Chapter 16 – State Banquet, Part 1
After a while, the princess eventually calmed down and stood aside to look straight at me.
“Song Xiran, without my permission, you’re not allowed to…”
She stopped, sudden shyness overcame her natural arrogance, her cheeks flushed red and she found herself unable to speak.
“Princess, not allowed to what? I see you were just enjoying yourself just now. Also, your lips are very soft, ah~” I looked at her as she hesitated, deliberately poking fun at her a little.
“You… you get out now.” the more she looked at me, the more panicky she became.
“Yes, then princess, next time let’s…” I had only spoken halfway and did not even have time to offer her my lecherous smile when I was shoved outside.
Ha ha ha ha ha, teasing princesses was so fun! Unfortunately, that fun moment was over~ I left her in peace as I walked away, whistling a jaunty tune and happily skipping towards my own courtyard.
The day of the Imperial Banquet was set for August the 15th, the Mid-Autumn Festival. The envoy of the of the Xi Ye country will arrive on time with the princess for the marital meeting. The envoys who came with her will join the ones that were already here, by the time the festival came around the palace would be very lively.
After making arrangements at the Imperial Kitchens, everyone began to get busy in a very orderly manner.
I also started doing the prep work for the special dishes I’ve learnt from master.
The main protagonist of the autumn season was of course, the indispensable large crabs. There will be two innovative crab-based dishes today: Orange Crab and Fluffy Furong Crab.
For the first recipe, I cut the top off some fresh oranges, about a quarter length, and dug out the flesh inside. The stuffing would include things like: cooked pork belly, diced Chinese chestnut, crab meat, minced ginger, beaten egg, white wine to taste, salt, pepper powder. All of which were evenly mixed before they’re stuffed back into the oranges, the tops were then placed over the stuffing like lids making adorable little orange bowls. Finally the stuffed oranges were then steamed over high heat until a wonderful aroma appeared.
While that was steaming, I started preparation for the Fluffy Furong Crab.
The fresh crabs were first steamed and then cracked opened to scoop the cooked flesh out. Then, the meat was placed in a bowl along with other ingredients like egg whites, minced green onions, pepper, salt and a small amount of wine. The whole thing was whipped together evenly and cooked in a large wok over medium low fire, it must be lightly stirred at intervals to prevent the egg white from hardening too much. When the egg whites have curdled and fluffed up, it was ready.
Just like that, the two special dishes were done, just as Master had shown~
The traditional celebratory dishes were more or less ready by now, there was only a dessert left.
I heard from the master that there’s a special dessert ingredient that came from overseas, very rare and expensive. The only portion of it in this country was at the Imperial Kitchen.
This thing tasted bitter and a little astringent on its own, but within that astringency was an odd sweetness. I heard that it was usually ground into powder and mixed with hot water and drunk like tea. However, if it was made into a dessert, the flavour could be quite amazing.
Master said he had personally tried to make a dessert out of this, but was not very successful. I shall attempt this recipe today. However, I cannot fail at this, there could only be success. Filled with confidence, I asked for a few pieces of chocolate from the Imperial Kitchen Store, ready to test my skills.
I placed the pieces of chocolates into a bowl and, as taught by master, melted it by heating it over gently steaming water. Next, I poured the liquid chocolate into specially prepared moulds creating two large half spheres. This way, I could later place both halves together in order to make a perfect sphere. The half spheres were then placed in the refrigeration room for a stick of incense (roughly 15 minutes).
Once the hardened a little, I brought out the half spheres together and made them into a balls.
However, this was not the end. After all, how could dessert that looked like a large mud ball inspire the appetite?
My next challenge was to turn the little mud ball into a proper centrepiece, it would be in the shape of a lantern.
First, I took out a ceramic bowl with a smooth and flat bottom and placed it in a larger bowl half filled with hot water. Once the bottom of the upper bowl felt warm to the touch, I carefully placed one half of the chocolate on it, waited for it to soften a little, enough so that it could stand on its own and placed in on a prepared tray.
Now it looked like a little brown bowl in the centre of a silver try.
