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The Feng-Huang and the Emperor's Soup
(e-SoupSong 38: June 1, 2003)
ONCE UPON A TIME, in the far reaches of China, a poor, hardworking peasant was trudging to his marshy fields for a long day of work. Suddenly he stopped. What was that in front of him? He rubbed his eyes. No, yes...yes, it was! There, half-hidden among the reeds, stood the fabled feng-huang.
The feng-huang, magnificent phoenix! Brilliant red plumage on its head. Shining scarlet breast and back. A long trailing tail of many colors that glinted in the sun. Huge, luminous wings. Startling blue eyes. The wise and noble bird itself, that only settled to earth where treasures were to be found.
The peasant edged toward the bird, clucking to show his friendship. Alas, just as he reached out to stroke its head, it soared away into the sky. The peasant watched it disappear, then smiled. "There must be treasure buried here," he said outloud, and he began to dig.
He dug and dug, throwing up chunks of sparkling earth until he was knee deep in a hole and hit hard rock. Coming out of the hole, he sat down, picked up one of the clods and pondered it. "This dirt must be the treasure," he said, "The feng-huang cannot be wrong." And so he wrapped the piece of earth in cloth and hurried home.
His poor old wife was startled. "What is it? What's wrong?" "Nothing is wrong. The gods have blessed us. I have found treasure," and he sat down and told her the tale, sparing no details. The two stared in wonder at the piece of earth. "Dear husband," his wife said after a while, "you know you must take this to the Emperor. "
The man nodded. He knew, like all of his countrymen, that anyone who found a treasure must report it to the Emperor. The peasant carefully dressed in his work clothes, for he owned no others. His wife lightly wrapped the piece of earth and placed it in a willow basket. Then the peasant took the basket in his hand and walked all the way to the capital city. There he announced his wish to present a treasure to the Emperor.
When the Emperor asked to see the gift, the peasant bowed low, reached into his basket and held out the earth. He told the Emperor the tale of the magical phoenix.
The Emperor frowned. "You are trying to make a fool of me, " he cried. "This is no treasure. This is dirt. Guards, take this man to the dungeon and put him to death. No one is permitted to mock the Emperor!"
Alas, by nightfall, the poor peasant was dead. As for the basket of dirt, one of the servants placed it high on a shelf in the royal kitchen, and it was completely forgotten.
Days and weeks and months passed. Then, one day a cook was carrying a bowl of chicken soup into the royal dining hall. When he moved aside to let the scullery maid pass, he bumped into the door frame and shook the shelf overhead. A small clod of earth dislodged from the willow basket and splashed into the soup just as the Emperor boomed, "Bring me my soup!"
In horror the cook reached out to remove the clod, but before he could fish it out, it had dissolved into the soup and disappeared. With trembling hands, he carried the bowl to the table, placed it before the Emperor, then knelt at the Emperor's feet, clasping his hands in front of him. The Emperor dipped his spoon into the soup. He brought it to his lips and slurped. Surprise registered on his face, then he smiled. "Extraordinary, " he said. "this is the best soup I have ever tasted! What did you add to it?"
"Your majesty," said the cook, ''I did nothing special, but I must confess, may you live a thousand years, that a bit of dirt from the peasant's willow basket fell into the soup just as I was about to serve it to you. It disappeared, like snow in the summer sun." He touched his forehead to the ground, fearing the worst.
The Emperor was amazed. "Bring me that basket," he told the cook. "I remember that foolish peasant and his talk about the Feng Huang. When the basket was set before him, the Emperor reached in and sifted the earth through his long fingernails. As he did so, tiny white crystals clung to his palms. He placed some of the crystals on his tongue and let them dissolve there.
"Ah so, " the Emperor said. "This is treasure indeed, a true gift from the phoenix. From this day on, we shall add these crystals to all of our dishes." And that was how the people of China discovered salt.
Now the Emperor was sorry, so very sorry, that he had put the poor peasant to death. He sent for the man's wife and son. "I put you in charge of all the lands that yield this white crystal.," he told the son. "Send me baskets of this crystal every year, and do with the rest as you will." The young man became rich and comfortable, and he took good care of his mother. And so the peasant, honored through his son, rested in peace. The mother was happy. The son was happy. The Emperor was happy. And all of China blessed the Feng Huang for the great gift of salt.
This is truly the champagne of chicken elixirs: pale gold in color, pure in taste, brought to perfection by the last minute addition of salt. How cooked? By the "double boiling method," which makes a kind of essence of it. It doesn’t at all taste--or look--like "regular" chicken stock, that’s for sure. Why not serve it in your finest crystal wine glasses?
1. In a large soup pot, bring at least 8 cups of water to a rolling boil, drop in the chicken pieces, and blanch them for 1 minute after the water returns to a boil. Drain the chicken, discarding the water, rinse in cold water and drain again.
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NEXT MONTH: "The Making of Baked Potato Soup"