Autumn saw yellow leaves falling from olive trees, which twirled in the air until they landed. Some ended up in the water and were pushed toward the center of the lake by waves. A number of gardeners were busy watering and fertilizing the flora. Lin Haihai and the empress walked along the long, winding hallway. Past another palace was the Imperial Kitchen.
It was a two-storied building about hundreds of square meters large. Dusk had arrived, but the kitchen was empty since the cooks had been asked to leave.
“How are they going to make food after being told to leave?” Lin Haihai asked. “Wouldn’t we delay the mealtime of the other palaces?”
“It’s fine to delay for a bit,” the empress said with a faint smile. “Besides, it won’t take that long for us to make a few dishes. We’ll be done in no time!”
Might as well. This way, no one will see me embarrass myself! Lin Haihai cried out inwardly. Why haven’t I learned how to cook? I don’t even know where to start now that I’m cooking for my boyfriend! Lin Haihai, you useless woman from the modern world!
“Since you don’t want me to know what you’re making, you should take the second floor while I stay on the first floor. Go on. Don’t let the empress dowager and the emperor wait for too long, especially the gluttonous empress dowager!” The empress pushed Lin Haihai up the stairs before turning around to ask a maid, “Didn’t this Empress ask for two helpers? Where are they?”
“In response to Your Majesty, they are waiting outside the door. This maid will call them in immediately!”
In came two apprentices dressed in green. They had never seen anyone from the harem since they entered the palace. Facing the empress, they shuddered as they knelt down to bow to her.
“You, go upstairs to help Consort Lin,” ordered the empress. “You’ll stay here to keep the fire burning for me!”
“Understood!” The two of them bowed again. The younger disappeared upstairs immediately.
“Greetings, Consort Lin!” The young apprentice bowed as soon as he saw Lin Haihai.
Lin Haihai had been looking for eggs. Her expression brightened when she saw someone coming, and she asked, “Do we have eggs?”
The apprentice widened his eyes at the gentle and friendly woman. Her voice was so soft!
“This servant will fetch it for you!” He rushed to the pantry to get a few eggs and present them to Lin Haihai. She took four and washed them with water. Then she told the apprentice, “The fire is a little weak. Add some firewood, please!”
The imperial cooks should’ve been hard at work if not for them, and thus the cookstove’s fire had started already. Seeing that the fire was indeed a little weak, the apprentice added some firewood. Lin Haihai put the eggs into a pot and covered it with a lid.
She checked the vegetables on the table. Some she could put a name to. Some she couldn’t. The sheer variety was almost disorienting. She couldn’t decide what she was going to make.
She had been in her twenties, and she had had her fair share of food in her life. She knew how to make simple dishes; she just didn’t make them very well. According to Yu Qing, though, food in the restaurants was delicious because of the heavy seasoning rather than the flavor of the ingredients themselves. She would have to make good use of condiments.
She loved eating bamboo shoots. There happened to be one on the table, and it’d been peeled to reveal its pale and delicate flesh. She cut it into slices. Although the presentation was on the ugly side, the flavor would be more important.
Then she sliced a few gourds. It was actually quite fun to cut and wash vegetables. If she and Yang Shaolun were to live a reclusive life in the mountains, she would be in charge of laundry and cooking as his wife. She couldn’t possibly rely on a man who had lived a life of abundance for house chores. He probably had never stepped into a kitchen, let alone learn how to cook!
She daydreamed happily while the apprentice scrubbed the pot and fanned the fire. She wasn’t an idiot. She knew that oil had to be put in first for stir fry. She would wait until the oil began crackling before putting the vegetables in. That was what her nanny Xiao Ying told her.
She put oil into the wok and waited for the crackling sound. After a good while, the oil was heated through, but it didn’t make any sound. She hesitated a little and decided to wait. That was an important step. She must not neglect it, or the later steps wouldn’t go smoothly.
The apprentice looked worriedly at her. She doesn’t know how to cook, does she? Why doesn’t she put the vegetables in now that the oil is heated?
Lin Haihai waited for the oil to crackle with the bamboo shoot slices in her hands. Perhaps there isn’t enough oil? She put some more into the wok with the ladle. That should do it!
However, the wok burned up as soon as she added the oil. Red fire surged through the air, taking Lin Haihai completely by surprise. Thankfully, she had a good reflex. She poured the bamboo shoot slices into the wok, and the fire died out immediately.
