The southern part of the country was a land of fish and rice. For the past two years, the area had favorable weather and since the taxes were relaxed, they even had an abundance of crops leftover. On the other hand, the north had suffered from successive years of drought. Tanggu Town was near the sea, but the farmers in that area had suffered from decreased output from their fields. As for the northwest part of the country, the drought was in full force and nothing could be grown at this point.
Transferring grain from the southern provinces to the north was the brilliant strategic idea of their current emperor. By opening up the imperial treasury, the government was able to buy large amounts of rice and ship it via the sea and river transport to the north. This helped to stabilize grain prices in the drought-stricken areas and lessened the disaster by a good amount. This was also the main reason why there weren’t a lot of refugees from the north travelling despite the successive years of drought.
Imperial Prince Jing was the paternal uncle of the current emperor. Although he had mediocre abilities, his heart was in a good place and he was honest. As the person in charge of trade by sea, he often went himself to oversee the operations. In fact, he personally went many times to the south to escort the ships to bring the rice and grain to the north.
The guest that Brother Six was receiving today was a capable person under Imperial Prince Jing. If one wanted to continue to be a part of this shipping business, it was necessary to have a good relationship with this man.
For the sake of keeping the food warm and fresh, Brother Six requested that Xiaocao stay in the building and use the restaurant’s facilities on an as needed basis. Xiaocao agreed easily to this request. Her father could more than handle the braised food sales on his own.
By the time the cargo ships had gotten the shore, it was already past breakfast time. Steward Wu from Prince Jing’s estate had long gotten tired of spending time on the boat. However, he had previously visited the docks at Tanggu Town many times before, so he was quite familiar with the conditions of that area. The only thing Steward Wu hoped for was to have something warm to eat for breakfast as he stepped onto dry land. Under Brother Six’s lead, he arrived at a simple and crude looking restaurant.
“Tell the kitchen to bring out the food!” Although Brother Six’s attitude was warm, he didn’t come off as being too eager for something. Instead he acted very naturally, which allowed Steward Wu to feel free and unrestrained.
“Okay!” The waiter didn’t disappear for long before he appeared with a bowl of lush green and bright yellow leafy vegetables and egg drop soup. He reported the name of the dish, “This is an ‘appetizer soup’. These two guests, please take a bowl each and start!”
The private room had one particular guest who seemed to have an imposing manner and clearly had a status that was beyond the ordinary. Although the person didn’t order any food from this restaurant, he had given them a decent amount of money. Thus, the manager of the restaurant had instructed the employees of the place to take good care of these guests.
“Eh? Are these green vegetables? Is it the season for green vegetables to appear on the market here?” Steward Wu had just come off the ship, so he felt like the ground beneath his feet was still rocking. When he saw the verdant green of the vegetables in the bowl, he immediately felt better inside and started to have an appetite.
Brother Six was inwardly flabbergasted too. At this time of the year, most farmers hadn’t even planted the seeds of green vegetables yet. This Xiaocao, where did she manage to get ahold of these vegetables to make the soup? Despite his inner surprise, he calmly helped Steward Wu to ladle up a bowl of green vegetable soup and smiled, “Steward Wu, have a taste of this soup…”
The ‘appetizer soup’ had a light and fresh taste. The leaves of the vegetables were tender and soft, and the bright yellow eggs went easily down the throat. Such a fresh and flavorful profile matched entirely with Steward Wu’s food preferences. He drank two large bowls of soup without a break and only then did he stroke his beard and smile with admiration, “Good! Good!! This is extremely delicious!”
The second dish was the braised dried tofu. The strong flavors of the braising marinade had sunk into each piece of tofu. Even though this dish didn’t have any meat, Steward Wu, who only liked to eat meat, still ate several mouthfuls before he stopped.
