Who doesn’t love a good story, right? And if it’s raining like it is right now, it’s just the perfect reason to curl up with a cup of coffee and lose yourself in a time and place far, far away…
Once upon a time, there lived a talented, young poet, a trusted minister in a powerful position in a king’s court. The simple philosophy, the patriotic fervor, and the unconventional style of his compositions made him increasingly popular, but also drew jealousy from his corrupt colleagues in court. Like many good guys before and since, he was exiled to a distant land, where he roamed the countryside, picking up folk-lores and legends, connecting with good and honest people and writing beautiful poetry that strengthened the bonds between him and his country folk.
Years later, when he returned from exile, his country was in political turmoil, with corruption within and enemies without. When his country’s capital got cunningly captured by a bad, bad king, our heart-broken poet could not take it anymore. As a protest, he walked into a surging river, drowning himself in its waters to shake up those in power and make them realize the plight of the common people.
The people for their part did not want their beloved hero to die. They rushed out to the river in huge numbers in their boats to rescue him, splashing, rowing, paddling, wailing, frantic in their search. They even threw little parcels of rice wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river so that the fish would leave his body alone. But alas, the poet, the loyal countryman, the hero of many hearts, and the symbol of true patriotism was never to be found…
Alright, now wipe those tears away, ‘cos it may be a sad end to our hero’s life, but it is the grand beginning of something special and happy… the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated in many countries in the world on the death anniversary of the great Chinese poet and patriot, Qu Yuan. On this day, (a national holiday in China and a few other countries) huge colourful boats race zealously on the river, people wish each other prosperity and health, and hundreds of nimble hands make thousands of triangular parcels of sticky rice called Zongzhi, with various sweet or savoury fillings, to throw into the river in fond memory of Qu Yuan… or to exchange as tokens of goodwill.
As Chef David (Yui Kwong To) ended this story and rushed off to whip up a festive meal for us, our small group of foodies who had gathered to celebrate the food and the legend of the Dragon Boat Festival, shook ourselves out of our reverie, slowly travelling back to present-day Mumbai, where the gathering clouds had finally burst open over the choppy, grey Arabian Sea which stretched endlessly before our eyes just outside our round table at Ming Yang at Taj Land’s End.
An exquisitely-flavoured spicy Chong Sin Soup started off the rainy afternoon on a good, cheerful note, followed by a trail of starters ranging from Stir Fried Mushrooms, to Crumb Fried Chicken, to Lotus Stem Dim Sums to Barbecue Lamb Chops.
Conversation flowed like the hot Chinese tea in our little, white teacups. Chef Sahil Sabhlok regaled us with behind-the-scene anecdotes of tackling tricky dietary requirements, and moving little stories of customers whose few words of appreciation has warmed many hearts in the Taj kitchens.
The elaborate main course arrived soon after – an amazingly flavoured mélange of Wild Mushrooms in Hot Pepper Sauce, with the Shitake, Shimeji and Enoki mushrooms still smelling of the soil from a faraway Chinese garden; a fresh and wholesome Water Spinach, sauted lightly with sesame oil; a somewhat insipid Red Snapper with Ginger; a surprisingly robust Chicken with Cucumber; and generous helpings of Udon noodles and Fried Rice. The Fried Milk dessert was as intriguing in taste as it was in name… small cubes of creamy, frozen milk, fried in a light, crisp batter that just melts away into nothing in your mouth!
As we sipped and munched and chatted away late into the afternoon, struggling as much to finish the delicious fare as to interpret the deeper meaning of a short piece from a Qu Yuan poem, [read his most famous and poignant poem ‘Li Sao’ here] there was a distinct feeling of harmony and peace covering us all at the table like a benevolent cloak. No, you don’t need to be racing down a swarming river in a colourful dragon boat, or waving little red flags to show your enthusiasm for the festivities. The food itself is enough to invoke the spirit of the festival, and all the good vibes attached to it. That, and a really good, heart-warming story on a rainy afternoon 🙂