Communist writing tends to be dry and not food-inspired literature. So it is surprising that Lu Xun, one of China’s most famed 20th-century authors who counted Mao Zedong among his fans, used it as a central element of his popular short story, “Kong Yiji.” (孔乙己).
Words and food have been cultural dancing partners throughout China’s history. Confucius used culinary themes thousands of years ago, for example. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), artists, poets, scholars and other literati gathered to discuss their work in teahouses and over intricate meals. Using seasonal ingredients was valued, as were balanced delicate meals. Even locavorism had an early heyday, as foods focused on nearby regions were preferred to showcase local styles.
Shaoxing’s unique food traditions
Lu was born and raised in Shaoxing not far from an epicenter of Song Dynastic literary and culinary experimentation based in the nearby city of Hangzhou. Lu’s integration of food in his short story, however, is used uniquely as a tool to demonstrate class differences rather than as an extended form of embellishment.
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Whereas nearby Shanghai is known for soy sauce just to the north, Shaoxing is famous internationally for its wine (as recently featured in the popular documentary series, “A Bite of China“) and its stinky fermented tofu. Zhejiang generally is notable within Chinese cuisine as one of the famed “Eight Culinary Traditions” for its light, fresh flavors that are less greasy than Shanghainese cuisine. It is also respected for tea production, especially the green varietal called Longjing that is produced around Hangzhou. Dishes featuring local freshwater fish and a braised chicken dish known as “drunken chicken” similarly focus on local ingredients.
The story, and its historic setting, inspired the creation of a successful chain of restaurants also named Kong Yiji. There are four locations in Beijing and one in Shanghai. These are perennially packed and generally well-respected by locals and expats alike for their food. While a bit pricier than your average dinner spot, they are considered a good bargain for your renminbi. My friend and I decided to check it out and see what parts of Lu’s story made it onto the menu, and if it’s any good.
Dishes from food-inspired literature
Lu Xun never reveals Kong Yiji’s real name. Instead, Kong Yiji is the nickname given to the character by bar-goers and bartenders to poke fun at his educated airs, referencing the name of common Chinese characters used to teach children Chinese calligraphy. Kong himself never passed the Imperial Examinations to become a true scholar, yet he wears the long robes expected of such a position.
When he orders his warmed wine scooped out of the earthen bowl where it is fermented, he uses high-brow language, attracting the ridicule of other customers. I tried the Shaoxing wine at the restaurant and it was dark and savory, an unexpected surprise in a regional cuisine that integrates sweetness in unexpected places.
For example, the stinky deep-fried tofu (zhao chou doufu) was smoky as usual, though less pungent than other varieties I’ve tried in Changsha, Wuhan, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei. It was accompanied by a sweet “sour berry” (suan mei) sauce like a chutney in both flavor and consistency. I have never seen such an extreme a gap between the savory and sweet elements in Chinese food. It was also unusual for the dish to include something in jelly-like form spread atop the main ingredient. It worked well, like a stinky cheese would if paired with quince paste.
In Lu’s story, Kong often orders a plate of aniseed-flavored broad beans (huixiang dou) as his bar snack, so when I ordered it at Kong Yiji as an appetizer, I expected something lowbrow and simple, suitable for pairing with booze as with the salty, deep-friend version sold nationally at convenience shops and offered for free at bars today. Instead, the beans had been steamed and were soft and giving. The flavor was simultaneously smoky and sweet, unfurling slowly so my mouth was entertained as can be expected of sophisticated restaurant food.
I don’t eat meat or fish so I didn’t try the seafood or drunken chicken but my dining partner shared a dish with me mixing chopped bits of steamed shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, green beans and niangao, a chewy glutinous rice cake. We chose it mainly to test the boiled bamboo component, which is the other bar food Kong orders (zhusun) because, Lu stresses in his writing, it costs merely an extra penny when ordered alongside the broad beans (and Kong must be frugal with his money). The dish cleverly balanced the many textures and flavors, but as far as bamboo goes it was bland and slightly overcooked. It was no match for the tofu or broad bean dishes.
Kong Yiji’s restaurant owners took inspiration from Lu Xun to replicate a period and place in Chinese culinary history when high-end food was appreciated by high society. The outlet we went to, near Chaoyang Park’s west gate, has a cultivated river flowing through the dark wood floor, which is separated into island sections where tables and booths provide some privacy. The male waiters run around wearing black suit pants and vests, and the women wear long red qipao dresses, the female version of the floor-length robes scholars wore during Lu Xun’s era. Today, even the servers have a right to dress in refinery. Even more modern, they take your order on electronic handheld devices and wear earpieces used by the kitchen to inform them when food is ready for pickup.
Lu wrote during a period of dramatic societal upheaval in China, often exploring anxieties related to his educated background at a time when shifting class conditions prioritized the masses instead. He most likely would not have been pleased by my Kong Yiji dining experience, but Kong Yiji the literary figure would probably have felt proud.
Top photo: Diners at Kong Yiji restaurant in Chaoyang Park, Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein