“Not enough peanuts,” Jiang Cheng complained loudly to his nephew. “And no red dates! Who makes lotus root and pork rib soup without red dates?”
They had both stopped at an inn in Yunmeng after a night hunt, for rest and sustenance. Pork rib and lotus root soup happened to be on the menu that evening. Jiang Cheng sipped it slowly, swallowing it as memories surfaced unbidden into his mind.
It was well-made, but...
He set the porcelain bowl down with a deep, wistful sigh, and turned his focus towards the sound of ravenous chewing beside him. Jin Ling was happily devouring everything put in front of him with the gusto of a growing teenage boy. He caught his uncle’s eye, and paused stuffing his face long enough to speak. Jiang Cheng spared his nephew a withering sideways glare.
“It’s still pretty tasty,” Jin Ling insisted.
Of course, Little Miss Jin had long gotten used to sampling the gourmet delicacies of Jinlintai. Naturally, he found the simple fare of simple folk novel.
Then he continued in an undertone, “What’s the big deal anyway? It’s just soup.”
And then Jin Ling had the nerve to shrug casually after. Jiang Cheng had a silent but rather apoplectic fit, to hear his nephew dismiss his sister’s signature dish like that. How could those callous words come out of the mouth of Jiang Yanli’s own son?
“It is not ‘just soup’,” was the Jiang Sect Leader’s scandalized response. “You wouldn’t know good Yunmeng cuisine if it smacked you on the backside, young mistress Jin.”
He continued sipping at his bowl of soup, despite its shortcomings. Compared to A-Jie's soup, the difference was night and day.
Jin Ling, totally oblivious, resumed filling the silence with his enthusiastic chomping. But a seed of an idea was already sprouting in Jiang Cheng’s head.
Of course, the boy had never sampled his mother’s cooking. Thus, how could he know what real pork rib and lotus root soup tasted like?
There was only one solution.
I’ll make it for the ungrateful brat myself, he swore to his sister that day.
Easier said than done, of course.
The cooks gaped in surprise the first time, to see their Sect Leader in his stuffy robes, sleeves rolled up as he skinned lotus roots and chopped up a rack of pork ribs by himself. Any attempts to lend their assistance were firmly rebuffed. They took one look at the large meat cleaver in his hand, and left him to his own devices all afternoon.
Jiang Cheng’s first attempt had been pathetic. He was not a patient man, and he hadn’t cooked it for long enough. It was not much more than pork-flavoured water, truth be told. The sting of disappointment sent him right back to the kitchen to try again.
The second time, he boiled it at full tilt, for far too long, until the meat was mush, the lotus root disintegrated, and the broth had almost dried up. He may or may not have thrown it into the lake in a fit of temper. He certainly wasn’t going to admit it to a single living soul.
He needed help. Professional help. Jiang Cheng decided he would go right to the source.
Feng-yi, as he’d known her, had been working as a cook for the Yunmeng Jiang sect in his youth. She had been the one to teach his A-jie to make this soup, which made it a logical place to begin his quest.
Jiang Cheng remembered her fondly. He and the other disciples used to beg at the kitchen window until she would sneak them little treats, hungry from sword training. He would crouch outside, nibbling little slices of osmanthus cakes next to his -
Jiang Cheng scoffed out loud, but there was nobody else in the kitchen to witness his outrage at a certain someone.
Feng-yi was no longer with them, nearly two decades later, even though she ought to be. The Wen had taken her, like they’d taken his parents. Fortunately, some of her family here in Yunmeng had survived.
He found the old cook’s ancestral home, where Feng-yi’s niece now lived with her husband and three children, the next generation untouched by war. She was more than happy to give him her family recipe, once she’d gotten over the shock of seeing the eminent Sect Leader Jiang on her doorstep. There were so many things he did not know about pork rib and lotus root soup, he discovered, during a lengthy chat with her over some tea. He took meticulous notes in a journal, and discovered just how much culinary expertise he was lacking. But she was patient with him, explaining the recipe in detail.
“Did you clean the ribs first?”
Jiang Cheng, bowed in concentration over his journal, lifted his head up in confusion.
“You have to clean the ribs first?”
She chuckled behind a teacup raised to her lips. That was how he had learned to blanch the pork ribs in boiling water and ginger, to remove the impurities and smell.
In the end, Feng-yi’s niece would not take his money, as much as he wanted to compensate her for her time and wisdom. He left, but not before thanking her with a deep bow, unable to convey his gratitude with words.
