(1) Stinky Tofu
Anyone even slightly familiar with Chinese cuisine knows about and has eaten soybean curd, or tofu, the Japanese name for what Chinese people call doufu (豆腐). Tofu was introduced to the Japanese during the Tang Dynasty. I also remember reading somewhere that the famed Japanese soup miso shiro, made from a soybean base with curds floating in the soup, is actually based on a Song or Yuan Dynasty recipe, enjoyed by the ancestors of today's Chinese eight or nine hundred years ago.
There's regular tofu, and then there's stinky tofu (臭豆腐), delicious but truly odoriferous, now enjoyed widely outside Taiwan and China. What follows is the legendary origin of stinky tofu, as explained by writers Shao Wenchuan and Guo Xiangshi:
It seems during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722), there lived in Beijing a man, a failed licentiate, named Wang Zhihe. Having flunked the exam which would have perhaps allowed him entry into the civil service and, maybe, a post as a mandarin, Wang opened up a tofu shop to make ends meet.
One midsummer's day, business was slow, and Wang and his wife had on their hands many plates of tofu that were just not selling. The two of them couldn't eat up all the tofu themselves, so Wang cut the slabs of tofu into cubes, added some wild pepper and other seasoning, and sealed the tofu and other ingredients in some earthen jugs, sealing them tightly.
He then forgot all about the tofu in the jugs.
The autumn came.
Mrs. Wang was straightening up the shop when she first noticed the jugs. She had noticed a sour scent and assumed her husband had left some preserved cabbage nearby.
Just then, Wang entered, spotted the jugs, and said, "Aiya, the tofu! I forgot all about it. Quick, let's open up the jugs and see how the tofu turned out!"
By now, the soybean curds had fermented. Wang scooped up a small portion with his finger. He liked what he tasted.
"Not bad . . . Here, try some," he said, turning to his wife.
His wife agreed. It was delicious.
Together, they poured themselves a bowl of the fermented bean curd and added some ginger, onions, and sesame oil. They served other members of their family, who scarfed up this new style of tofu. Wang opened the other jugs, and the odor attracted passersby. The first customers wolfed down the tofu and couldn't stop praising it.
Wang put up a sign outside his shop: "Wang Zhihe's Southern Garden Soy Sauce." This evocative advertising and word-of-mouth brought in more and more customers. Thus, stinky tofu, the name by which we now know this food, was born. Its fame spread far and wide and right into the warrens and quarters of the Forbidden Palace itself. Eventually, the Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908; reigned 1861 -1908) herself was one of the many who became enthusiasts of stinky tofu. Soon, stinky tofu found its way to Japan and then, America.
Zhongguo xiangsu gushi (Stories of Chinese country customs), Shao Wenchuan & Guo Xiangshi; Taipei: Hanxin, 1999; pp. 55-57.
The same thing is said of stinky tofu that is said of sausage: "You'll never eat it again once you've seen how it's prepared." Having said that, however, I still very much enjoy Taiwanese-style stinky tofu as well as a good hot dog. How about you?
(2) Eight Treasures Rice Pudding
Who has never had eight treasures rice pudding? Maybe you ate it at a birthday or wedding banquet or during Chinese New Year. Eight treasures rice pudding (八宝饭) is a glutinous rice dish with many kinds of fruit added. Below is Shao and Guo's rather fanciful version of how this dessert came to be.
It all took place during the reign of the ill-fated Guangxu Emperor's "One Hundred Days of Reform" (1898).
While the progressive-minded emperor attempted to reestablish China as a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Japan, much dangerous palace intrigue occurred. The feared Empress Dowager Cixi, the real head of the empire, the actual puller of puppet strings and the one most to lose from any reform, fled for her life from the imperial court and had to hide. Imperial chef Xiao Dai accompanied her as she securely hid somewhere in the city outside the palace.
While in hiding, the Empress Dowager grew hungry and ordered Xiao Dai to rustle her up some food. The Dowager Empress and Xiao Dai had fled with just the clothes on their backs, and the capital was in an upheaval with the threat of all-out civil war between the Guangxu and Cixi factions. So Xiao Dai had to beg for some food while keeping a low profile.
