Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Legends of Cantonese cuisine - Jiang Taishi and Pearl Kong Chen

Mrs Pearl Kong Chen (third from left) at Kin's Kitchen in April this year.

A while back, I was commissioned to write a short piece on Jiang Taishi 江太史, a legendary figure in the relatively contemporary history of Cantonese cuisine. The piece was drafted and never published, and on this sad day of the passing of Jiang's granddaughter, Mrs. Pearl Kong Chen 江獻珠, a culinary figure in her own right, I was reminded to share what I learned.

Jiang Taishi

Known to most today as a gourmet, “Jiang Taishi” Jiang Kongyi was also an accomplished scholar – he was one of the final recommended candidates for the Qing Dynasty mandarinate, but good food was never far.

Born in Nanhai, Guangdong province, in 1864, Jiang’s father was a wealthy tea merchant, and he was brought up in a comfortable environment. His studies led him into important positions in Qing Dynasty politics, and after the fall of Imperial China, he gave up politics and began working for British American Tobacco. Around this time, he also set up a large farm, growing fruits and vegetables native to the area, such as lychee, as well as bringing in crop varieties from abroad and modifying them for the local climate. He is also said to have had brought in bee hives from Europe so that he could make his own honey.

His love of food and influence on the province led to him hosting numerous banquets at his home, known as “Taishi manor” 太史第, and the dishes that his family’s chefs created for these banquets became known as “Taishi’s cuisine” or “Taishi’s recipes” 太史菜譜.

Founded in Cantonese cuisine, these dishes emphasise the use of extremely fresh and sometimes rare ingredients, prepared with great skill, and were essentially seen as Cantonese haute cuisine.

One of the most famous dishes is snake soup, which combines up to five varieties of snake, as well as other delicacies, such as fish maw and Chinese ham. All these ingredients are laborious to prepare, especially because they need to be sliced into extremely fine strands. Traditionally, snake soup is eaten in the winter months as it is seen to be able to keep the body warm. The influence of Chinese health philosophies is prevalent in Cantonese cooking, and can also be found in Taishi’s recipes that have been passed down through the generations.

Around forty years ago, Jiang’s granddaughter, Pearl Chen Jiang Xianzhu (also known as Pearl Kong Chen) began studying the dishes her grandfather served, and has published numerous cookbooks, bringing his school of cuisine back to life.

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