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Tag: barry hughart

Singularly succulent comestibles

I am currently re-reading Barry Hughart’s Eight Skilled Gentlemen – a fantasy novel based in Tang Dynasty China – and cannot stop wondering at the imagination and sheer Rabelaisian surrealism of the story. The following passage is a good illustration. Participants: Master Li Kao – a Confucian scholar and detective; Yen Shih – a puppeteer; Number Ten Ox – Master Li’s servant and narrator of the story. Scene: our protagonists are trying to get rid of a corpse belonging to the late servant of their host who is a powerful governor.

A great castle always has a small separate kitchen for the preparation of ceremonial dishes to be offered to ghosts or gods, and it was to be expected that a shaman would wish to offer to the gods who had aided him and invite his esteemed host to share the feast. Master Li had no difficulty commandeering the place, and in a few minutes he and Yen Shih had the corpse stretched out on the kitchen table and were cutting the clothes away. To tell the truth, I still didn’t truly believe this was happening.

‘Ox, would you see if they have any pigs’ feet jelly?’ the puppeteer asked. He turned to Master Li. ‘It seems to me that the thighs might best be marinated in a broth of pigs’ feet mixed with honey and the lees of wine, and then baked inside a crust formed of the marinade thickened with peanut paste.’

‘A connoisseur!’ said Master Li.

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

‘Ox, while you’re at it, see if they have any pickled jellyfish skins!’ Master Li called after me as I lurched into the larder. ‘I’ve discovered they go marvelously with bear’s paws,’ he continued to Yen Shih. ‘Bears paws taste to me like sixty percent glue, so jellyfish skins might be a good accompaniment to glutinous parts, like the soles of this bastard’s feet, and perhaps the spermatic cords.’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

One of the shelves yielded the pigs’ feet, and in a cabinet I found a jar of jellyfish skins. When I started back towards the table Master Li was preparing to remove the top of the corpse’s head with a saw, and Yen Shih was measuring fibula and tibia for ax strokes.

‘Yen Shih, shall we do the brains in a traditional turnip sauce, or would you prefer oyster broth?’ Master Li shouted over the puppeteer’s ax.

‘You know, I rather favor poaching brains in coconut milk, if Ox can find any,’ Yen Shih said thoughtfully.

‘Brilliant!’ Master Li said admiringly. ‘Ox, see if they have any coconuts, and do you know why our erudite friend made the suggestion? Once upon a time, so the story goes, the great king of Nam Viet was stabbed by assassins, and he realised he was dying, so he pulled off his head and stuck it on a tree as his final gift to the people. The head turned into the coconut, and because the king was drunk at the time the fluid inside it is the most easily fermentable stuff on earth.’

‘I shall again seek your invaluable advice before possible ruining something,’ said Master Li. ‘Shall we keep the tongue whole, possibly baked inside a crust of walnut paste, or should we slice and saute it with butter and garlic?’

‘I am a butter-and-garlic man’ the puppeteer said. ‘Why don’t we save the walnut paste for broiling the bastard’s balls?’

‘Splendid,’ said Master Li.

‘How about a casserole of toes and ears?’

”Maybe with breast meat added,’ Master Li said. ‘Stewed slowly with bean curd, fagara, red peppers, and a lot of mushrooms added at the end.’

‘Sounds marvelous,’ said Yen Shih. ‘We have time to make a few sausages, don’t we?’

‘Oh, certainly. Here, let’s see what his intestines look like.’

‘Ox, look for some of that mustard from the south that goes so well with sausages!’ Yen Shih called out. ‘I once knew a fellow named Meng Kuan who claimed he bought mustard of Tan and took it home and forgot about it,’ he said to Master Li. ‘The stuff began to grow, and it sprouted a torso, a head, a tail, and four legs, and Meng Kuan swears it bit him and galloped out the door and he never saw it again.’

‘What was he drinking?’

‘Paint remover, I assume. Speaking of which, is there some way we can disguise the features, yet leave it intact, and serve the grand warden crisp fried face of boyfriend?’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

‘Will you look at this fellow’s kidneys and pancreas!’

‘Gorgeous! And the liver!’

‘Eggplant! Ox, we must have eggplant, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and at least two kinds of squash!’


Not a trace of the creature remained, except for the succession of splendid dishes that were carried to the grand warden’s table the following evening at the banquet. I lacked the social status to receive an invitation, of course, and so did Yen Shih, but Master Li was a guest of honor. Master Li could eat anything, including “Twelve-Treasure Five-Taste Herb-Honeyed Unicorn,” which was served to the grand warden as the dish of distinction. (Yen Shih and Master Li had boiled the corpse’s buttocks in an infusion of hibiscus petals, and I had to admit it gave them a lovely shade of bluish pink.) As I said, I didn’t attend, but I did hear satisfied comments from departing guests, including the assessment of two very exalted prelates.

‘A bit rich for my taste, but quite well done,’ said the High Priest of Yen-men, and his Confucian counterpart put the seal on it.

‘Singularly succulent comestibles.’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.