She wiped away the sweat covering her forehead and began tossing. There were many bottles of condiments on the side. She opened them and casually added all into the wok, be it salt, sugar, vinegar, SMG, or soy sauce. The apprentice goggled at Lin Haihai, a shudder running down his spine. Would the end result be edible? Who was the unlucky guy who had offended Consort Lin?
Meanwhile, the empress had quickly finished a few dishes without even breaking a sweat!
The sun had set to the west. Orange clouds adorned the murky world, painting a serene and beautiful scene.
“Greetings, Your Majesty,” Defu, the eunuch serving the empress dowager, reported to Yang Shaolun. “Her Majesty the Empress Dowager ordered this servant to notify Your Majesty that dinner will be served in the Ci’an Palace today. Her Majesty the Empress and Consort Lin are making the meal themselves. Empress Dowager has also invited General Chen to the dinner!”
Yang Shaolun put away the report in his hand and smiled. She cooked for me?
“Let’s go,” he rose to his feet and called out to Chen Luoqing. “This Emperor is hungry and can’t wait for dinner!”
Chen Luoqing was excited as well. They hurried to the Ci’an Palace followed by a large entourage of guards and eunuchs. The eunuchs had to jog to keep pace with them, which made it clear how quickly Yang Shaolun had been walking.
Lin Haihai covered the wok with a lid and turned to the appalled apprentice. “What do you think? I’m pretty good at it, ain’t I?”
She got more and more into the flow as she cooked. It turned out cooking was easier than she thought! She had been so worried!
The apprentice wiped his sweat away with his sleeve, fearfully avoiding Lin Haihai’s brilliant smile. “You’re good. You’re really skilled!”
Lin Haihai laughed heartily and took away one of the lids, whispering, “Such a sweet-talker. Come on, I’ll share some of my dishes with you. You’ll be my taste tester!”
The apprentice froze as if he'd been struck by lightning. Have I said something offensive to deserve this punishment?
Lin Haihai earnestly handed him a pair of chopsticks, her eyes twinkling at the apprentice. The apprentice cried inwardly and accepted the chopsticks. He picked up a little piece of bamboo shoot - the littlest piece, in fact - and put it in his mouth under Lin Haihai’s heated gaze. Holy hell is it salty! No, not just salty. It’s salty and bitter and sour, and there’s an indescribable aftertaste!
His gut reaction was to spit it out, but thankfully he still remembered that he was in the palace. He would be courting death by showing his repulsion. He remembered that LIn Haihai hadn’t blanched or submerged the bamboo shoot in water. It was only natural that the taste would be bitter and harsh. Moreover, she had added a myriad of condiments. It could no longer be considered a bowl of bamboo shoots!
He didn’t dare chew on it and instead forced himself to swallow it directly. Lin Haihai smiled at him and asked, “Is it good?”
The apprentice almost burst into tears. “It’s so good. How did Consort Lin make something so delicious?”
Lin Haihai patted him on the shoulder and said appreciatively, “Wonderful! I like honest young men like you. I’ll make some time to cook you a meal in the future. These are for the emperor and the empress dowager, though. You can’t have any more!”
She put the lids back on and ran downstairs. The apprentice, meanwhile, was scared witless. The dishes are for the emperor and the empress dowager? I’m dead, I’m deader than dead! The apprentice collapsed to the floor. He’d said the dishes were delicious. He would surely get killed when the empress dowager looked into the matter!
When the empress and Lin Haihai returned to the Ci’an Palace, Yang Shaolun and Chen Luoqing had arrived already and were chatting with the empress dowager. Yang Shaolun looked at the sweat on Lin Haihai’s face, feeling touched and soft in the heart.
Lin Haihai grinned. She had made five dishes. Four if disregarding the boiled eggs. The empress had made a few dishes as well. It would be a hearty meal.
The empress dowager emerged after getting changed. Seeing that both cooks had arrived, she said, “Serve the dishes, Lihua!”
Once the maid left the room, the empress dowager smiled and said to Yang Shaolun, “You’re going to enjoy dinner today, Your Majesty. You should eat plenty!” She then turned to Chen Luoqing. “General Chen hasn’t had anything Empress Chen made, have you? It’s praise-worthy for her to have a few specialties even as the empress!”