The third dish, ‘pearl meatballs’, was covered on the outside with glutinous rice. Each translucent grain seemed to sparkle and glow the way a true pearl would. When bitten into, the perfectly round meatballs had the savory flavor of pork and the distinct, unique taste of duck egg’s yolk that blended together harmoniously. With the additional fragrant taste of the glutinous rice added in, Steward Wu, who had travelled extensively around the country, couldn’t help but praise this food incessantly, “Ah Liuzi, this ‘pearl meatball’ is quite tasty and the name is also quite elegant. Did this restaurant switch chefs recently? Where did they get the new chef? He’s not any worse than the best chef in the capital! For example, this simple dish of dried tofu, ah, he can even make that taste so good...tell me, if I manage to make him leave with me, do you think the owner here will make a fuss?”
Brother Six laughed, “Steward Wu is being too kind. You’ve followed his highness, Imperial Prince Jing, all over the country. What kind of culinary delicacies haven’t you tried yet? You’ve been cooped up in that ship for too long, so it made you extremely happy to get ashore. So it’s not surprising that you feel like everything you eat tastes good——try some of this salted vegetables with steamed pork, what do you think?”
When Xiaocao was making salted vegetables with steamed pork, she had carefully selected slices of pork belly that had an even ratio of fat to lean meat. She also made sure to render some of the fat off the meat, such that the meat would still be tasty without being greasy. Steward Wu had also had a difficult childhood. After eating one piece, he couldn’t help but continuously eat several more pieces before he reluctantly set down his chopsticks——who would have thought that even pork could be prepared in such an elegant and delicious way, ah….
After the meat dishes, Xiaocao had them serve up a vegetable dish——’spicy and sour cabbage’. Steward Wu had eaten too many radishes and cabbages in his youth, so he now hated them with a passion. Thus, he didn’t seem very interested in eating this dish and managed to try one mouthful with much difficulty. After he tasted it, he discovered that spiciness came with the sour, and hidden in the midst was something savory. The dish was really quite delicious. He thought silently, ‘Who has the ability to make even cabbage taste good? This must be a true culinary genius, right?’
Following that came the sauteed shredded pork in sweet bean sauce. What really surprised him was that it came with very small and thin wheat wraps. By wrapping the meat with some scallion strips, it provided a very unique texture and flavor combination. It was inconceivable! Steward Wu couldn’t stop himself from eating more.
Don’t underestimate this sauteed shredded pork in sweet bean sauce! Just making the meat alone took over seven to eight steps, and it drove Xiaocao crazy while she was fine-tuning the procedure. After experimenting countless times, she was finally able to create a dish that satisfies her desires. However, her efforts were not in vain. Had it not been for his status, Steward Wu would have gone himself to ask the chef what the recipe was!
The final dish on the menu, ‘poached sliced fish in hot chili oil’, had completely conquered Steward Wu’s taste buds. The dish seemed to be filled with the bright red of chili peppers. However, when he was eating it, it was spicy without being too pungent, numbing but not bitter. The fish had been cooked in a way that made in slippery and tender, fatty without being greasy. All of the fishy smell had been taken away but it still had that unique soft and delicate taste that fish meat had. As soon as one ate a bite, it made the person want to continue eating without stopping.
After finishing the entire meal, Steward Wu rubbed at his bulging stomach that almost couldn’t bend anymore as he felt extremely conflicted in his heart. Ever since he had been promoted to a steward at Prince Jing’s estate, he had pretty much eaten every delicacy and special cuisine that was available. He had never forgotten his manners, even when he had eaten at the restaurants reckoned to be the first or second best in the capital. However, this simple and crude restaurant was unexpectedly a jewel in the rough and had such a fresh and fantastic way of cooking. The next time his master came over, he definitely needed to bring him over to try the food.
“The chef here is quite talented. Let him come over and get rewarded!” Steward Wu leaned back in his chair as he slowly sipped on the fragrant tea that he had brought himself to this restaurant. He suddenly wanted to see this divine chef who could make food that he had never tasted before in his life.
Brother Six poured him another cup of tea and smiled, “The person who made the food really isn’t this restaurant’s chef. It was someone I found and brought over especially for you!”
“Eh? Liuzi, you really are quite detailed and considerate! Good, good! I’ll remember this...I’m extremely curious, where did you find someone who’s so talented at cooking?” Steward Wu looked deeply at Brother Six as he asked.
