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February 20, 2011

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Arts of love and cooking

Along the Qinhuai River in Nanjing's old town stands the well-preserved love nest where one of China's great beauties and culinary queens demonstrated a universal truth: the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

Dong Xiaowan (1623-51), a concubine and extraordinary woman in Chinese history, developed an ingenious cuisine - often linked to poetry - to please her lover.

The sun was setting but threads of luminous afterglow lingered on the Qinhuai River lined with Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty buildings with whitewashed walls, red carved eaves and lattice windows. Some are so old that the white turns gray and the red turns brown, but all are bathed in an amber glow.

Our boat glides in tranquility and then the boatman stops in front of a two-storied house.

"Dear Miss, you should memorize this building," the knowledgeable boatman said. "This building looks ordinary but a famous woman once lived here for several years."

He referred to Dong, a legendary figure who rose from a high-class brothel in the old town preside over the table of poet-scholar Mao Jiaping. In fact, she developed unique, fragrant and visually elegant dishes; she made all delicacies herself.

She is famous for Dong candies and Dong meat, which are popular in Nanjing and Yangzhou, but difficult to find in Shanghai.

A picture of Dong's remarkable culinary world emerges from visits to restaurants and snack stalls and study of Dong's writings that include her recipes.

In Dong's world, food is not just food, but the food of love, which is presented like poetry.

Dong's story

When she was eight years old, Dong Xiaowan was forced by poverty into prostitution in Shili Qinhuai, a 10-kilometer-long red-light district along the Qinghuai River. She soon became one of the "Qinghuai Eight Beauties," eight high-class prostitutes known for their appearance and artistic talents, such as painting and writing poetry. These were skills most women were not encouraged to cultivate but a number of Chinese courtesans in history were known for their artistic and intellectual attainments.

When Dong was 19 she met Mao Pijiang (1611-93), a famous poet and scholar. She was 15 or 16, he was 28. They fell in love and frequently wrote love poems to each other, expressing life-long devotion. Dong left her brothel and became Mao's concubine, living along the river in their love nest with a garden. For nine years they lived a life of sensuality, until Dong died at the age of 28.

Dong believed that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, and so she spent a lot of time in the kitchen, inventing various, very sensual delicacies to tempt Mao's palate.

While she herself was said to prefer unsalted food that was not too fatty or sweet, her lover preferred sweet foods with strong fragrance. Thus, Dong created ganlu, a kind of sweet liquid made of flower petals and yitang, a kind of malted sugar made from fermented wheat and corn.

Often, Dong chose different kinds of flowers for her liquid infusions, based on the seasons: plum for spring, rose for summer, osmanthus and chrysanthemum for autumn and winter.

When the silken sweetness slides over the tongue, the aroma of flowers greets the nose and fills the lungs, making the experience very special.

According to some Nanjing locals, Mao often paired his wife's ganlu with rice wine as an important prelude to his daily scholarly pursuits.

Dong loved poetry, especially Tang (618-907 AD) poems praising natural beauty. That's why her cooking considered not only flavor and texture, but also the visual arrangement of the dish to make it elegant and aesthetically pleasing.

Properly interpreted by taste, fragrance and presentation, many dishes are said to represent a poem created by herself, hidden in her heart.

Poetic food

Mao praised Dong's poetic dishes in his "Ying Mei An Yi Yu" (Reminiscences from the Shaded Plum Study), saying, "The ham my wife made is scented slightly with the aroma of pine resin, if tasted carefully, the salted and air-dried fish she made contains the flavor of elk."

One of her most famous dishes was (and still is) "drunken clam in which the mollusk is eaten alive, drenched in baijiu, distilled white spirit.

A famous saying in the region about that delicacy says it is "just like peach blossoms on the palate, representing the appreciation of natural romance."

Her "drunken sturgeon's bones" is compared to "moist white jade, which represents purity and nobility."

Some people said that every one of Dong's creations contains an embedded poem that the taster needs to interpret to fully appreciate it.

Even, her cookbook "kuiyan", which contains private recipes, is written in verse. That partly explains why most of Dong's dishes have been lost. According to chef Li Yuhua, who has researched Dong's poem-style for decades, many chefs dare not try the recipe since they fear they may misunderstand her "poem."

Dong was meticulous and selected ingredients with great care. For example, she created a dish called "mallow fried with shredded eel." "kuiyan" introduced that the mallow (a flowering plant) should be picked after the solar terms of "frost descends." Only at that time is the mallow at its best, fresh and soft, perfectly paired with tender and silky eel.

Although many Dong's delicacies have been lost, some classical dishes are popular and still served in Nanjing, notably Dong candy and Dong meat.

Dating back 350 years, Dong candy is Dong's signature dessert concocted for the man she loved. It is made with wheat flour, peeled white or black sesame seeds, white sugar and malted sugar, mixed together and fried. Dong herself used a small silver pan and silver spatula for frying, saying the fine metal increased the sweet's exquisite taste. Today cooks commonly use stainless steel or other utensils.

After it is fried, the outside turns golden yellow. It is then topped with dried sweet-scented osmanthus and cut into small cubes no longer than two centimeters.

It's very soft, fragile and crumbles easily. The taste is sweet, of course, and the texture is a little granular. The strong aroma of sesame and flowers lingers in the mouth.

Dong meat, a kind of braised pork, is very popular throughout China. In Shanghai it is sometimes called zouyourou, or tiger-skin pork. To make the meat crisp outside, soft and flaky inside, Dong slowly poached the pork for several hours until the meat becomes flaky enough, then quickly fried it in the hot oil. She then covered it with yellow wine, soy sauce, sugar, ginger and green onions.

At one Nanjing restaurant, the Dong meat was a bit disappointing because the dish tasted too light; it was lacking richness and the fatty aroma. This may be due to the emphasis today on lighter, healthier eating.

But sometimes, we should throw caution to the winds and enjoy delicious food.

How to get to Nanjing:

Take the Shanghai-Nanjing high-speed railway (two hours) or by car (two to three hours)

Where to find Dong's delicacies in Nanjing:

1. Dashiba Food Street, Fuzimiao Scenic Area, Qinghuai Distrct

2. Shiziqiao Food Street, Hunan Rd (near Hubei Rd), Gulou District


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