Next, I piled on some prepared snacks into the bowl, before covering it with the other half of the chocolate sphere. Finally, all around the tray, I placed some lychees that came as a tribute from the South and grapes from the Western Regions in a decorative pattern.
Then, I made some rose syrup, by now the dessert was half finished. Though it looked good now, the final touch would make this newly invented dessert even more amazing later.
The Imperial Banquet was being held at the Chang Xin palace, the Xi Ye princess as well as various national envoys and ministers would gather together in the large hall, and seated in two long rows with the emperor at the head of the rows. There were a large number of people, maybe about three to four hundred altogether.
The dining area was grand and elegant, the air filled with music from traditional musical instruments and cheerful singing voices. Outside the building was a patio where a stage had been set up, with skilful dancers twirled and flitted about elegantly: Clothing, accessories, and costumes from all over the world were gathered here.
20 palace maids marched into the hall bearing fine china dishes. New mahogany chopsticks were placed on the low table in front of all the guests. The tableware used by the royal family: emperor, empress, and princess, were luxuriously colourful ceramics, silver cups and chopsticks made from elephant tusks.
Once the tableware were all set, the officer in charge of the food lead the a line of palace maids bearing all kinds of dishes and snacks according to a pre-set sequence. (Light snacks, tea, cold dishes, light dishes, stir-fried dishes, main dishes, sweetmeats and finally, the after banquet snacks and fruits). One by one, they were set upon tables in the middle of the two rows of guests. Two eunuchs sang out the names of the dishes in loud, clear voices like chiming bells:
“Beauty Offers Tea: Lushan’s Mist, Lion Peak Dragon Well, Jade White Milk Tea!”
“Tea Snacks in Five Types: Almond Buddha’s Hand, Crisp Fragrant Apples, Matching Cakes, Kidney Bean Roll, Mandarin Duck Roll!”
“Box Set Dish: Dragon Phoenix Golden Collection, Dragon Plate Pillar!”
“Four Fruits of Happiness: Dragon Skin Peanuts, Mixed Flat Chips, Milk White Grapes, Snow Mountain Plums!”
“Four Sweet Preserves: Candied Apples, Preserved Longan, Bright Candied Peaches, Green Plum Sweetmeat!”
“Artistic Appeals: Queen Mother Immortal Peach, Deer & Crane Eternal Life, Qilin Offers Luck!”
“Cold Dishes in Eight Saucers: Phoenix Tail Prawn, Double Crisp Salad, Rose Beef, Gold Coin Shiitake, Crystal Fish Slices, Salted Egg Yolk Quartz, Peony Flower Jellyfish, Crystal Pork Slices!”
“Five Appetizers: Auspicious Dragon & Phoenix, Hong Chicken with Cucumbers, Lucky Simmered Loin, Spicy Tripe Threads, Long Life Mushrooms & Hair Moss!”
“Four Pickled Dishes: Courtly Cucumbers, Black Pickled Vegetables, Sugar Garlic, Brined Mustard Skins!”
“Treasures of the Oceans: Sea Cucumber with Dried Lotus, Courtly Swallow Golden Nest, Golden Coin Violet Abalone, Phoenix Tail Sharks Fin, Red Fragrant Pearl Plums, Orange Crabs, Fluffy Furong Crab!”
“Red White Roast Meats: Roasted Chicken with Fine Salt, Deer Meat Skewers!”
“Mountain Treasures from North & South: Palm Civet Pear Slices, Auspicious Flying Dragon Pair!”
“Eight Stir Fried Dishes: Jade Sphere Shrimps, Old Style Lobster, Spicy Pork Tendon, Black Dragon Pearls, Triple Fresh Dragon Phoenix Pearls, Spicy Pork Tendon, Flash Fried Quail, Courtly Wild Rabbits!”
“Hot Soup: Pot Simmered Mountain Chicken with Swallow’s Nest, Clam & Toad Soup!”
“Wild Vegetables: Mountain Treasure Dragon Sprouts, Straw Mushrooms with Broccoli, Silver Flower Tofu, Fan Shape Spring Bamboo, Mountain Treasure Celery Leaves, Mountain Treasure Fiddle Head, Wild Rice Gruel!”
