Things to Avoid 10: Imposition (戒強讓)

戒單::戒強讓
治具宴客,禮也。然一肴既上,理宜憑客舉著,精肥整碎,各有所好,聽從客便,方是道理,何必強讓之?常見主人以箸夾取,堆置客前,污盤沒碗,令人生厭。須知客非無手無目之人,又非兒童、新婦,怕羞忍餓,何必以村嫗小家子之見待之?其慢客也至矣!近日倡家尤多此種惡習,以箸取菜,硬入人口,有類強姦,殊為可惡。長安有甚好請客而菜不佳者,一客問曰︰「我與君算相好乎?」主人曰︰「相好!」客跽(音既,跪下之意)而請曰︰「果然相好,我有所求,必允許而後起。」主人驚問︰「何求?」曰︰「此後君家宴客,求免見招。」合坐為之大笑。

List of Things to Avoid::Imposition
A banquet host extends his courtesy and generosity towards his guests by providing them with good food. But once the food is laid out on the table, the guests should be allowed to choose whatever food they fancy, regardless of whether it is refined, oily, cut in chunks, or chopped into bits. A person of reason attends to the preferences of his guests, therefore, why would he wish to impose his own?[1]

It is all too common to see an annoying host endlessly piling food up on their guest’s dishes and bowls until they overflow.[2] It is not as if these guests are missing their hands or eyes, nor are they young children or new brides graciously holding back out of modesty, so why would a host emulate something done by crass old dames from the countryside? In doing so, they play a poor host by deliberately ignoring the wishes of their guests! Recently, I have seen even more despicable manners, where a host would go so far as violating his guests’ person by insistently shoving chopsticks-full of food into their mouths![3]

In Chang-an there was a man who loved entertaining guests but tended to serve rather mediocre food at his banquets. During an occasion, one of his guests asked: “Are we good friends?” to which the man replied “Of course!”. The guest then knelt down, begging: “If we are indeed good friends, then I have a request to make and will not stand until you agree to it.” Astonished the man asked: “What is it?”, to which the guest replied: “In the future when you host banquets, I beg you to not invite me.” There were roars of laughter all around as they all sat down.

Random notes:
[1]: I admit I’m guilty of this. Things I’ve uttered include: “Drink this soup while it’s still hot!”, “Don’t order that! This is better!”, “You MUST try this chicken! NOW.”, etc.

[2]: These is quite common in Chinese get-togethers. While it is one way in which a Chinese person shows another their good will or endearment, those of us not of fully immersed in Chinese culture growing up (yours truly included) may find this a touch annoying, even in limited doses.

[3]: Let’s hope this never ever gets resurrected.

Things to Avoid 9: Chafing Dishes (戒火鍋)

戒單::戒火鍋
冬日宴客,慣用火鍋,對客喧騰,已屬可厭;且各菜之味,有一定火候,宜文宜武,宜撤宜添,瞬息難差。今一例以火逼之,其味尚可問哉?近人用燒酒代炭,以為得計,而不知物經多滾,總能變味。或問︰「菜冷奈何?」曰︰「以起鍋滾熱之菜,不使客登時食盡,而尚能留之以至於冷,則其味之惡劣可知矣。」

List of Things to Avoid::Chafing Dishes
Chafing dishes are often used when hosting banquets in winter [1], which is a rather irritating practice considering how noisy they are. This is not to overlook the more serious problem of their use; it ignores the fact that cooking a dish with optimal flavour requires the precise control of heat and the duration of its application.[2]

Recently people have started using alcohol-based chafing dishes instead of charcoal, believing it to an improvement. This is not the case. Regardless of its type, the use of chafing dishs will lead to overboiled food that had changed its flavour for the worse. Some people may contest: “But what if the food gets cold?” I would say they them: “If the boiled thing that had just been scooped out of the pot does not whet a guest’s appetite, then let them eat it cold so they know how bad it really tastes.”[3]

Random notes:
[1]: The term 火鍋 (huoguo) here likely does not refer to the hot-pot/fondue of present times. Judging from the context of this section it more likely refers to a heated vessel, similar to a chafing dish used to keep food warm in colder venues. In modern hot-pots, you don’t really let your ingredients boil, at least not the more tender ones. Rather, you swish it in the stock and fish it out when it is prefectly done. This is purely speculation but perhaps the original huoguo was indeed a pot of boiled food served on a chafing dish at the table, more akin to sukiyaki. But due to this method’s tendency to overcook food, it has lead to the development of “dip-and-swish” cooking techniques in modern Chinese hot-pot or Japanese shabu-shabu. I think Yuan Mei would have approved the our version of houguo, assuming he would tolerate the noise of boiling stock at the table.