“You’re too kind, Imperial Mother,” the empress said humbly. “They’re just simple, crude dishes. I hope General Chen won’t be disappointed!”
“This lowly official is honored to have food made by Your Majesty and Consort Lin! It’s worth three lifetimes of luck!” Chen Luoqing was eager to try the food.
Lin Haihai felt proud. She had always thought of herself as a disaster in the kitchen, but she ended up making a few delicious dishes without difficulty. She recalled the apprentice’s teary eyes when he tasted her dish. It must have been as good as the empress’s. Perhaps the presentation wouldn’t be as good, but flavor was more important!
A number of eunuchs entered the room, each carrying a dish. They served the dishes before slowly making their leaves. The empress dowager called on everyone to sit at the table. One of the eunuchs took away each of the lids as he explained, “These are made by Her Majesty the Empress. Coiled-Dragon Swamp Eel, Sweet and Sour Ribs, Garlic Ribs, and Stir-fried Abalone.”
Then he turned to Lin Haihai’s dishes and inspected them closely. Hesitantly, he said, “This is Stir-fried Black Wood Ear...”
“It’s not black wood ear, but bamboo shoots!” Lin Haihai was amused. She continued to explain, “Then there are boiled eggs, stir-fried beef and pork, stir-fried choy sum and cucumber, and fish skin salad. It may not look the part, but it’s tasty!”
Chen Luoqing felt numb in the scalp, while the empress felt like running away. Stir-fried beef and pork? Where did that combination come from?
Staring at the dark colors of the dishes, the empress dowager asked, “Are they edible?” They didn’t look tasty at all!
“What do you mean, Imperial Mother?” Lin Haihai was dejected. “I’ve worked so hard in the kitchen to make the dishes, and you asked if they were edible?”
The empress dowager turned to Yang Shaolun, who hurriedly said to the pouting Lin Haihai, “That’s not what Imperial Mother meant. What’s important isn’t the presentation, but the taste. Food should be eaten, not looked at!”
He picked up a piece of… bamboo shoot with his chopsticks and put it in his mouth. His face almost went green. It was saltier than eating salt on its own! Lin Haihai looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to compliment her. The others turned to Yang Shaolun as well for his reaction.
Yang Shaolun swallowed with tears in his eyes before telling Lin Haihai, “It doesn’t look good, but it is pretty tasty. It’s good!”
He turned to Chen Luoqing and the empress. “This is the result of Consort Lin’s hard work! You must finish it completely, understand? If you waste any of it, this Emperor won’t forgive you! Come, Imperial Mother. Let us share this delicious food. This is my offering to you, too!”
He put slices of bamboo shoots into the empress dowager’s bowl and said, “It’s Imperial Mother’s idea. You should have more!”
The empress dowager picked up the slices and said, “It’s rare for you to serve this Empress Dowager anything. This Empress Dowager would have more!”
Yang Shaolun quietly observed her as she ate the bamboo shoot. After a brief moment of stillness, she smiled and turned to the empress and Chen Luoqing. “It’s good. Come, have some more. Finish the dish without leaving any scraps!”
Lin Haihai beamed and finally allowed herself to relax. She picked up her chopsticks and said, “Let me taste it as well!”
Yang Shaolun and the empress dowager hurriedly stopped her. “You can cook for yourself any time. It’s rare for you to make food for us. Don’t take any from us. You should have the dishes made by the empress. Don’t touch yours!”
The empress and Chen Luoqing shared a look and dared not say anything.
Lin Haihai was convinced. These people clearly never had any good food. She smiled and said, “Alright, have at it. I’ll taste dishes the empress made! You should eat slower so that the empress and Luoqing can have their share. Dig in, Empress Chen, or there won’t be any left for you!”
Dazed, the empress dug into the stir-fried beef and pork. The combination might be strange, but it shouldn’t affect the taste… She regretted it as soon as she put the meat in her mouth. Yang Shaolun and the empress dowager gave her a threatening look. She smiled wryly and said, “Dig in, General Chen. It’s good!”
Lin Haihai happily enjoyed the empress’s cooking. It was really tasty, rivalling even dishes made by the imperial cooks!
2. It was four dishes including the eggs in the original, but in the later part she actually introduced five dishes. Either she couldn’t count or the author made a mistake. Most likely the latter so I changed it to five dishes.
And that is why you taste your food before serving lol
It's fun to see them trick / threaten each other though