With a deft flick of the wrist, the waitress slit open the omelette, its contents of multi-coloured pearls - made from fish paste - spilling out to land unceremoniously into the rich, flavourful broth lining the bottom of the dish.
Plop, plop. Plop.
The omelette was itself encased by a “shell” made from an expertly carved fish that’s been deep-fried, and the entire dish meant to resemble a large clam giving up its bounty of pearls.
This was at the apex of an epic meal, and what a spectacle it had been.
We were at Crystal Jade Jiang Nan, sampling dishes from its upcoming feast "A Banquet From The Dream Of The Red Chamber" inspired by Cao Zueqin’s (曹雪芹) epic Chinese classic Dream Of The Red Chamber (红楼梦), one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”. The meal itself is an elegant showcase of Huaiyang cuisine, featuring 20 Chinese dishes not normally found anywhere in Singapore.
The piece of classic Chinese literature was written during the Qing Dynasty, and revolves around the lives of a wealthy aristocratic family from that era. Aside from the novel’s insight into the social and political structures surrounding China during that time, it was also extremely detailed in highlighting the cuisine that members of China’s elite had access to.
This feast, then, would be inspired by dishes and meals as described in the novel, as interpreted by the chefs at Crystal Jade Jiang Nan, with the help of Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao food writer Alan Ng.
As in any idyllic repast, a meal of epic proportions is always preceded by little nibbles to whet the appetite. Take cherry tomatoes served as one of many starters, for example, which were sweet even without the accompanying seasoned sugar to liven up palates.
Or how about some shredded bitter gourd that’s been cured with salt and sugar, then laced with plum powder that does amazing things to mute the bitterness of the squash?
It’s dishes like these, as well as the preserved daikon (above) - very much like its Japanese 大根 cousin - that one can imagine young Chinese maidens partaking as snacks as they lounge in lush cultured gardens chatting about the latest gossip from the Imperial palace.
If any meat was to be partaken at this point, it must be prepared in a way that would not disrupt conversations, or mess up billowing silk sleeves (the latter, of course, would gain disapproval from the family matriarch, thereby affecting and limiting marriage choices).
Sliced smoked duck (above) would thus be a sensible choice.
That would change when one enters the formal dining chambers, of course. Dishes served there would take on a far more opulent tone, when the house chefs of these wealthy aristocratic families really start vying for their patron’s favour.
Dishes here would become a veritable visual feast, as evidenced by the dainty crab dumplings (above) prepared to look like waterfowl swimming leisurely in their pond, terrorizing the two poor goldfish.
Otherwise it would be the use of ruinously expensive (for less privileged households, that is) and harder-to-procure ingredients like sea cucumber, here braised for hours till they nearly fall apart in gelatinous ecstasy.
Likewise the braised pork knuckle, cooked along with preserved Chinese ham - a decadent porcine dish. Fork-tender and near melt-in-the-mouth, it would have earned an Imperial pardon for the most heinous of crimes, up to and including treason if presented to the Emperor.
The flavourful and rich sauce that the pork knuckle comes in alone would have, along with copious amounts of rice, fed an entire family of lowly commoners for a week. Of course I exaggerate, but probably not by much.
Even porridge - that humble peasant dish usually scraped up from leftovers - can become a symbol of culinary luxury at the hands of skilled chefs whose larders and budgets are near limitless, such as with the addition of shredded salted duck.
Of course, as in any large scale feast there would be some culinary misses as well - in this case a sour soup featuring starfruit as an ingredient that went totally off the mark in terms of flavour and sense. But thankfully here it’s about the only anomaly.
The Crystal Jade Jiang Nan chefs in charge of the banquet
And it isn’t like a Dream Of The Red Chamber-inspired feast hasn’t been recreated before - it has, most recently at Jiang Nan Chun in Four Seasons Hotel. But it’s not often that Chinese food in Singapore takes on classic literature, with the overall winner being the invited guests at such a luxurious banquet.
Crystal Jade Jiang Nan’s “A Banquet From The Dream Of The Red Chamber”, which costs $98++ per person, was originally slated for lunch and dinner on 17 August - the restaurant has to close normal operations specially for this event - but the event has been so oversubscribed that they’ve just extended it to dinner (6-9pm) on 18 August as well.
Call 6221-1830 to book your spots. There’s a 15% discount for Standard Chartered credit card holders if tickets are purchased before 15 July, and 10% thereafter.
Crystal Jade Jiang Nan is at #01-52 VivoCity.