[2]: Let’s not forget that Yuan Mei has an entire section devoted to the topic of heat control (火候).

[3]: I personally think he was trying to say something like: “If the boiled food is so unpalatable that your guest would not touch it while hot, there’s no difference it letting them eat it cold.” However, I think the translation is more accurately registered with the sentence in Chinese. Is it? I’ll have to think about it.

Things to Avoid 8: Indulging in Drink (戒縱酒)

戒單::戒縱酒
事之是非,惟醒人能知之;味之美惡,亦惟醒人能知之。伊尹曰︰「味之精微,口不能言也。」口且不能言,豈有呼呶酗酒之人能知味者乎?往往見拇戰之徒,啖佳菜如啖木屑,心不存焉。所謂惟酒是務,焉知其餘,而治味之道掃地矣。萬不得已,先於正席嘗菜之味,後於撤席逞酒之能,庶乎其兩可也。

List of Things to Avoid:: Indulging in Drink
Only one who is alert can tell the difference between right and wrong. Likewise, only one who is mindful can discern the differences between good and bad flavours. Yi Yin [1] had observed: “The profound nuances of flavour cannot be rightly expressed in words.” If a drunkard cannot even speak, how can there be any hope that he can express, much less discern the flavours of anything?

Once in a while, I see people playing drinking games during banquets, their minds clouded and absent from having had too much alcohol. In such inebriated states, those great dishes they were eating might as well have been sawdust.[2] The heads of those preoccupied with drinking are somewhere else entirely, with their faculties for judging food thrown out the door. If one really must indulge in drink, first have a proper meal where the dishes can be tasted, then only afterwards bring out the alcohol. In this way, you get the best of both worlds.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: Yi Yin, head chef and political adviser to the first Emperor of Shang.

[2]: I remember reading a New Yorker cartoon that shows a Roman host in his mansion, surrounded by his drunken rowdy guests, turning to his servant to say: “You may now switch to the cheap wine”. In a Chinese banquet version of the comic, the host would say “You may now switch to sawdust”

[3]: Yuan Mei prefers that you get smashed AFTER you have had your meal.

Things to Avoid 7: Waste (戒暴殄)

戒單::戒暴殄
暴者不恤人功,殄者不惜物力。雞、魚、鵝、鴨,自首至尾,俱有味存,不必少取多棄也。嘗見烹甲魚者,專取其裙而不知味在肉中;蒸鰣魚者,專取其肚而不知鮮在背上。至賤莫如醃蛋,其佳處雖在黃不在白,然全去其白而專取其黃,則食者亦覺索然矣。且予為此言,並非俗人借福之謂,假使暴殄而有益於飲食,猶之可也。暴殄而反累於飲食,又何苦為之?至於烈炭以炙活鵝之掌,剸刀以取生雞之肝,皆君子所不為也。何也?物為人用,使之死可也,使之求死不得不可也。

List of Things to Avoid::Waste
Tyrannical individuals are not emphatic to people’s labours, just as wasteful individuals care little about the value of things. From head to tail, all parts of a chicken, fish, goose, or duck are delicious in their own way. As such, there is no need to carve out the best part of something only to relegate the rest as waste. One often sees soft-shell turtle being prepared by portioning off the “skirt” [1] while the rest of the turtle with its fragrant meat was discarded. It is also not uncommon to see the belly of a shad [2] sliced-off and reserved for steaming without considering the fact that the best flavour comes from its dorsal parts. By far the most common example of pointless waste can be found in some chef’s preparation of salted eggs. The yolk of a salted egg is inarguably its best part, with its white ranking a distant second. But discard the whites and serve only the yolk and the eating experience would not feel half as enjoyable.[3]

This is not to say that I champion the commoner’s ideas of conserving every part of an ingredient. Quite the opposite, if the “waste” of part of an ingredient can greatly enhance the resulting dish, then all the better.[4] But if one purposefully discards the portions of an ingredient to the detriment of a dish, then what is the point indeed?

As for the practice of roasting the feet of live geese or cutting out the liver of live chicken for the sake of gastronomy, such are foods that a gentlemen should never partake. Why?[5] Taking the life of a creature for food can be justified, but doing so in a way that it begs for death is unjustifiable.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: The “shell” of a soft-shell turtle is actually covered in skin and hard only in the center. The edges of this dome is a fatty and fleshy skirt that many consider to be the choice portion of a soft-shell turtle. I have no idea if this is truly the case since I’ve never had soft-shell turtle.

[2]: Tenualosa reevesii (Reeves’ Shad). Supposedly chocked full of spiny bones.