Jiang Cheng returned back to Lotus Pier, with more ingredients and a renewed sense of determination. The late afternoon found him squatting beside a small brazier with an earthenware pot balanced on it, encouraging the flames with his straw fan. The fire could not be too fierce nor too weak, Feng-yi’s niece had said.
In the end, his single-minded doggedness won out over his limited stores of patience. He continued to flap his fan at the base of the brazier, sweat dripping down his brow, for almost a whole shí chen.
A whole shí chen was a lot of time to be left alone with your thoughts.
Had his sister squatted in the same position he was now in, in this very kitchen? His mind conjured images of Jiang Yanli diligently fanning the flames, while her famous soup bubbled away at a cheerful pace. Guilt washed over him. He never truly appreciated her cooking until now, as he discovered just how much effort went into a single pot of the stuff. She had only wanted the best soup for her brothers.
He mopped his brow carelessly with his sleeve. It was a good thing he’d changed out of his ostentatious Sect Leader robes this time.
His mistake had been neglecting his cooking before. But this time, the fire was slow and steady, producing a gentle simmer throughout, and his attentiveness paid off. The ribs were soft to the tooth, the lotus root still intact. Overall, the result had been palatable, a big improvement over his previous attempts.
But it was still lacking something, though he had followed the recipe to the letter. He made clay pot after clay pot of pork rib and lotus root soup, to no avail. He tweaked the recipe. More ginger, less red dates, different peanuts.
It still didn’t taste like hers. Even the cook’s niece was at a loss.
Jiang Cheng was not a man who asked for help lightly. But there was nothing else for it. For success at his quest, he could put aside old grievances.
He was going to have to consult a certain individual.
It was well known that Wei Wuxian, having just returned from his travels, was currently residing at Cloud Recesses. (More like shamelessly living in Lan Wangji’s home, in Jiang Cheng’s opinion.) But at least he knew where to address his letter.
He fought off his penchant for holding on to grudges long enough to pen a missive to Wei Wuxian, tersely explaining his efforts to reproduce his sister’s - their sister, he realised with an uncomfortable lurch in his core - specialty dish and asking for anything he’d missed.
He expected (alright, dreaded) a letter back. He did not anticipate, however, that his erstwhile shī gē would ride the first sword back to Lotus Pier to assist him in the reconstruction effort. He especially did not foresee that sword would be Bichen. Which meant…
“Sect Leader Jiang.”
Lan Wangji gave him an impersonal bow, his tone impassive, almost cold. Jiang Cheng’s own greeting was devoid of emotion. They were still not on the best of terms, would never be bosom buddies, but had an unspoken agreement to remain civil for Wei Wuxian’s sake.
Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, was beaming as wide as possible, addressing him with a familiarity they had not had in years.
“You didn’t say you were coming,” Jiang Cheng hissed at him, but Wei Wuxian waved at him with a careless hand.
“Of course I had to! This matter is of the utmost importance. After all, I want to taste shī jiě's soup again as much as you do.” Wei Wuxian nudged him in the side with his elbow. “How could I not come to help my shī dì?”
“Who’s your shī dì?” Jiang Cheng glared back like an affronted owl. “I'm technically your senior now!”
“Are you sure you can help?” Jiang Cheng asked as they entered the kitchen, eyeing the other man up and down with suspicion. They both rolled up their sleeves, and Wei Wuxian began to wash and peel the lotus roots with deft strokes of a kitchen knife.
“Of course!” Wei Wuxian protested. “I grew these in the Burial Mounds, did you know? Granny Wen and I tried to replicate this recipe too, whenever we could get our hands on pork ribs, but…” He let out a plaintive sigh. “We never had all the right ingredients at once.”
Jiang Cheng began laying out a row of wooden bowls, measuring ingredients with precise care. By now, he could recite the cook’s recipe in his sleep. Pork ribs. Lotus root. Peanuts. Dried red dates. Dried cuttlefish. Ginger. Salt. Water.
Wei Wuxian looked over. “Wait... Something’s missing.”
“Missing? Everything the cook’s niece said was in her recipe is here,” Jiang Cheng insisted.
“Maybe shī jiě deviated from the recipe,” suggested his brother. The sect leader rolled his eyes. Of course he would suggest that.
Wei Wuxian picked up the bowl with dried cuttlefish in it, wrinkling his nose.
“Too fishy…” He glanced around. “Where’s the dried scallops?”
“What dried scallops?” demanded Jiang Cheng. “The recipe didn’t call for-”
“You know! The ones at the bottom of the pot!” Wei Wuxian gestured. “I used to like chewing on those when we finished the soup. You didn’t like the texture, so I always got to eat them.”
