour, which is much finer than wheat flour and thus creates a sense of lightness.
The truth is their number is tiny compared to the main courses, soups and others and thus the challenge I took up – to prepare one of the desserts for the banquet – was even greater.
I will not hide the fact that in order to prepare the dessert I directly turned to Cao Xueqin’s novel Dream of the Red Chamber. It is a true encyclopedia of arts de la table et de la cuisine of the nobility of 18th century, the period when Chinese cuisine reached its apogee in all national practices, whether Chinese Han or Mandchoue. No other Chinese novel gives so precise details of the diet therapy, of the preparation of daily menus, of the food variations depending on the seasons, of banquets and holidays. One-third of the novel is dedicated to the “table”. The food as a ritual varying by season or as a token of love, attention and concern is represented everywhere in the book. For that reason Dream of the Red Chamber is considered a vade mecum for all great Chinese chefs. The recipes and banquets described in the book are an object of interpretations not only by renowned restaurants but by Chinese families in general.
In addition, for me it is the most poetic of all novels where the art of gastronomy is so densely present! I had read the novel a couple of times and I can describe some moments in great detail. That’s why it was not very difficult to find the recipe that was a perfect match: RUYI, or “May all your wishes come true”: glutinous rice flour-based sweets that must be made in two colors. Do you imagine what a sheer perfect I had to make! Here is the recipe:
For the dough:
500 g glutinous rice flour
1/4 liter milk
2 egg whites
10 grams yeast
For the molding:
100 grams red sugar
100 grams black sesame paste
200 grams walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and dried fruits at choice
Make the dough and divide it in 2 parts: mix one with the red sugar, and the other one with the sesame paste. Roll out them into two identical rectangles. Sprinkle the white dough with the chopped nuts and dried fruits and place the black dough on top of it. Fold the edges twice and then cut the roll in pieces resembling RUYI
And as few people have heard about that odd object, here is a brief description: it is a type of wand worn by famous scientists as early as at the time of the Qing dynasty and it served as a gift symbolizing good prophecies. Similarly to ruler’s scepter it also served to impose authority. Its form and also the material used to sculpt it changed from one dynasty to another. One could also tell the title of its holder by its form. Little by little it assumed the form of a tile and a social function: when visiting the palace the holder of RUYI had access to the emperor. It is known that when Buddhism was introduced to China by the Han dynasty in the 1st century it accompanies the Buddhist texts. It was not until 1000 years later that it became a symbol of good prophecies and during the Qing dynasty it took the form of the lingzhi mushroom, a symbol of longevity and happiness not only because the Chinese attach to it some exceptional qualities that help them cope with the hardships of life but because it is very rare! Since then the wand was called RUYI, which means “May wishes come true!” in Chinese.
Desires Come True & Wu Nu Shan
I think that I was successful with my “Sweets of Desires Come True” and my selection of wine. It came quite spontaneously, as all nice things do. In 2016, we were invited and celebrated the Chinese New Year in Clos des Quatres Vents, a real pearl among the domains in the Margaux appellation of Bordeaux, owned by the Chinese Dynasty Winery. Along with the vertical tasting of the wines from Margaux, Lina FAN, the Executive Director of the domain provided us with the rare opportunity to taste Wu Nu Shan, a Chinese ice wine. Until then I had tasted Chinese wines only during the last Vinexpo 2015 that took place in Bordeaux. That master’s class left me with impressions that were quite… heterogeneous. I knew that the quality of Chinese wines was increasing by the day but I found the ice wine that came in the end of the Chinese New Year celebration to be on a world level. Made of Vidal, a Canadian variety of vines, themselves originating from Canada and planted in Huanren, the area currently called “Тhe Golden Ice Valley” by the Chinese.
I found that that was the wine that best matches my RUYI: with its exceptionally intense nose of quince, sweet but not intrusive, with continuous final freshness, with notes of dried pears and quinces and baked hazelnuts.
The night of our Chinese New Year the message of RUYI spread across the house. Whether because they had smelled the bottom of the glasses we had used to drink the ice wine Wu Nu Shan, or because we had managed to fully recreate the night of the 1001 treasures of the Chinese Fire Rooster, the whisper of the children, each one holding a candle in hand, was floating around the house for a long time: RUYI – RUYI – RUYI – RUYI…