[3]: When I was a kid, I used to peel the flavourful and chewy cheese-enveloped toppings off a slice of pizza before eating the crust. Nowadays, you would have a tough time making me eat pizza without the crust. That said, eating the toppings alone may be justified if the crust is really that terrible. For an excuse to eat melted cheese (more or less) straight, I now go for a nice “pull” of truffade or aligot. Oh, and [ NY-Style >> Chicago-Style]; the latter is at best a terrible attempt at being neither pizza nor pie. Note this is in regards to American-style pizza. To the Italian readers, ignore everything you’ve read in this note.

[4]: I have a tough time thinking up an example of this. For animals, almost all parts are good for eating save the horns, hooves and teeth. Meat aside, the bones make great stock, tendons are delectable when stewed, and cartilage make fun cold dishes with enjoyable textures. By all means, count me in as one of the uncouth commoners.

[5]: Judging by this question, it appears that such dishes were not uncommon at the lavish feasts attended by those who would consider themselves “gentlemen” (JunZi). This sadistic habit had likely stemmed from the perversion of the idea of avoiding delays. After all, what can be fresher and more nutritious than meat cut from an animal while it’s still screaming and alive! Right? Sadly, it seems this rather nasty and inhumane practice is still widely found in East Asia: just google “live sashimi”. It’s hard to imagine that there are people who actually enjoy this tasteless spectacle.

[6]: OMG! Is this the first recorded instance of Chinese animal welfare activism? Could Yuan Mei be the original Chinese animal rights advocate?

Things to Avoid 6: Delays (戒停頓)

戒單::戒停頓
物味取鮮,全在起鍋時極鋒而試;略為停頓,便如黴過衣裳,雖錦繡綺羅,亦晦悶而舊氣可憎矣。嘗見性急主人,每擺菜必一齊搬出。於是廚人將一席之菜,都放蒸籠中,候主人催取,通行齊上。此中尚得有佳味哉?在善烹飪者,一盤一碗,費盡心思;在吃者,鹵莽暴戾,囫圇吞下,真所謂得哀家梨,仍復蒸食者矣。余到粵東,食楊蘭坡明府鱔羹而美,訪其故,曰︰「不過現殺現烹、現熟現吃,不停頓而已。」他物皆可類推。

List of Things to Avoid::Delays
To get the most of a dish’s flavours, it is best to serve it as soon as it has been finished. Consuming food that has been delayed can be likened to wearing an old mildewed robe; even one made of the finest material and finished with the most exquisite details will not make it more enjoyable nor smell better.

The American Chinese buffet, where food is placed on steam tables to be warmed and warmed and warmed and warmed and…

Some banquet hosts are rather impatient in nature, insisting that all dishes must be brought to the table at the same time. To make this happen, the kitchen staff would prepare all the banquet’s dishes before-hand, keep them warm in a steamer, and await the signal from the host to bring it all to the table. Can these dishes be expected to have any flavour left after such a long delay? It is interesting that on one side, a good cook toils to perfect the details in every bowl and dish of food produced, but when the food gets to the people who eat, it is violently swallowed without tasting, regardless of its state.[1] This is as wasteful as if one received some delectably crisp Aijia pears, and insisted that they be steamed for eating.[2]

While traveling in Guangdong province, I had an incredibly good rice-eel soup in Yanglanpoming prefecture.[3] When I inquired on the secret of making a dish so perfect, I was told: “The eel was killed and cooked to your order and served the moment it is done without delay. That is all.” This principle should be applied to all aspects of food preparation and serving.[4]

Random notes:
[1]: The line “鹵莽暴戾,囫圇吞下” combines the violent coarse nature of barbaric creatures and porcine-natured individuals into one elegant phrase. The latter part of the phrase likely came from the part of the story in Journey to the West where the greedy pig-headed character, Bajie, gobbled down a delicate fruit of immortality without so much as tasting it. (《西游记》第二四回:“﹝ 八戒 ﹞见了果子,拿过来,张开口,轂轆的囫圇吞咽下肚)

