Confucius back in favour, as a cuisine
REVERED for centuries, but reviled in recent decades, Confucius is making a comeback in China - on its dinner plates.
"Confucius cuisine" is a fine-dining trend that reflects how the ruling Communist Party has drafted him into its modern campaign to boost what President Xi Jinping has called China's "cultural soft power".
One of the few ancient Chinese names to have global recognition, the philosopher highlights bonds with overseas Chinese and other Asian nations, and his moniker has been adopted by over 300 language-teaching Confucius Institutes in 90 countries.
The authorities are "going back and finding certain elements (of Confucius) that existed before the 20th century" and "exploiting Confucius as a brand", said Professor Thomas Wilson at Hamilton College in New York.
Among restaurants in Qufu in the eastern province of Shandong - where the philosopher, known in Chinese as Kong Zi, lived from 551 BC to 479 BC - the cuisine is an edible symbol of the way the writer has been reworked.
In one restaurant, "Book of Odes and Book of Rites Ginkgos", a dense, mildly sweet dessert named after two Confucius classics, is a yellow-pea flour "book" topped with ginkgo nuts and drizzled with honey.
Another dish features radishes carved into exquisite trees. It reflects a Confucian saying: "Food can never be too fine and cooking, never too delicate."
With trained chefs having fled China during the Cultural Revolution or dying, piecing together exactly what Confucius cuisine entailed has proved difficult.
Today's dishes supposedly draw from those developed over the centuries at the Confucius residence in Qufu, but that leaves plenty of room for interpretation among enterprising restaurateurs.
For example, a couple running Confucian Home-Cooking - one of many hole-in-the-walls in Qufu that advertises authentic traditional dishes - serves Confucius Residence Tofu for 30 yuan (S$6) and egg soup for five yuan.
Their version of "Book of Odes and Book of Rites Ginkgos" amounts to a pile of yellow nuts ringed by tomato slices.
Meanwhile, down the street, the luxury Shangri-La hotel - where dishes are priced as high as 680 yuan - boasts an artistic Confucius feast reimagining "Book of Odes and Book of Rites Ginkgos" as a snow pear carved with the Chinese word for "poetry".
The dessert is topped with a slowly stewed date, lotus seeds and ginkgo nuts, and drizzled with caramel sauce and osmanthus honey.
The hotel's Confucius Mansion's Eight Treasures soup includes sea cucumber, abalone, fish maw and other delicacies.
Pointing out that the whole movement is to make money, Prof Wilson said: "The so-called Confucius cuisine is part of the opening up of the tourist industry in China."