“Eight Sweet Pastries: Single Bite Fragrance, Lotus Flower Pastry, Jade Water Dumpling, Golden Jade Mantou, Eight Treasure Spring Roll, Imperial Soy Beans, Sesame Rolls, Jujube Paste Cakes!”
“Congee Dish: Lotus Leaf Congee!”
“Imperial Main Dish: Minced Meat Pastry, Dragon Beard Noodles, Silky Jade Fried Rice!”
“Steamed Bun: Delicious Date, Clam & Toad, Pine Nut & Dried Sea Snail!”
“Superior Fruit: Sample Platter of Seasonal Fruit.”
“Special Addition: 30 Year Old Osmanthus Wine, 30 Year Old Spring Chrysanthemum Wine, 30 Year Old Rice Wine!”
Several dozens of dishes on scores of fine porcelain lined the rows of table in front of the guests.
“Reporting to emperor, almost all the dishes have arrived. This servant has only one new dish to present.” The officer in charge of food turned to me and I gave my greetings to the emperor.
After that, I immediately presented the exquisitely decorated chocolate ball, aside from candied fruit decorations, there were also some very fine designs carved onto it, giving it a very elegant and fine air.
The eyes of all present were fixed upon the chocolate ball in my hands. I carefully placed the ball in front of the emperor and poured some specially heated rose syrup onto the ball. The chocolate ball slowly dissolved before everyone’s eyes, the insides were revealed like a blossoming flower. The sweets which had been hidden within the ball appeared like magic, the entire hall made a sigh of amazement.
One after another, the ambassadors murmured their appreciation. Though the land under the emperor’s control was vast, I still managed to bring out something that no one had ever seen before.
As per the emperor’s orders, I had brought out a singularly unique dish and completed my mission flawlessly. Once the performance was completed, I quietly stepped back.
Before the eyes of the guests were hot and cold dishes which displayed various culinary techniques utilizing precious ingredients taken from the mountain, land and sea. The cooking method we have used included: simmering, frying, stir-frying, steaming, stewing, baking, double boiling, pastry making, braising, broiling, slow cooking, and candy making just to name a few! The colours of the dishes were a feast for the eyes, snow white, fiery red, gold yellow, deep pool green… all the colours imaginable surrounded by a most comely fragrance that lure one’s appetite!
Under such wonderfully fragrant and delicious pressure, how could anyone not be tempted to move their hands and eat?
In a short while, the officers and ambassadors started to chat, and eat, and drink. Wine goblets were filled, conversations were lively, the air within the hall was harmonious and joyful. Hearty laughter rippled through the hall, and there was much celebration and joy.
When the banquet ended, the fine plates and bowls on the table were so clean and empty it was as though a small tornado had came in especially to suck all the food away. The faces of everyone within the hall were completely satisfied. Towards the end of the banquet, I had instructed the palace maids to bring in the of meal tea: Sparrow’s Tongue Jasmine!
The Imperial Banquet had been a great success thus far, as everyone tasted their tea I quietly sneaked out from the long dining hall to stroll about the garden outside.
The season was quietly slipping into autumn and the garden reflected this in a bewildering explosion of colours. Perhaps I had been too busy in the kitchens, but it felt like the leaves in the trees had turned a golden yellow in a blink of an eye. Sunlight sneaked through the canopy in fine streaks, revealing maple leaves as red as fire and the occasional valiant green foliage of the evergreen trees. The riot of colours seemed to inject life to this dull palace, which really lifted ones mood.
I slowly strolled through the garden, intending to aimlessly enjoy this beautiful scenery when it suddenly occurred to me that Wei Qi was also here. I had searched for him at the dining hall, but hadn’t actually seen him. Perhaps he’s somewhere in the gardens as well?
As I considered this, I cast my eyes about lazily and spotted a someone loitering under a false stone mountain. Since we’re quite far away from each other, I could not quite tell who they were and thought that it was just a palace maid playing hooky. However, as I approached, I managed to recognise her.
That person, isn’t that Imperial Concubine Su Yue Ran?
Just what was she doing by herself… Hm? It looked like she’s actually speaking to someone…
[Translator’s Note: … there were just too many dishes, I’m not even sure how many of them are the real thing…]
 Orange Crab