Things to Avoid 12: Cliché (戒落套)

戒單::戒落套
唐詩最佳,而五言八韻之試帖名家不選,何也?以其落套故也。詩尚如此,食亦宜然。今官場之菜,名號有「十六碟」、「八簋(音詭)」、「四點心」之稱,有「滿漢席」之稱,有「八小吃」之稱,有「十大菜」之稱,種種俗名,皆惡廚陋習。只可用之於新親上門,上司入境,以此敷衍;配上椅披桌裙,插屏香案,三揖百拜方稱。若家居歡宴,文酒開筵,安可用此惡套哉?必須盤碗參差,整散雜進,方有名貴之氣象。余家壽筵婚席,動至五六桌者,傳喚外廚,亦不免落套。然訓練之卒,範我馳驅者,其味亦終竟不同。

List of Things to Avoid::Cliché
Tang poetry is esteemed to be the pinnacle of classical poetry, yet it is seldom referred or quoted by famous Tang-style poets.[1] Why? Due its popular widespread use, the material has become hopelessly cliché.[2] If this can be true with poetry, it can also be so for gastronomy.

In today’s Court Cuisine, one too often hears of ostentatious references to “sixteen dishes, eight vessels[3], and four side-dishes”, the “Manchurian-Han banquet”, the “eight small delicacies”[4], or the “ten great dishes”. These hackneyed categories stem from the vulgar habits of bad chefs. Displays this trite are useful only for welcoming new relations through one’s gates or when the boss comes to visit. They serve as perfunctory acts of duty; mere decorations to be set alongside tables and chairs draped in embroideries, fine ornamental screens, and embelished incense platforms.[5] Of course, all this is to be accompanied by one’s endless bowing as required by custom.

If one is having a celebratory banquet at one’s abode, where the grand meal will be interwoven with prose, poetry, and fine wine, how could one feel comfortable hosting it in manner as trite as those mentioned above? When feasting with close friends and kin, the food need to be assembled together in joyous disarray of dishes and bowls such that an intimate air of refinement is brought to the meal.

Birthday and wedding banquets at my abode tend to become rather large affairs that gather enough guests to easily fill five or six tables. On these occasions, outside cooks need to be hired, which inevitably leads the food to become the aforementioned sad and ostentatious displays. However, if the hired cooks are in fact skilled and experienced, capable of preparing the dishes to my specifications, then the resulting food is quite something else altogether.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: In Chinese it says something like “experts of the Wuyan-Bayun style”, but I’ve decided to translate it as “Tang-style poets” and not transliterate it as “Wuyan-Bayun”. I think it makes it easier to read and the sentence more logical. Wuyan-Bayun literally translates to “five sylabels, eight rhyme poetry” and is an East Asian poetic form consisting of eight lines with five sylable each. originating and popular in the Tang dynasty. It is also known as the Imperial Examination poetic form (試帖詩) due to it’s use in the Chinese imperial examinations over several dynastic periods.

[2]: This is like Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which has been played so often as background in elevators worldwide that it has lost all impact. We aren’t even accounting for the fact that it’s probably the most commonly butchered piece by kids learning piano. I for one can no longer listen to it without feeling both irritated and slightly nauseated.

[3]: I’ve translated 簋 (gui) as “vessel”. The “Gui” are a type of ceremonial vessels used in Ancient China from the 11th Century BCE up until Zhou dynasty. An “Eight Gui” dinner is probably a rather pompous affair.

[4]: Although commonly (mis)translated as “snack”, xiaochi (小吃) in Chinese cuisine is more of a small quick-to-eat dish or meal-in-a-bowl, than a snack in the modern Western sense. Something like a hot-dog or poutines would be more akin to xiaochi in Chinese cuisine than a bag of crisps or cheesies. In the context of Imperial Court cuisine, “eight xiaochi” is not likely to be eight small snacks but more like 8 small delicacies, hence the translation.

[5]: In modern Chinese society, these things are brought out during days of worship, like the Taiwanese “大拜拜” (da-bai-bai) day where ancestors and deities are venerated. When I hear “da-bai-bai”, my head immediately fills with images of these tables with embroideries, food piled high on tables, gigantic incense burners fumigating temple courtyards, and throngs of people extruding themselves through the temple gates. These are loud, extravagant, and ritual-filled events. It suffices to say that they are INTENSE.

[6]: Here, Yuan Mei excuses himself from any clichéd banquets he may have hosted. The problem lies with those bad chefs he had to hire, not him. Uh huh…sure.

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