[2]: The famous Aijia pear or Ai pear (哀家梨) has been lauded since Han dynasty in literature for it’s large size and remarkably crisp yet tender texture. This contrasts with the more standard Asian pear, the Ya pear, which although crunchy tends to be much tougher and is thus sometimes steamed for eating. The reason why Yuan Mei mentioned steaming pears here is because of the Chinese idiom: “Steaming Ai pears for eating” (哀梨蒸食), which points to the fact that a foolish person has no idea of the quality of the thing they have in their hands and thus proceeds to ruin it; like destroying the texture and flavours of delicate Aijia pears by steaming. The idiom was itself derived from a section in ShiShuo XinYu which told of people in a certain part of China using it as an insult. (《世說》曰:桓南郡,每見人不快,輙嗔云:「君得哀家梨,復蒸食否?」舊說秣陵有哀仲家梨,甚大如升,入口消釋。言愚人不別,得好梨蒸食之。) “Steaming Ai pears for eating” would be like somebody making Sangria or Kalimotxo with a Château Pétrus or stewing fois gras for a meal. A family friend told me that she once gave an award winning (and rather pricy) Taiwanese High-Mountain oolong to her Western in-laws. When asked about the tea, the in-laws complained that its brew was so light that they had to use to whole tin of tea leaves to get the colour right, but then the brew was too bitter to drink, so they dumped everything. My mother-in-law did something similar, taking some of the best tea I have and mixing it with turmeric and ginger to make a health drink. I guess the concept being described here by Yuan Mei is somewhat similar to the Western idiom: “Pearls before swine”.

[3]: Yuan Mei wrote the Yanglanpoming prefecture Book (楊蘭坡明府書). I guess he ate some eel while doing the research.

[4]: My Europeans friends seems to always prefer their food cold. When served a steaming bowl of noodle soup, they would stir it forlornly until everything is limp and lukewarm, all while stating how it’s too hot. Even fried-chicken, which is best served soon after it has been fished out of boiling fat, would be left untouched on the plate until it’s cold and lifeless. I have to admit I’m helplessly annoyed by this; don’t they know how hard it is to perfectly time finishing and serving the food? This contrasts with East Asian friends who would dig-in, piping hot morsels and all, appreciating that you served the food in the best and freshest state possible. Perhaps Western folks expect foods to be served at the “right” temperature, while Chinese folks expect that foods be served as soon as it’s ready. This may explain why “resting” something after cooking is so common in Western cuisine (roast and grilled meats, bread, etc.) while such concepts are considered odd or pointless in Chinese cuisines. Thankfully, unlike their European cousins, it seems North Americans don’t have the same behavior for waiting on food to become tepid before eating it.

Things to Avoid 5: Exaggeration (戒穿鑿)

戒單::戒穿鑿
物有本性,不可穿鑿為之,自成小巧。即如燕窩佳矣,何必捶以為團?海參可矣,何必熬之為醬?西瓜被切,略遲不鮮,竟有製以為糕者。蘋果太熟,上口不脆,竟有蒸之以為脯者。他如《遵生八箋》之秋藤餅,李笠翁之玉蘭糕,都是矯揉造作,以杞柳為杯棬,全失大方。譬如庸德庸行,做到家便是聖人,何必索隱行怪乎?

List of Things to Avoid::Exaggeration[1]
Each ingredient has its own innate characteristics, which are best shown off using a specific set of culinary techniques. One must not be “force” an ingredient using techniques that exaggerate or overextend these characteristics. Bird’s nest is delectable the way it is, so why would one wish to pound and shape it into balls? [2] Sea cucumbers are fine in their original forms, so why would one wish to turn it into a sauce? One knows that sliced watermelon quickly loses its delicate freshness if left out too long, yet some would go so far as to process it into cakes and pastries. Similarly, overripe apples lose their crispness, yet there are those who would steam and dry them.

Then there are the pastries such as the Qiuteng Bing, described in Gao Lian’s “Zunsheng Bajian”, and the Yulan Gao described by Li Liweng, [3] all of them examples of ingredients forcefully bent and twisted out of their normal character. It would be as if one tried to make cups and bowls out of willow twigs; a rather sorry and futile exercise. If a person of earnest virtue and manner can attain sainthood on their own at home, why would they wish to hide this fact? [4]

Random notes:
[1]: There must be a better term than “exaggeration” or “over-extension” here. The idea is that an ingredient should not be “coerced” into dishes or forms that do not suit it’s nature. The analogy in people is like dressing a prudish accountant up like a rapper with sagging pants; it’s so out-of-place that it’s painful to look at. Suggestions welcome.

[2]: Watch the (original) Iron Chef episode on Bird’s Nest where Chen Kenichi battles Li Junlun. Some of the bird’s nest dishes looked pretty good, but most of them makes you go WTF.

[3]: Qiuteng Bing translates to something like “Wisteria biscuits” while Yulan Gao to “Magnolia cake”. Airs of pretense surround the names of these little pastries. Yuan Mei mocked the authors of these imaginative creations at the end of the Preface, calling them “mediocre scholars”. Oh Snap!