Brother Six didn’t attempt to conceal it and replied, “A little girl had appeared on the docks these past few days selling ‘a portion of meat for one copper coin’. She has the ability to take ingredients that other people would throw away, for example a pig’s head, intestines, and tiny fish, and make them into delicacies that people fight over. This lowly one believed that she was definitely talented at cooking, so I had her come over to help me create a table for you today.”
“A little girl? You’re telling me that this table of food was all made by a little girl? Then I really need to reward her!” Steward Wu became even more interested in this little girl after hearing Brother Six’s story.
In the kitchen, Xiaocao had sincerely started to clean up the area after the last dish had gone out to the guests. When one was borrowing another person’s kitchen, it was only right and proper to return it to the original condition…
Just as she finished tidying up the kitchen and was about to leave, the waiter suddenly chased after her and yelled, “Little girl, the esteemed guest inside wants to meet you! He said he really likes the food you made and wants to reward you!”
A reward? Never say no to free money! She had spent time racking her brains to come up with these dishes, and it wasn’t easy to make them either. If the noble guest who ate the food thought it was good and wanted to give her some money, it would definitely be more money than she could earn from selling one day’s worth of braised food.
Xiaocao scampered after the waiter into the only private room in the building. She gave him an out of place bow and lowered her head as she stood there waiting for her reward.
“Liuzi...are you telling me that the little girl who can make simple ingredients into delicacies is her?” Steward Wu stared at the little girl who was around seven to eight years old that was standing in front of him. She was dressed entirely in shabby yet clean clothes, and her hair had been combed into two braids. Her face was thin but she had fair and clear skin. It was obvious that he couldn’t quite believe that a child this young was the creator of such delicious food.
Liuzi, however, very solemnly nodded his head and said, “That is her…”
Steward Wu clearly was someone who had seen a wide aspect of life, so he quickly got over his surprise at the matter. He smiled at Xiaocao and asked, “Little girl, where did you learn how to make this food?”
Xiaocao very slightly raised her head and looked him in the eye for a glance. She replied in a tone that was neither servile nor overbearing, “These dishes were all recipes that I figured out myself. Brother Six had saved my life, so since he needed to receive a noble guest, I naturally used all of my ability to help him.”
Steward Wu exclaimed in surprise, “These were all thought up and created by you? It’s not a good habit to start trying to trick people at such a young age!”
Despite the obvious censure and displeasure in the man’s tone, Xiaocao calmly replied, “My family is poor, and we pretty much can never get a taste of meat or fish throughout the year. This is why when I saw that the butcher was throwing away the pig offal I thought, ‘pig offal is still a part of a pig, so it still should be edible!’. When I got back home and pondered about it for a couple of days, I made braised pig head and intestines after adding a lot of spices and condiments to the meat. It not only doesn’t have any weird smells but also tastes supremely delicious! From then on, I became interested in cooking and creating new dishes. A set of weird and interesting thoughts started to pop up in my mind. Because my family’s ability to buy things are limited, I never had the chance to experiment. Yesterday, Brother Six gave me money to create an entire table’s worth of food. I went back and experimented for an entire afternoon and finally managed to create this table. If you don’t believe me, you can bring my father over and ask him. In the past my family almost had nothing to eat, how could we possibly have the money to hire a teacher to teach me how to cook?”
Steward Wu glanced again at the cotton padded clothes and coat on her body that were only cleaner than a set that a beggar would wear. Although he felt the situation was somewhat inconceivable, he didn’t continue to pursue this line of questioning and simply labeled her in his mind as someone who was naturally gifted and talented at cooking.
Originally his intentions for meeting the chef was to see whether or not he could tempt the person to work for the Prince Jing’s Estate instead. Recently the matriarch didn’t have a good appetite and only wanted to eat foods that were novel and refreshing. However, when he saw this skinny and tiny little girl in front of him, he let go of that idea. A child that was only seven to eight years old still needed an adult to take care of them, so how could she leave the place where she grew up to go to the far away capital? If she missed her home and started crying, who would comfort her?
After rewarding Xiaocao with five taels, Steward Wu followed Brother Six, who led him to a nearby guest house for him to get some rest.Previous Chapter Next Chapter