In Chapter 40 of Dream of A Red Chamber, a mid-eighteenth-century Chinese novel regarded as a great classic, the hero Pao-yü, an aristocratic descendant, suggests an unconventional arrangement of a family feast to his grandmother, the authority of the family. Instead of spreading an extensive banquet with a variety of dishes, Pao-yü proposed to serve the guests on individual high tables (高几) with one or two dishes of their tastes, “a painted box with partitions” (什锦攒心盒子) and a decanter. “Won’t this be an original way?” said Pao- yü. Considered a semi-autobiography of the author Cao Xueqin who himself was a noble descendant, the novel’s meticulous descriptions of the sumptuous lifestyle are often interpreted as a mirror of the eighteenth-century Chinese aristocratic society. In particular, nearly one third of the length of the novel is dedicated to dietary scenarios, including depictions of over a hundred dishes, recipes, ritual dietary occasions, and food containers.
When I saw the set of nine butterfly-shaped dishes in a square lacquer box, fitted in its bamboo basketry at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I immediately associated it with the ‘painted box with partitions’ portrayed in this episode in Dream of A Red Chamber.
I am by no means suggesting any direct connection between the object and Cao Xueqin or the novel. However, such literary materials might generate further understandings of the food containers. One issue that I am constantly aware of throughout my research of food and its design history is the gap between the historical objects survived, which are usually presented in a museum or well-preserved context, and the absence of their contents and functions on display. The caption certainly assists the audience’s appreciation: the box, it says:
‘…is likely to have been used for picnics or for meals taken in the garden. It either held the cold starters that preceded the main meal or the snacks taken between courses’
In Suiyuan Shidan (随园食单), the eighteenth century poet and scholar Yuan Mei’s renowned treatise on Chinese cuisine, Yuan emphasised the importance of the balance between food and its container. He even provided a list of recipes of sweets and snacks to ‘fill bowls and plates’ at feasts. Food containers and the presentation of food were regarded as an essential feature of eighteenth century Chinese culinary culture of the aristocratic society.
What would be boxed in this set? In Yuan Mei’s list in Suiyuan Shidan, for banquets he suggests sweets and snacks such as orange rice cakes, chestnut rice cakes, several flavours of pickled plum including one stored in a whole rose, osmanthus dry sweets, and steamed date cakes. In Dream of A Red Chamber, feasts present steamed date-and-yum cake, osmanthus-and-chestnut rice cake, lotus-root-and-osmanthus cake, crab dumplings and beancurd-skinned dumplings.
Most of these sweets and snacks contain seasonal ingredients, and are labour and time-consuming. For instance, the osmanthus dry sweets would have been moulded into small pieces and coloured by rose petals (red), mint leaves (green), prunes (black) and ginger juice (white). The steamed date cake would have been embossed with fine decorations. Unfortunately, the decoration method and the presentation are rarely found in contemporary Chinese culinary culture.
 I consulted H. Bencraft Joly’s translation here.
 ‘Dishes in a box’, V&A Search the Collections, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O73629/dishes-in-a-unknown/, accessed 17 Feb. 2014.
 Yuan, Mei, Suiyuan Shidan, (1792)
Ning Huang –
Ning is currently working on the study of wagashi (Japanese confectionery) design and history. Through her previous studies and experience of East Asian art and cultural histories, she believes that the small world of wagashi culture provides an unusual and interesting lens for the observation of Japanese social histories and economic, knowledge and cultural exchanges.
© Ning Huang, 2014. All Rights Reserved.