Centuries ago in Fujian, an emperor found himself in grave danger during some sudden rebellion or mutiny. He had to flee all by himself on horseback with the enemy, also mounted, fast on his heels. He rode and rode nearly the life out of the horse before reaching this chasm. He stopped. Before him lay the gorge; behind him was the dust storm made by the men and horses after him, after his head!
To jump may save my life, he thought. To remain definitely means the end.
So he made the horse jump, and they both made it across. The enemy horseman were forced to cool their horses' hoofs on the other side as the emperor made his getaway. The emperor, however, didn't wait around to gloat; no, he continued to ride on through the woods without stopping.
On and on the emperor rode, not daring to stop. Soon, dusk was approaching. He was desperate now. If he and his horse didn't locate shelter for the night, how could they continue? Ahead was a spiral of smoke. Smoke from an oven or perhaps an outdoor cooking pit? He headed in the direction of the smoke and soon found himself on a desolate plain beyond the woods. The smoke? It had only been a wispy cloud and not from an oven at all. The emperor was disheartened.
Then, off in the distance, he saw it--a grass hut.
He rode over and dismounted just in front of the door. Someone was home--he had heard someone moving about inside. The emperor called out to the person inside, who turned out to be an old man living alone. The emperor identified himself as a merchant who had been chased to this place by bandits. Could he and his horse spend the night to eat and to rest?
Yes, was the answer. "Come on in and rest while I tend to your horse," said the old man.
The old man lived in utter poverty, the emperor noted, looking around the very sparse hut. There was absolutely nothing here with which to entertain a guest. Soon the old man came in and prepared supper.
"I don't have much rice, sir, but what I have I'll be glad to share it with you," he said to the emperor. "I was planning to have gruel for supper, along with some fish. I hope that will suit you."
"Yes, fine, whatever you have," said the emperor, passing himself off as a merchant.
Then came the time to eat. The emperor was presented with a small bowl of rice gruel and a meager fish on a small plate, the same things his elderly host provided for himself.
The emperor then started to eat. The rice gruel was simply delicious, and the fish was the best he had ever eaten. The emperor normally ate the choicest, the best meat and fish, but the meal he had just eaten here in this miserable hut was, hands down, the most splendid meal he had ever eaten.
"What do you call these dishes which I have just eaten?" he asked the old man. "Both dishes were delicious!"
"You found them 'delicious'?" The old man found this amusing. The food of poor people, people like me! he thought. Well, this stranger thinks they are delicious, so I'll come up with a couple of special names for them. " The rice gruel is called 'pearl gruel,' and the fish is 'phoenix-eye salmon.'"
"'Pearl gruel' and 'phoenix-eye salmon'! Wonderful names, wonderful food! I shall remember these two names," said the emperor.
He committed the names to memory and went to sleep. Early the next morning, he got upon his horse and was off again. If he made it back to the capital, he was determined to have the imperial chefs recreate these two dishes for him.
Somehow the emperor was able to make it back to the capital. A huge gourmet lunch was provided for him--the rarest and most delicious foods of the land, sea and air. He wasn't interested in these foods, though. Only one thing ran through his mind: Pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon!
He summoned his chefs and told them what he wanted. They had never heard of or had seen these two dishes; they hadn't the foggiest clue as to how to prepare them. The emperor explained a little bit and left it up to them. They couldn't very well refuse the emperor, so they retreated to the imperial kitchen and wracked their brains. One chef decided to cut up a shark's fin and from it form little fishballs for the "pearls." Another slaughtered a pigeon, removed its eyes and stuffed them with rare foodstuffs into some fish for the "phoenix-eye salmon."
The dishes were now ready; the emperor had them placed before them and began to eat. The chefs anxiously watched and waited for the emperor's reaction.
He took a bite of one dish and spat it out. He did the same for the other dish. "No," he said. "Neither of these is right. Go back and try again!"
So the imperial chefs once again returned to the kitchen to try to come up with pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon. Once again, though, the emperor rejected the two dishes.
"Go get the old man! Bring him to the capital!" said the emperor. "This is the only way I'll ever be able to eat those two delicacies again."
After a long search, the old man was finally located and escorted to the capital. He was brought before the emperor, the man he had previously known as a visiting merchant.
"Go with my chefs into the kitchen. Prepare pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon exactly the way you did for me when I stayed in your home. You'll find the chefs have everything you need. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Before long, the old man returned with two plates--pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon!
The emperor took bites from both plates.
"Ugh!" he cried, wrinkling his forehead and nose. "What is the meaning of this?" The gruel was too watery and salty, while the salmon was too bitter. "This is not fit for a human being!"
"But Your Imperial Highness, I cooked both of these the same way as I had when you ate with me last time."
"Is that true?" asked the emperor. "Are these really pearl gruel and phoenix-eye salmon?"
"Yes, the two foods before you here have been cooked exactly the same way as the foods you had eaten before," replied the old man. "There's not the slightest difference. The only difference is last time you were hungry and tired and you had just escaped losing your life. Of course these two simple things were delicious at the time! I guess anything, even what I cook, would be mouth-watering to someone who was starving and who had just cheated death!"
"Ah," the emperor said, "ha, ha, ha!" All he could do now was laugh.
(1) Fujian minjian chuanqi (Folk legends of Fujian) by Huang Rongcan. (Hong Kong: Luoto chubanshe, 1978.) pp. 59-61; (2) Fujian chuanshuo miyu (Legends and riddles of Fujian) by Zhi Nong. (Taipei: Orient Cultural Service, 1956.) pp. 118-120.
The longer Zhi version has the emperor become lost after wandering away from the city of Quanzhou and stumbling onto the cottage of an old couple named Cai (Tsai) just before nightfall. Also in this version, the emperor himself comes up with the names "pearl gruel" and "phoenix-eye salmon" and later summons Mrs. Cai to the capital to replicate her two tasty specialties. Motifs: K1812, "King in disguise"; K1812.1, "Incognito king helped by humble man."