Art in the best possible taste

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Viewers develop appetite for new romantic period drama where the lovingly re-created Ming Dynasty delicacies prove to be the real draw.

During his later years to escape turmoil, prestigious Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet and artist Wang Wei lived in seclusion in his countryside villa surrounded by mountains and rivers in Northwest China's Shaanxi province.

The picturesque environment inspired him to create Wangchuan Tu (Wangchuan Villa). The giant mural vanished a long time ago, but replicas created by artists in the following dynasties remain.

Seeing the masterpiece "reappear" in our modern world will, to say the least, raise eyebrows. Especially as it is "re-created" in such a mouthwatering way. It could be food for thought.

Royal Feast, a costume drama currently streaming domestically and abroad, features, in one episode, a skilled cook carving multiple vegetables into shapes resembling the scenery in the painting. She then places an array of dishes together to make them look like a three-dimensional "replica" of the full Tang Dynasty masterpiece.

This lavish feast is served to the queen and some noble women, such as the emperor's concubines and the crown prince's wife, as part of a competition which brings together the best cooks serving the royal family's dining table.

Released on Chinese streaming site Mango TV on Feb 22, the 40-episode drama has also been streamed overseas, including North America and Europe, as well as broadcast on several TV channels in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

Set during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the story fictionalizes the legend of Yao Zijin (played by Wu Jinyan), a young female cook who wins the heart of the Emperor Zhu Di's most fancied grandson Zhu Zhanji (played by Xu Kai), with her versatile talents, including art and poetry.

The bittersweet love story is the main plot, but the royal delicacies showcased in the drama-more than 1,000 dishes-are what have stolen the hearts of many viewers, with some suggesting, in a humorous manner, that they might stop watching late at night to avoid the hunger pangs the show encourages.

Most of the delicacies and dishes are inspired from traditional Chinese culture, or reflect our ancestors' distinctive knowledge of the harmonious relationship between people and nature, according to the producers.

For instance, the 24 solar terms-a system created from the Chinese traditional calendar to guide agricultural practices, based on ancient Chinese people's observations of celestial bodies and nature-have been used as an inspiration to make a creative dish called "24 solar terms wonton (Chinese dumplings)". Dumplings in each bowl have different fillings and wrappers, which are made from the produce harvested in the respective terms.

Director Wang Wei says the crew established a special team to dive into food and cuisine developed in ancient China, producing a list, based on historical archives, around two months before shooting started early last year.

"With the list, they have endeavored to seek out the ingredients and qualified cooks. As a lot of dishes require a high level of sculpting skill, we have recruited around 20 chefs to specially make such dishes for nearly a month," says Wang.

A Beijing native who grew up in a hutong in the city's downtown, Wang recalls that his home was near the eastern gate of the Imperial Ancestral Temple, located a few hundred meters from the Forbidden City, now the Palace Museum.

"The beauty of the Forbidden City, with its iconic red walls and yellow roofs, has been etched on my mind since I was a child. So, I was always quite interested in stories set in Beijing, especially those related to the Forbidden City," recalls the director.

However, Royal Feast marks the first time he has delved into a drama themed around food. After spending a couple of months learning from experts and historians, Wang and his team discovered that the food preparation skills-from seasoning to cooking-during the Ming Dynasty were profound, encompassing legacies from previous dynasties, as well as reflecting China's geographical diversity.

"As the famous Chinese saying 'min yishi weitian' (to the people, food is heaven) goes, Chinese people regard food as an important part of our traditional culture. For all our creators behind the Royal Feast, we hope this drama will help overseas audiences learn more about China's cuisine culture," says Wang.

The director says the drama also wants to bring to life shangshiju, an ancient bureau that was established especially to recruit talented women to cook for the ruler at the palace during the reigns of the emperors Zhu Di, Zhu Gaochi and Zhu Zhanji of the early Ming Dynasty.

"The excellent female cooks were appointed as officials. However, the all-female staff system was gradually altered with the women eventually replaced by men in later centuries," explains the director, citing his research of historical archives.

Aside from food, the drama also showcases the distinctive aesthetics of the Ming Dynasty, which Luan Hexin, the drama's art consultant, depicts as "simple, elegant, solemn and introverted".

Mostly shot in Hengdian World Studios in East China's Zhejiang province, the drama used around 10 "palaces" in Hengdian's scenic area, featuring the architectural characteristics of the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Additionally, the crew built an interior for shangshiju, the bureau which could be roughly considered as the emperor's kitchen, on a soundstage covering an area of 6,000 square meters, according to Luan.

The drama is garnering positive feedback overseas, earning a rating of 8.2 points out of 10 on the fan-driven, specialist Asian movie and TV show aggregator site, MyDramaList.

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