Jiang Cheng stared at the other man in shock as the vivid memory returned to him, then shouted at a nearby cook for some.
“That’s more like it.”
Wei Wuxian nodded his approval, as he lifted the next spoonful of soup to his mouth. The flavour of the ocean imparted by the dried scallops was subtler than the dried squid Jiang Cheng had been using, being of finer quality. A-jie must have substituted the dried squid for whatever the Lotus Pier cooks had on hand one day, and kept it that way for years after only because Wei Wuxian enjoyed them.
“More like it,” Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes at his own bowl, “but still not the same.”
Lan Wangji looked up from his soup, who only had some because it would have been incredibly rude of Jiang Cheng not to give his guest any. “Too much salt,” he murmured.
Jiang Cheng rounded on him, offended. “And how would you know what her soup tastes like? Your Gusu Lan sect cooks haven’t even discovered seasoning!”
He had been to enough conferences at Cloud Recesses and eaten enough of their bland food for a lifetime. Predictably, the Second Jade of Lan was too dignified to rise to his barb.
“After the Sunshot Campaign, I had the pleasure of sampling Jiang-guniang’s pork rib and lotus root soup,” Lan Wangji revealed. Jiang Cheng goggled at him.
Wei Wuxian erupted with delight, clasping his cultivation partner’s bicep in both hands. “Lan Zhan! Was this when I was in a coma and you played your qín for me? Shī jiě said you came every morning and evening. Did she give you some to reward your hard work?”
“Mn,” was Lan Wangji’s response, laying a hand over the affectionate touch in reciprocation.
“My Lan Zhan is the best,” Wei Wuxian declared, with sappy stars in his eyes. To Jiang Cheng’s horror, Lan Wangji was gazing lovingly back at his brother, the corners of his mouth upturned. Hanguang-jun, actually smiling. He might vomit.
Thankfully, Lan Wangji changed the subject.
“When was salt introduced into the soup?” he asked the other two men.
“We put everything into the pot at the beginning, didn’t we, Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian mused. “But I’m positive we added the right amount!”
“Salt should be added at the end of the cooking process only,” Lan Wangji explained with a serene expression. “As the broth reduces, the salt content increases. Season to taste only when the soup is complete, to control the salinity of the final dish.”
Wei Wuxian let out a long, dramatic gasp, thoroughly impressed. “You’re right! Why didn’t we think of that! Lan Zhan is so clever.”
Jiang Cheng could do nothing but concede to the restraint of the Lan sect in this instance, and would later begrudgingly record this piece of culinary wisdom into his journal. “We’ll try that next time,” he admitted, with great difficulty. “Still doesn’t explain why Gusu Lan food seems to be devoid of salt.”
Lan Zhan, busy placing a juicy pork rib into Wei Wuxian’s rice bowl, did not deign to respond.
Jiang Cheng was beginning to tear his hair out, at this stage.
“It’s still missing something,” he muttered, staring into his bowl like the image of Jiang Yanli would appear in his soup and bestow upon him the answers he needed. “Who else has tried this soup?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
Wei Wuxian had decided to stay on at Lotus Pier to crack the case, sending Lan Wangji in his stead to night-hunt with his adopted son and nephew. He considered, looking thoughtful, and then it dawned on him. He slapped a hand on the table, excited.
“Wen Ning has! Wen Ning tried it once.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. Of all the people to have tried A-jie’s cooking… the Ghost General? But then he remembered.
“In Yiling, right?” Jiang Cheng let out a haughty huff. “I didn’t know fierce corpses can drink soup.”
“Well, he had a few mouthfuls, and then carried the rest back up to the Burial Mounds to share with A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian recalled, with a small smile. “There wasn’t a lot of meat in those days, and he wanted him to grow up healthy.”
A great pang of ache gripped Jiang Cheng’s core. That little Lan boy had tried his sister’s soup, but not her own son.
The same realisation seemed to have occurred to Wei Wuxian, who hastily moved the conversation on with a brittle smile.
“Don't worry - I’ll call him. Maybe he has some insights…”
For the sake of propriety, Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian met with Wen Ning across the river from Lotus Pier. It was as far as Wen Ning dared to go near the place, insisting that it would not be right for him to enter. Jiang Cheng felt the same. Too much tragedy between them, to even begin to reconcile.
Jiang Cheng stared out at the rippling water as they walked, watching the many heads of lotus flowers sway in the evening breeze, only half-listening as Wen Ning relayed tales of his and the Lan boy’s travels to Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian had brought along the rest of the soup, securing the clay pot in a basket. They sat on the bank of the river, as the evening grew later, while Wei Wuxian ladled out some pork rib and lotus root soup, handing it over to the Ghost General, while he himself enjoyed his third bowl of the day.