Somehow finding a porcelain bowl, Xiao Dai went to a door and begged for some rice. Once he had the rice, he went along the street to the door of another residence to beg for something else. He received some corn. He then went to another door and received something else. By the time he felt he had enough to feed the Empress Dowager Cixi, he had already received eight different ingredients.
With the rice and other ingredients mixed together in the bowl, he rushed back to the Empress Dowager's hiding place and gave her the bowl of food.
"What is the name of this dish?" she asked, eating away.
Now, Xiao Dai had himself prepared only the finest, rarest meals for the Empress Dowager. How could he tell her that what she, the de facto supreme ruler of China, was eating were just scraps obtained by begging at eight different doorsteps?
He thought a moment and then said, "Why, this, Your Majesty, is 'eight treasures rice'!"
The Empress Dowager Cixi ate until the bowl was dry and clean, proclaiming this bowl of eight treasures rice to be finer than the all the exquisite delicacies Xiao Dai had previously prepared.
Before long, the One Hundred Days of Reform crisis was over. The Empress Dowager, with the help of Manchu general Ronglu and the secret backing of Han Chinese general Yuan Shikai, had launched a coup d'etat which swiftly and ruthlessly ended the Reform and stripped Emperor Guangxu of all real power. He was placed under house arrest; never again would he have any authority,especially any that could challenge Empress Dowager Cixi.
The Empress Dowager could now return to the palace.
One day, the Empress Dowager called for Xiao Dai.
"Yes, Your Majesty?"
"I want to eat eight treasures rice. Prepare it for me."
"At once, Your Majesty!"
Xiao Dai, now that he was back in the imperial kitchen, thought it was no great task to recreate the bowl of rice and added fruits and vegetables he had prepared for the Empress Dowager. He readily found all the ingredients and, within a short time, had a steaming bowl of eight treasures rice placed before the Dowager Empress.
She placed a spoonful in her mouth and immediately spat it out. Her face became a mask of pure rage.
"This is not eight treasures rice!"
She then made it very clear to Xiao Dai. He had until the next day to prepare eight treasures rice in the manner in which she had first tasted it; if he disappointed her again, she would deliver to him the white silk belt with which he was to hang himself.
He retired to his quarters to ponder what to do. There was a knock on the door. A messenger stood in the doorway with a package for Xiao Dai from a distant relative. He took the parcel and opened it. Inside were various fine quality sweet comestibles: lotus seeds, dried longan meat, melon seeds, winter melon strips, peanuts, peas, and dried dates.
Xiao Dai was at the point of desperation. These certainly weren't the ingredients in the original bowl of eight treasures rice, no. He figured he had no choice but to whip up something delicious in a hurry to try to appease the Empress Dowager. His life itself depended on it.
So, the next day he took the sweet snacks, added a generous quantity of sugar, and cooked them in a sticky rice pudding.
With great trepidation, he approached the Empress Dowager with his latest concoction.
"Your eight treasures rice, Your Majesty . . . "
Empress Dowager Cixi ate a spoonful of the rice pudding and beamed. "Yes! This is exactly the eight treasures rice I remember eating!"
From that day forward, cooking eight treasures rice pudding became Chef Xiao's chief duty.
In 1908, the Empress Dowager Cixi died. Shortly after that the Qing Empire crumbled. Xiao Dai retired to Jingzhou, Hupei, where he opened up a restaurant, Juzhen ("Gathering of Valuables") Garden. The restaurant's specialty? Eight treasures rice.
Thus, has this famous dish come down to us from history into popular folklore!
Shao & Guo, Zhongguo xiangsu gushi; pp. 81-83.
This legend is very much like another, "An Emperor Shows up for Supper" (see 3/28/08). In that tale from Fujian, an emperor escaping mutineers enjoys a very rough, rustic meal with a fancy name. When he returns to the capital, he finds he is unable to relive the enjoyment of that same dish once it has been recreated for him. Dai Xiao, however, is able to bamboozle Empress Dowager Cixi with something richer and more luxuriant to save his life.