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Confucius' Family Residence Banquet

Confucian Dish - The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea Gambolling around the Arhat
"For your dinner, you can never cook your food too fine, nor mince your meat too well."  (Confucius)

Many centuries ago, when China was ruled by family dynasties, chefs prepared the light, elegant dishes that typify Confucian cuisine. Many came from the kitchen of the Confucian Mansion. Built over 2,000 years ago to house the descendents of Confucius (the Kong family), the Confucian Mansion was the grandest residence in China other than the Imperial Palace. 

One of the most famous examples of Confucian Cuisine was a dish with an impressive sounding name of "The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea Gamboling around the Arhat." This dish typifies the fresh, fragrant, pure taste that made Confucian cuisine so memorable. From the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) until the late Qing Dynasty (161 - 1911 AD) chefs would prepare the dish for celebrations within the Confucian family, and when important dignitaries such as high officials, scholars and even Emperors came to visit. Qian Long of the Qing dynasty was a particularly frequent visitor, giving the Confucian family many opportunities to entertain with traditional family dishes such as this one.

But how did the dish come to have such an unusual name? According to an old Chinese legend, there once lived eight individuals who had done enough good deeds to allow them to become immortal. First, however, they had to pass a test by overcoming several obstacles put forth by the devils in the East Sea. The eight individuals struggled to swim across the sea in the company of an Arhat or Buddhist saint, each showing off feats of strength and in the end becoming immortal.

At some point a chef (whose name, unfortunately, is lost to history) was inspired by the legend, and decided to create a dish with eight ingredients representing the eight immortals: shark's fin, sea cucumbers, abalone, shrimp, fishbone, fish maw, asparagus, and ham. Just as the eight immortals swam across the sea, each ingredient is cooked and laid in an earthen pot containing chicken broth. But where does the Arhat come in? Considered as the guide and companion of the eight would-be immortals crossing the sea, he is represented by chicken, which acts as the leader of the ingredients.

The best way to trace the aroma of this exotic dish is to visit the Confucius Mansions in Qufu, Shandong Province, China. This will give you a taste of what life was like for the Kong family, who ruled the town of Qufu and the surrounding area. If you stay at nearby Queli Hotel, you will be able to enjoy some of the dishes that made up a typical Confucian banquet. Of course, it won't be quite the same as when the descendents of Confucius sat down to dinner - for one thing, it was customary for an opera company to perform for them while they were enjoying their feast! Those with a culinary bent can also try making the recipe at home.

Recipe: The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea Gambolling Around the Arhat

Ingredients:

1. Cooked Chicken breast 300g
2. Soaked shark fin 100g
3. Sea cucumber 100g
4. Abalone 100g
5. Fishbone 100g*
6. Fish maw 100g**
7. Shrimp 100g
8. Ham 100g
9. Asparagus 50g
10. Fish meat (white fish, preferably Chinese white croaker) 250g
11. Cooking wine 50g
12. Some chicken broth, some ginger, leaves of greens, and some cooked lard.

Directions:
Note: The ingredients must be laid out separately in a pot or dish in eight sections. The chicken representing Arhat is placed in the center, and covered with slices of ham, ginger, and greens).

1. Mince half (150 g) of the chicken breast into a fine paste. Use part of the paste to lay out on the bottom of a pot or dish to form Arhat's cushion. Cut the rest of the chicken into bars.
2. Cut the white fish into bars and sandwich the fishbone in each.
3. Arrange the shrimps in a ring.
4. Form the shape of chrysanthemum with the shark fin and the chicken paste.
5. Shape the sea cucumbers like butterflies.
6. Pick out eight pieces of asparagus.
7. Arrange all the ingredients in the pot as described above.
7. Season the materials above with salt, MSG (if desired), and Shao Xing Chew (a cooking wine) and steam.
8. Pour hot chicken broth and hot lard over the ingredients and serve hot.

*Fish bone is a kind of fish glue abstracted from fishbones and scales of sharks or croakers by braising. In fact, it is a clear jelly.
** Fish maw is the air-bladder of certain types of fish. It must be soaked in water before being cooked.