A Dream of Red Mansions is one of China’s most classic and historically significant novels. In addition, it is also a veritable encyclopedia of imperial Chinese dining, mentioning 186 separate dishes, many described in great detail.
Authored by Cao Xueqin during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), A Dream of Red Mansions portrays the ascent and decline of four wealthy noble families – Jia, Shi, Wang and Xue. The novel offers a window into the extravagant lives of Chinese aristocracy, vividly depicting their lifestyles and customs.
Cao also captures the richness of the era’s imperial cuisine, carefully describing many dishes popular at the time, such as crab-stuffed dumplings and steamed duck with wine sauce. Though familiar to many Chinese people through A Dream of Red Mansions, such delicacies existed only on paper for most people, as few if any restaurants offered the complex dishes listed by Cao.
An increasing number of restaurants, however, have seized upon “Red Mansions Cuisine” as their specialty, serving up the book’s famous dishes and holding themed culinary festivals for chefs to showcase their creations.
Lai Jin Yu Xuan Restaurant is one such eatery specializing in cuisine inspired by the novel.
Before preparing the menu, the restaurant’s staff first carefully studied the book, consulted experts and checked archives at the Palace Museum for information on imperial cuisine during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties.
Housed inside Beijing’s historic Zhongshan Park, Lai Jin Yu Xuan’s ambience of traditional architecture and wait staff singing the theme song of the well-known television adaptation of A Dream of Red Mansions further enhances the overall dining experience.
Lai Jin Yu Xuan works carefully to stay true to the novel, uniting culinary and literary cultures. Guests are even provided with a copper basin for washing as nobles did, while traditionally dressed waitresses relate the specific chapters and stories behind each dish.
Though there are many elegant dishes to choose from, the restaurant’s fried eggplant with nuts is its specialty. Found in chapter 41, the dish is the most thoroughly described in the whole novel, connected with Granny Liu, a poor relative of the Jia family and her visit to the family’s mansion. According to the book, Granny Liu so enjoyed the dish that she asked how it was prepared, and was taken aback when she heard how difficult it was to make the dish.
Red Mansions cuisine is not only popular with Chinese culinary and literary fans. The restaurants manager, Luo Yong, said that foreign visitors make up many of their customers.
“Foreigners are fascinated by the traditional atmosphere we created, and some embassies in Beijing have chosen our place to hold banquets. They think we represent a kind of Chinese traditional style of cooking.” Luo said.
When asked about the need to adapt dishes for the modern palate, Luo expressed his concern about the balance between tradition and innovation.
“We encourage changes, but we should not discard tradition for the sake innovation. Our chefs guarantee both quality and flavor of every dish. We hope that the book’s cooking culture can be passed on for generations, but the crucial point is that it should be faithful to A Dream of Red Mansions.”
Luo added that although the restaurant strives to authentically recreate the novel’s cuisine, the restaurant also works hard to guarantee a healthy and safe experience for guests.
“Our vegetables are organically grown and many dishes are based in Chinese traditional medicine, ensuring healthy dining.”