Dining with Qiu Xiaolong
The sixth novel featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao - "The Mao Case" - is now on the shelves, which gave us the perfect reason to call the author, St. Louisan Qiu Xiaolong. If you are familiar with the books, you know the subject had to center on food.
Chief Inspector Chen recites poetry, solves gruesome murders, struggles to comprehend Communist China's penchant for capitalism, frets about his love life and, at each juncture, dines well.
The mystical mythical Shanghai cop may simply grab a take out of beef slices in oyster sauce with green onion and fish ball soup from a street vendor as he shadows suspects. Or he may dine on exotic carved gourd filled with fried sparrow inside a grilled quail inside a braised pigeon as he consorts with local politicos.
The poet detective is, in American parlance, a foodie.
Chen is the creation of Qiu Xiaolong of St. Louis. Is the detective Qiu's alter ego?
"Well, I write poetry. I love food," the former Washington University professor said in a recent telephone interview. "My American friends would say I am a foodie. But my Chinese friends would say I am old fashioned. I like traditional Chinese dishes."
Like Chen, the author translates books from English to Chinese. In "The Red Mandarin Dress" (St. Martin's Press, 2007), Chief Inspector Chen has begun a master's degree program in classical Chinese literature, one of his creator's academic specialties.
Unlike Chen, Qiu does not track killers. He is too busy with international speaking engagements, book signings and writing best sellers that have been published in seven languages.
Politics, Murder and Food
The Wall Street Journal rated "Death of a Red Heroine," the 2000 debut for Chen and novelist Qiu, one of the five best political novels of all time. "You cannot write about China without being political," he stated simply.
Qiu Xiaolong (right) will be at Big Sleep Books , 239 N. Euclid, at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 14
Born in Shanghai, Qiu (right) received an MA in English and American literature in China and a PhD in comparative literature from Washington University.
He spends a couple of months each year in Shanghai, sharpening his knowledge of the complex ever-changing city, its political mood and its cuisine.
There, friends try to ply him with the exotic dishes about which he writes.
The author said he's tried most of them. Some, such as endangered animals, he refuses. Some, like dried Guangxi lizard, "tastes not that good." Deboned duck feet are "mostly skin, high priced and too troublesome."
Still, even in Shanghai, Chen cannot live by tradition alone. Now and then he sneaks in study time at the local Starbucks.
Confessing over Dinner
Dining in with Detective Chen is an exercise in intestinal fortitude and in Chinese history.
Qui's favorite food scene from "The Red Mandarin Dress" involves a special meal Chen ordered to draw a confession from a murder suspect. "Think of some cruel-slow-tormenting dishes," Chen told the chef, "to rattle his nerves." The menu was filled with off-putting dishes, the most tame being wine-immersed goose feet, ginger-steamed fish lips and live snake.
The scene involved extensive research, Qui said. Most of the dishes seemed unappealing, he admitted, although he has tried a few of them. Each dish he writes about is real, he said. He doesn't need to invent.
On one occasion, Chen and his guests dined on "dainty dishes" of peeled shrimps fried with green tea leaves, squid braised with pork, cherries of frog legs and thick noodle soup with shark fins.
In "Red Mandarin Dress," Detective Chen befriends a Chinese "eating girl," a young woman paid to eat with customers. Her name is Rong and she is "well read on Chinese culinary history which makes her popular among old customers." Steering customers toward high-dollar menu items, she explains the health attributes and history of each.
"It's very common, a well-known profession," Qiu said. "Men hire girls for the purpose of talking."
Rong and her "Big Bucks" dine on "slices of lotus roots filled with sticky rice, home-grown chicken immersed in Shaoxin yellow wine, live bass strewn with ginger and onion slices, and deep fried oysters."
Bond Between Nation and Its Food
"To think about Chinese food and cooking is to think about China itself," wrote Kenneth H. C. Lo in "Peking Cooking" (Pantheon, 1971). "They are such an integral part of the nation's life."
Cuisine and Culture
Other books or movies that underscore the inseparable link between Chinese cuisine and culture. Some of the others are:
"Eat Drink Man Woman." In this classic 1994 Ang Lee film, taste symbolizes life, food epitomizes culture. An aging chef tries to relate to his three daughters by cooking for them. "Tortilla Soup" and "Soul Food" use the same idea in different ethnic settings. The film has subtitles.
"The Last Chinese Chef" (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Nicole Mones spins a detailed story about an American food writer who goes to Beijing on an assignment where she meets a Chinese-American chef who is determined to recover Imperial culinary authenticity. Both history and teacher captivate her.
"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food" (Twelve Books, 2008). Jennifer 8.
"Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province" (Norton, 2007). Fuchsia Dunlop's food books demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between Chinese culture and Chinese culture. Her first was "Land of Plenty: a Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking" (Norton, 2003). In this book, she mingles recipes with history, legend, and anecdote from the region.
In "Red Mandarin Dress," Qiu wrote about a restaurant sign proclaiming "True in your mouth." The proprietor explained to the inspector: "It's not just about food. The character 'mouth' carries an association of food but of language as well. All the words come out of the mouth, true or false."
Ingredients are steeped in legend and symbolism.
Fish, for example, signified wealth and abundance, the principles of universal life.
Duck stands for felicity and conjugal fidelity.
Many culinary specialties were refined and elaborated from Imperial Palace kitchens, Lo wrote.
The reign of the last emperor of China, Pu-Yi, ended in 1912. The Empress Dowager would have 100 main dishes placed on six tables for a normal meal, Lo wrote. "Many involved sugar because the last powerful Empress had a sweet tooth."
At Home in St. Louis
Chief Inspector Chen's version of Chinese cuisine loses nuance and authenticity when it crosses the Pacific, said Qiu. But Americanized Chinese food doesn't bother him, Qui said, although he admits it took some getting used to.
"Flavor and color are much more important in Chinese cooking," he said.
When he dines out in St. Louis, it's usually for dim sum at LuLu Seafood Restaurant, 8224 Olive Blvd. or fish at Royal Chinese Barbecue, down the street at 8406 Olive Blvd.
At home, his speciality is Oyster Sauce Beef.
From sugar silk apples (spun sugar) to drunken shrimp (a glass bowl containing live shrimp swimming in white liquor), Qiu prides himself in the authenticity of his novel's cuisine.
Jane P. Marshall, food journalist and culinary historian, teaches Food Writing and Development of American Cuisine at Kansas State University, Manhattan. She was an editor for newspapers in Colorado and Texas and food writer for the New York Times Media Group. To reach her, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.