Fotiaoqiang: A Dish that Reflects Life
As a representative of Fujian Cuisine, Fotiaoqiang is known for its elaborate cooking method and high- quality ingredients, and is regarded as a top delicacy.
Refined men of letters have bestowed the Eight Famous Chinese Cuisines with personalities that highlight their conspicuous features: Jiangsu Cuisine and Zhejiang Cuisine are compared to the beauties living the southern lower reaches of the Yangtze River; Shandong Cuisine and Anhui Cuisine are suggestive of well- built, guileless men in North China; Sichuan Cuisine and Hunan Cuisine represent erudite and versatile scholars; Guangdong Cuisine and Fujian Cuisine are associated with loving noble men.
Many people derive their knowledge about and love for Fujian Cuisine from Fotiaoqiang, which means “Buddha jumping over the wall.” As a representative of Fujian Cuisine, Fotiaoqiang is known for its elaborate cooking method and highquality ingredients, including shark fin, abalone, pig tripe, sea cucumber, shark’s lips, mushrooms, pork tendon, cuttlefish, dried scallop and quail eggs. Each ingredient is separately cooked to preserve and reflect their unique tastes and aromas. Then all the cooked ingredients are mixed in a pot along with soup-stock and cooking wine and simmered on low heat. With its rich and mellow fragrance and flavour, Fotiaoqiang is regarded as a top delicacy.
There are many versions of Fotiaoqiang with alternative names. Some call it Tanshao babao (Eight Treasures in a Pot), some have coined it Mantanxiang (Pot Filled with Aroma), and others refer to it as Fushouquan (Abundance of Luck and longevity). But all these names pale in comparison to Fotiaoqiang, which ignites fertile imaginations and brings
pleasure to Chinese people. According to a book entitled Zhongguo mingcai pu (“China’s Famous Dishes”), during the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875–1908) in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), an official of the Coinage Service of Fuzhou threw a lavish dinner party for Zhou Lian, the Treasurer of Fujian Province. In order to curry favour with Zhou Lian, the official asked his wife to cook the dish in person. The woman prepared a pot of stew with over 20 ingredients, including chicken, duck meat, mutton, pork tripe, and seafood that was wellseasoned. This delicious dish won high praise from Zhou Lian. When asked the name of the dish, the official called it Fushouquan, a name symbolising auspiciousness. Zhou Lian’s private chef, Zheng Chunfa, later improved Fushouquan. The improved Fushouquan was even better than the original, and became the signature dish of Juchunyuan (Spring Gathering Garden), a restaurant opened in Fuzhou City by Zheng Chunfa. Fushouquan was an instant success throughout Fuzhou.
One day, a group of men of letters came to Juchunyuan to taste the dish. The moment the pot lid was opened, the aroma of Fushouquan instantly filled the room. Amazed by the aroma, one of the guests improvised a poem in high praise of it: “The smell is so tempting, just to get a taste, the monks next door forgo the practice of Zen Buddhism and jump over the wall.” Coincidentally, in the Fuzhou dialect, Fushouquan sounds similar to the pronunciation of Fotiaoqiang. Therefore, the formal name of the dish has been based on Fotiaoqiang as referenced in this poem. The name has a history of more than 100 years.
The flavour of Fotiaoqiang is true to its name. The aroma that wafts from the pot is intoxicating. The dish is so tender that the ingredients immediately dissolve in your mouth, leaving a strong fragrance on the tongue. Brown in colour, the soup is rich in flavour and thick but not sticky. When enjoying the dish, diners can distinguish between different tastes that split apart, as well as the fragrance of seafood, the fresh odour of mushrooms, and many other smells. All the parts, however, integrate together and complement each other well.
Fuzhou Cuisine featuring Fotiaoqiang was all the rage in Guangzhou’s Nanyuan Restaurant in 1965 and in Hong Kong in 1980. Not long after, the popularity of the dish swept around the world. Restaurants opened by overseas Chinese attracted customers by promising them authentic Fotiaoqiang. The famous delicacy was even served during state banquets in honour of heads of state, such as King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, the US President Ronald Wilson Reagan, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
Interestingly, a study by Fei Xiaotong (1910–2005), one of the founders of China’s Sociology and Anthropology, revealed that the origin of Fotiaoqiang has a relationship with beggars: “Every day beggars beg for food on the streets while carrying shabby pots, which they fill with an assortment of leftovers from various restaurants. One restauranteur reportedly went out one day and was overtaken by a strong fragrance that led him to some beggars’ pots that contained remains of food and wine. Inspired by this experience, upon returning to his restaurant, he attempted to make a pot of mixed stew seasoned with wine, thereby creating Fotiaoqiang.”
There are not many facts that prove Fei’s claim about the origin of Fotiaoqiang. The pot and wine he mentioned, however, have been used unchangeably for generations and are the keys to cooking the dish; whereas to serve the dish, Shaoxing wine pots are always used. Each ingredient is prepared in advance by either frying, stir-frying, boiling or deepfrying them. The cooked ingredients with their unique flavours are then placed in the pot layer-by-layer. Next, a mixture of Shaoxing wine, soup-stock and seasonings are added. After this, the pot—now filled with soup, wine and other ingredients—is sealed with lotus leaves and brought to a boil. To successfully cook Fotiaoqiang, no trace of its fragrance can escape until the lid of the pot is opened. Once the lotus leaves are raised slightly, an aroma of wine permeates the air. While tasting the dish, people are enchanted by a smorgasbord of delicacies, mixed fragrances and endless flavours. They are amazed that all the components are tender, but not overdone. The rich, marvellous flavour is credited to the integration of its ingredients.
According to an old saying used by gourmands: “Three bowls of Fotiaoqiang are enough to make a person give up their chance at living an immortal life.” The first bowl tastes of rare, fresh seafood; the second one delights the palate with exotic products from the mountains and ocean, as well as with the rich and nutrient soup; the third one offers the best part of the dish: a combination of the entire flavour. Wellchosen ingredients served one after another yield layers of tastes, which fuse together like insights into one’s life.
Some people even compare the cooking of Fotiaoqiang to life. With so many ingredients, it’s hard to master the duration and degree of cooking. This level of understanding, however, only scratches the surface. Technically, the preparation of Fotiaoqiang far exceeds both its cooking time. From preparing all the ingredients to the finished dish, it often takes three days or longer. The preparation of some of the seafood, such as shark fin, is very demanding and usually takes dozens of hour, including a meticulous selection and rehydration process. Similarly, preparation and effort are also required before one can enjoy a successful life.
At the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Li Zhishun, known as the master of state banquets, never felt his ability to cook Fotiaoqiang was as good as his teacher’s. At first, he pinned the blame on his teacher, assuming he had hid some tricks from him. His teacher, however, assured him, saying: “You’ve learned from me for dozens of years. How could I not impart all my knowledge to you?” There’s a specific procedure to cooking the dish that involves adding yellow rice wine, which Li added by following his teacher’s example. But, the yellow rice wine he added was either too strong or too light, so it didn’t improve the fragrance of the soup. Li spent 10 years honing this skill. Eventually he realised that rice wine should be added within two seconds before the small bubbles of the soup became big. A little earlier or later causes a loss of flavour. It takes ten years to make the soup perfectly. Is this not an authentic picture of a successful life?