[4]: In Chinese folk tales, in order to attain sainthood, a person has to climb to the peak of a mystical mountain to apprentice themselves to a long white bearded saint, being tested in trials and undergoing years of physical and psychological struggle. Become a saint in the comfort of one’s home is infinitely tamer and less extraordinary. I think what Yuan Mei was trying to indicate here that one should not be ashamed of cooking an ingredient in the canonical way, because the technique is simple or common. If the cooking technique does wonders to the ingredient, who cares whether it’s simple or common? Making a great steak is simple, requiring only 2 ingredients (good beef and salt, 3 if you add pepper/spices) and a hot grill. Pretension, bad technique, trying to do something out of the ordinary too often destroys the dish. Case in point, there is a place on Peel street in Montreal called “Entrecôte St Jean” which grills their steak salt-less and then covers it in a greasy mustard sauce before serving. For a restaurant that does ONLY steak, it is remarkably meh. I attribute their success largely to the nice French Bistro décor and the tasteless clientele that frequents the place (4 stars on yelp? What?). The term “庸德庸行” probably comes from Zhongyong (中庸: Scroll 13).

Things to Avoid 4: Dishes for the eyes (戒目食)

戒單::戒目餐
何謂目食?目食者,貪多之謂也。今人慕「食前方丈」之名,多盤疊碗,是以目食,非口食也。不知名手寫字,多則必有敗筆;名人作詩,煩則必有累句。極名廚之心力,一日之中,所作好菜不過四五味耳,尚難拿準,況拉雜橫陳乎?就使幫助多人,亦各有意見,全無紀律,愈多愈壞。余嘗過一商家,上菜三撤席,點心十六道,共算食品將至四十餘種。主人自覺欣欣得意,而我散席還家,仍煮粥充饑。可想見其席之豐而不潔矣。南朝孔琳之曰︰「今人好用多品,適口之外,皆為悅目之資。」余以為餚饌橫陳,燻蒸腥穢,目亦無可悅也。

List of Things to Avoid::Dishes for the Eyes
What are “Dishes for the eyes”? Dishes for eyes exist only to satisfy one’s desire to see large quantities and varieties of food. Present day people are most impressed when the banquet table is over-laden [1] with food-filled dishes and bowls of every size, which are undoubtedly great for viewing but not made for tasting.

One must understand that even the best calligrapher will fault if they overextend himself in writing and the most renown poet will invariably compose tired verses when vexed. Note that even through great effort, an excellent chef can produce only four or five good dishes over the course of a day, not to mention that each dish’s success is not guaranteed. Therefore can we really expect much of the food if a chef had to throw together enough of it to cover a banquet table?[2] Even with numerous helpers in the kitchen, each of the helpers have their different skill levels and opinions on how things should be done, as such the more of them there are, the worse the dishes usually become.

I once attended a banquet hosted by a merchant, where three separate courses of dishes were served along with 16 appetizers. In total, the banquet amounted to almost 40 dishes! While the host was immensely satisfied with the pompous banquet, I left it hungry and had to cook congee at home in order to quell my hunger.[3] Such banquets, while abundant with food, are both vulgar and unwholesome. Kong-Lin of Southern Song once said: “People of present times enjoy numerous foods; few of them are for the mouth, most of them for the eyes.” I would only add that if the grand spread of dishes before you are rank and unpleasant, no pleasure can be derived on viewing them.

Random notes:

[1]: What was actually stated here is (食前方丈) literally means “food in front, squared zhang”. A Zhang (丈) a unit of measure of around 3 meters. This is supposed be around the height of a man (please insert joke here), hence the term 丈夫 for a husband/married man. Saying: “People are impressed by a spread of dishes of 3×3 meters (~10×10 feet)” does not really work well, hence the translation.

[2]: Chinese Emperors had a lot of “Dishes for the eyes” in their official meals in order to show their wealth and power. Most of the dishes served during these official meals were never touched and given to the underlings to show that they are still in the Emperor’s favour. It must be terrible for the palace chef to know that most of what you cook will never be eaten. I read actually that many of Emperors ate their real and rather simple meals in their private quarters, and this sometimes included (shockingly) plain rice congee. I wonder if this was what Yuan-Mei was referring to in the following lines.

[3]: In my younger and much sillier days in Montreal, we once went to a restaurant on Prince Arthur Street for a rather pricy celebratory 3 course Table d’hôte. It was so memorable that I after these years I still remembered what I ate. The first course consisted of Lipton cup-of-soup, followed by the main course, which came in the form of a dessicated grilled lobster, good only for training jaw muscles. Third course? A small slice of McCain® Deep ‘n Delicious® Chocolate Cake or one of its nameless relatives. We left the restaurant hungry and annoyed, then went home and drank ourselves silly.

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