“Not bad, right?”
“It’s good.” Wen Ning gave them a vigorous nod. “Very tasty.”
Wei Wuxian sighed. “We just can’t get it to taste like shī jiě's. Something is missing.”
Wen Ning peered into the clay pot, searching. “Did you eat all the honey dates already?”
Jiang Cheng’s attention snapped back to the sentient fierce corpse. “What?”
“There was a honey date in the bowl that I carried back for A-Yuan,” explained Wen Ning. “I remember, because he liked it the best.”
“A-Yuan does like his sweets,” Wei Wuxian added, his voice soft with endearment.
“Sweetness!” echoed Jiang Cheng, grabbing Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and shaking it in his agitation. “That’s what it’s missing. Honey dates are sweeter than red dates.”
“Excellent!” Wei Wuxian cried. “Thank you, Wen Ning.”
Wen Ning gave them both a bashful smile, happy to be of service, and for the first time, Jiang Cheng did not think of him with resentment in his heart.
“When was the last time you had A-jie’s soup?”
As they worked in the kitchen side by side, they fell into a soothing rhythm. Wei Wuxian accepted the sect leader’s direction without question, happy to chop up lotus roots for him as Jiang Cheng lowered the slices into the clay pot with care. Jiang Cheng would blanch pork ribs to prepare them for stewing, and Wei Wuxian was by his side with a fresh clay pot to place them into. There was the occasional friendly snipe, but on the whole, they had been working together, elbow to elbow, in what could almost be called companionable silence.
Domestic harmony was a nice change, if Jiang Cheng was honest. Jiang Cheng privately thought A-jie would be very proud of the way they were cooperating with each other. Wei Wuxian privately thought Yu-furen would be vomiting blood at the sight of them doing what she would have scathingly referred to as ‘servant work’.
They took turns fanning the fire under the clay pot, their watchful eyes on the simmering soup.
“I don’t remember,” murmured Wei Wuxian. “It might have been that day in Yiling, now I think about it.” He swallowed his discomfort, plastering on a tight smile. “I never knew how much work cooking soup was until I helped Wen-popo in the kitchen.”
Jiang Cheng stared into the dancing flames, then decided to voice something that always came to mind every time he sought to recreate her signature dish.
“We really did take her for granted, didn’t we.”
Wei Wuxian sighed. “She spoiled us so much! No other soup under the sky will ever compare to hers. Don’t worry, Jiang Cheng. We’ll keep trying and trying until we get it.”
“Attempt the impossible,” Jiang Cheng recited their clan’s creed in a hollow voice, waving the fan at the brazier with measured strokes.
His brother nudged him hard on purpose, enough to almost make him lose balance. “Lan Zhan and the kids will be back soon. You might want to change before you receive them for dinner.” Wei Wuxian wrinkled his nose at Jiang Cheng’s casual robe, stained all over with sweat and food. “Maybe wash yourself as well.”
“Like you’re any better off!”
Jiang Cheng smacked him on the arm with the straw fan, as his brother wailed with the injustice of it all. But Wei Wuxian had a good point. He did need to look presentable, as the block of jade ice that was his brother-in-law was due to return soon with the juniors. They had been gone for the last few days, and the two of them were determined to perfect their sister’s recipe before their nephew returned to Lotus Pier.
“I’m handing this over to you, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said sternly, passing him the straw fan, like a general handing over his sword to his deputy. “Remember to take it off the brazier when it’s done or it’s going to overcook.”
“I know, I know.” Wei Wuxian flapped a hand at him, to shoo him off. “Don’t worry! I'll handle it!”
They gathered at the round dining table Jiang Cheng and his family used to take his meals at, beside the lotus pond that lay behind the main reception hall. It was the very same one where his sister would peel lotus seeds for him and his brother, where his mother would save his favourite chicken leg for him, and then turn to bicker with his father.
Here, he was not the head of the table, or a sect leader. Here, he was just Jiang Cheng. His brother sat beside him, inseparable from his beloved cultivation partner. On his other side, his nephew, excitedly chattering about the yāo mó he’d slain on the night hunt, and his little Gusu Lan friend, Sizhui. Of course, Jiang Cheng realised with a jolt, the boy was technically his nephew by adoption.
The servants brought in the other dishes, and laid their rice bowls in front of them. And carefully, in the middle of the table, they set down the clay pot that held within it the hard work of Yunmeng's Twin Heroes. The cover was lifted, and the aroma wafting from it was unmistakable. They held their breath, as a maid ladled the soup out into bowls for them.
