‘Confucius cuisine’ to promote China tourism
‘Confucius cuisine’ to promote China tourism
“Confucius cuisine” is a fine-dining trend that reflects how the ruling party — which long saw the sage as a reactionary force — has drafted him into its modern campaign to boost what President Xi Jinping has called China’s “cultural soft power.”
One of the few ancient Chinese names to have global recognition, the philosopher highlights bonds with overseas Chinese and other Asian nations, and his moniker has been adopted for more than 300 language-teaching “Confucius Institutes” in 90 countries.
The authorities are “going back and finding certain elements that existed before the 20th century” and “exploiting Confucius as a brand,” says Thomas Wilson, a professor at Hamilton College in New York.
Among restaurants in Qufu in the eastern province of Shandong — where the philosopher known in Chinese as Kong Zi lived from 551 BC to 479 BC — the cuisine is an edible symbol of the way the writer has been reworked.
“Book of Odes and Book of Rites Ginkos,” a dense, mildly sweet dessert named after two Confucius classics, is a yellow pea flour “book” topped with nuts and drizzled with honey.
In another dish, radishes carved into exquisite trees reflect his saying that “food can never be too fine and cooking never too delicate.”
The philosopher’s teachings of hierarchy, order and deference had deep resonance in the feudal societies of China. Tens of generations of his descendants lived at the sprawling Confucius Residence complex in Qufu, enjoying close ties with a succession of emperors, along with ever bigger land grants and hereditary titles. They regularly feted all manner of dignitaries with elaborate banquets, over time developing an exquisite cuisine, say the chefs promoting it today.
But that privileged world disappeared in the 20th century, as Japan invaded the country and the Communists won the civil war.
Many Confucius descendants — then in the 77th generation — abandoned Qufu and fled to Taiwan.
After taking power the Communists savaged Confucianism, and during the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Red Guard youths incited by Mao Zedong destroyed Confucian temples along with other symbols of the past, and targeted Confucian chefs for abuse.
With trained chefs having fled mainland China or passed away, piecing together exactly what Confucius cuisine entailed has proved difficult.
“The Cultural Revolution cut off nearly four generations,” laments Wang Xinglan, who was commissioned by the Commerce Ministry to rediscover Confucius cuisine in the 1980s and now heads the Shandong Cuisine Research Association.
Today’s dishes supposedly draw from those developed over the centuries at the residence in Qufu, but that leaves plenty of room for interpretation among enterprising restaurateurs.
“Some people want to use the label, but they simply don’t understand the dishes, the culture, the history — so they can’t make the food,” says Wang.
A couple running Confucian Home-Cooking — one of many hole-in-the-walls in Qufu advertising authentic traditional dishes — serves Confucius Residence Tofu for 30 yuan ($4.60) and egg soup for five yuan.
Meanwhile down the street the luxury Shangri-La hotel — where dishes run as high as 680 yuan — boasts an artistic Confucius feast as a snow pear carved with the word “poetry.”
The dessert is topped with a slowly stewed date, lotus seed and ginkgo nut and drizzled with caramel sauce and osmanthus honey.
The hotel’s Confucius Mansion’s Eight Treasures soup includes sea cucumber, abalone, fish maw and other delicacies.
In another dish prawns are cocooned in hand-pulled fried vermicelli and plated like a modern sculpture.
Professor Wilson points out that “the first motive for reviving any of these things is to make money.
“The so-called Confucius cuisine is part of the opening up of the tourist industry in China,” he says.
A Qufu resident surnamed Li, 45, passing by the lush hotel grounds, dismisses what she considers a ploy for free-spending tourists.
“They take a carrot and carve it into something pretty. But it doesn’t taste good, it only looks good,” she says.
“It’s for people with money.”
Family favorites: Toto’s famous spaghetti and meatballs soup
This hearty dish is the middle point between spaghetti and meatballs and soup. It is a family favorite in my household, my kids love it and ask for seconds — and thirds sometimes! As any mother of picky eaters knows, this is a dream come true and I promise you, this soup will have your kids slurping from the bowl.
I was first introduced to this delicious meal by my mother-in-law, whom we affectionately call Toto, and ever since then, it’s become known as Toto’s famous spaghetti and meatballs soup in our home.
It is perfect for a satisfying iftar dish, so why not try it today?
Store bought spaghetti (Toto makes hers from scratch. If you can do that, kudos to you, if not just use store bought spaghetti).
Two peeled potatoes cut into large cubes.
Half-a-pound of minced meat.
One onion, chopped finely.
Six ripe tomatoes and two tablespoons of tomato paste.
Five garlic cloves, crushed.
A handful of chopped coriander leaves.
Combine the tomatoes and tomato paste with one liter of water in a blender, with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the mixture into a big pot on the stovetop and bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to let it simmer.
In a separate bowl, add the minced meat, onions and garlic, with a dash of salt and pepper. Mix until well incorporated and roll into small meatballs.
Cook the meatballs through in a sizzling, oiled pan. Transfer the meatballs into the pot with the simmering tomato soup.
Add the peeled potatoes that have been cut into chunks into the soup.
Let it cook for 10 minutes and add the spaghetti. Continue to cook the dish until the spaghetti is al dente and serve with a garnish of freshly chopped coriander leaves.