Translating the Name

There are many ways of translating 隨園食單 to its “English equivalent”. In fact, there are enough permutations that it is helpful to have table to keep track of things. Even better, by using this table you can roll your own translation.

Choose a word from each column from left to right and see what you get.

隨園 食單
Suiyuan Shidan
Sui Garden Cookbook
Contentment Recipes List
Leisure Cookery manual

If you don’t like the sound of “Sui Garden Cookery List” just flip it around to make it: “Cookery list of Sui Garden”. Do so recursively and get “List of Cookery of the Garden of Sui”. It’s bucket-loads of fun!

Things to Avoid 11: Rendering Fat (戒走油)


List of Things to Avoid::Rendering Fat
Although ingredients such as fish, pork, chicken, and duck can be rather fatty, it is imperative that most of this fat be retained within the meat itself and not be allowed to render out into the cooking stock to prevent its flavour from being diluted.[1] If this fat becomes rendered,[2] what flavour the meat contained would have been leached into the stock. There are three bad cuilinary practices that result in fat being rendered from meat: first, the cooking heat was too high and extra water had to be added to restore the amount of cooking liquid in the food. Second, the cooking heat was turned-off only to be resumed again later after a long pause. And finally, an impatient cook who continually checks the doneness of cooking food, resulting in the pan’s lid being opened numerous times throughout the process, which inevitably leads to the rendering of fat from the meat.[3]

Random notes:
[1]:If you managed to cook the fat out of a chuck of meat, it has probably become tough and dry, not to mention the meat would taste rather bland. It would be like eating meat after it’s been used to make stock. That and you have to deal with a pool of fat on the surface of the dish. I found the content of this and the following sentence a bit repetitive in Chinese, and as such I modified it to talk more about preventing dissipation of flavour caused by rendering while the next sentence talks about the transfer of flavour caused by rendering.

[2]: The intramuscular fat in meat makes it tasty and juicy. THE reason to eat Kobe beef or most highly marbled meats rare or very lightly cooked.

[3]: Large temperature fluctuations cause rendering of fats, I guess.

Things to Avoid 10: Imposition (戒強讓)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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.


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