“The moment of truth,” murmured Wei Wuxian.
They lifted their spoons to their lips. Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened. So did Wei Wuxian’s. They looked at each other.
“Jiang Cheng…” Wei Wuxian began, voice thick with emotion. “You did it.”
He shook his head. Could it be?
“You… are you sure?”
Jiang Cheng tried another spoonful. There was no denying it. After weeks of tireless research in the making, after so much trial and error, his efforts had finally come to fruition.
He’d nailed the timing this time, he knew it. The pork ribs had been stewed to the perfect level of tenderness, falling off the bone at the slightest coaxing. The lotus root was succulent yet intact, still with some bite to it, but having absorbed all the subtle flavours in the soup. The broth itself was light and pleasing, as the sweetness of the dates complimented the savoury meat. And to top it off, Jiang Cheng had ensured the right amount of juicy peanuts, a perfect little accompaniment to the main ingredients.
“It is remarkably similar to Jiang-guniang’s,” agreed Lan Wangji.
“We’ve done it,” Jiang Cheng muttered, still in shock. “I don’t believe it. We actually managed to do it.”
Sizhui drank his soup in polite sips. “There is something quite nostalgic about this taste.”
“Do you remember this soup, A-Yuan?” Wei Wuxian asked, brimming over with glee. “Wen Ning once carried a bowl of it all the way up to the Burial Mounds for you. It was the first time you ever tasted lotus root! Here-“
And Wei Wuxian fished out one of the honey dates from the clay pot, soft from the simmering heat, and placed it into his son’s bowl. Sizhui chewed it carefully, then nodded in earnest.
“Yes! This flavour is so familiar.”
Lan Zhan looked down, and picked up the honey date that happened to be in his bowl with his chopsticks, setting it down in front of Sizhui as well.
“Eat it well.”
Sizhui beamed at his father. Wei Wuxian, watching them both, was grinning wider than Jiang Cheng had ever witnessed. It had been a long time since there was cause for such joy.
“Ah, I’ve missed Yunmeng cuisine so much!” Wei Wuxian proclaimed, mixing his favourite chilli oil into Zhenjiang vinegar to dunk his pork rib meat in. “No offense, Lan Zhan, but the food at Cloud Recesses really does need spicing up…”
Unbeknownst to him, Lan Wangji had obtained that particular chilli oil from Yunmeng on their way back to Lotus Pier, to surprise Wei Wuxian with later. Jiang Cheng had seen a servant carrying it to the guest quarters. The mad bastard really did love his brother after all.
Jiang Cheng shot his nephew a sideways look. Jin Ling had been tasting the soup with delicate spoonfuls, trying to work out what exactly the commotion was about. This time, he knew better than to dismiss it as ‘just soup’.
“Here.” Jiang Cheng placed the biggest pork rib from his bowl onto Jin Ling’s rice. His nephew turned to gawk at him, unused to such affection from his uncle.
“What are you waiting for?” his uncle snapped, mostly to disguise his awkwardness. “Do you want me to feed you?”
“No need!” Jin Ling jerked into action, shoving it into his mouth without hesitation. “Thank you, jiù jiu!”
“It’s your mother’s specialty dish,” Jiang Cheng explained to the boy. “We spent all afternoon cooking this.”
“She used to make it for us all the time,” Wei Wuxian sighed, a fond look suffusing his features. “It was the best in winter, when it was cold outside, and we would sit in our room, with our little hands wrapped around our warm bowls…”
Jiang Cheng snorted. “She used to make it for your father too,” he told his nephew. “Except once, he thought it had been someone else doing the cooking, and then when she brought him some, he scolded her for no reason...”
“Oh, he was the worst at courting, your father! What about the time on Baifeng Mountain? Where he admitted he had actually invited her to the autumn night-hunting competition, not his mother, then ran away in front of everyone?”
Jin Ling’s eyes were the size of saucers, as he continued to devour his soup, and the tales of his mother and father’s terrible pre-engagement exploits. His uncles laughed as they reminisced, and he laughed when he pressed them for more details.
Funny, Jiang Cheng thought, how a simple pot of soup could make them all so happy. It had been well worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears. He gazed around the table, watching the fruits of their labour being enjoyed by family.
After all, they were family. They were not all linked by blood, but by something stronger.
It occurred to him how happy his sister would have been, to see them all together like this. Jiang Cheng closed his eyes, appreciating spoonful after precious spoonful, and he could have sworn this pot of pork rib and lotus root soup tasted like Jiang Yanli herself had made it.