Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 9: Whole-Shelled Soft-Shelled Turtle (全殼甲魚)

In the household of General1 Yang from Shandong, they prepare soft-shelled turtle by removing its head and tail, portioning off its meat and the turtle’s soft “skirt”2 to braise with seasonings, and then covering everything with the turtle shell.

At the banquet, each guest would be served a small plate each with a single turtle cooked in this manner. Those presented with the turtle would be completely startled by the its appearance,3 concerned if they had been served something still alive and moving. Sadly the method for the dish’s preparation is lost.


1Sanjiang (參將) is probably something like a major general. Perhaps.
2The “skirt” of the soft-shelled turtle is the flap of skin and flesh at the edge of the turtle’s skin covered shell.
3I wonder if the guest are startled because they are not used to seeing the turtle apparently whole and not pre-chopped into chopstick friendly pieces.


So… I’m Publishing a Book

To longtime readers of this blog, you will likely have noticed since last year the pace of translations here slowing to a crawl. Family and other real-life responsibilities aside, the posts have been this slow because I’ve been going forwards with completing the translation of the entire Suiyuan Shidan. Now it’s all finished up and I’m am publishing everything as a book.

That’s right, I have finished translating the entire 18th century Chinese gastronomic manual. All that’s left to do is go through the draft and pick out residual errors. Believe it or not, what started as a frazzle of text is now, amazingly, in publishable shape.

The fantastic book, which you will inexplicably wish to acquire in multitudes, is called “Recipes from the Garden of Contentment: Yuan Mei’s Manual of Gastronomy” and will be published by the Berkshire Publishing Group. On top of being completely reworked, error-checked, packed with improved footnotes, glossaries, and relevant biographies, I have completely re-transcribed the book’s Chinese text faithfully from the original 1792 edition of the Suiyuan Shidan and retranslated everything based on it. This is something I don’ think any publication had done in the longest while, Chinese or otherwise. So if you’re a Chinese cuisine purist nerd, this should float your boat.


Many thanks to Karen Christensen and Marjolijn Kaiser of Berkshire Publishing, who have guided this project through. It’s a lot to do: putting up with my blah writing, my slowness, and the unending stream of inane comments spouting from my cranium. The translation and notes were edited with help from two esteemed scholars: the author of the classic seminal work “The Food of China”, Prof. E. N. “Gene” Anderson, and serial star of multiple BBC Chinese history docs, Prof. Jeffrey Riegel. Needless to say, both of them have been tremendously helpful and provided much insight in the translation process. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with them, and even now I’m still glowing from getting their thumbs-up.

That’s all for now. The posts will continue, but there will be more news of the book to come!

P.S. All that said, the translations on this blog are already quite good, if I may say so myself, and I’ll continue posting all the chapters for everybody. But in all earnestness, the amount of effort put into refining and polishing the text made it truly shine. Think of it like this: While I do enjoy eating raw sauerkraut piled high on streetmeat like everyone else in this city, it is nothing compared to a expertly prepared plate of choucroute garnie at La Strasbourgeoise.

Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 8: Soft-Shelled Turtle Braised in Soup (湯煨甲魚)

Boil a soft-shelled turtle in water, remove its bones, and tear the meat into pieces. Braise it in chicken broth, autumn sauce, and wine, reducing the liquid from two bowls until there is one bowl. Serve the soup, blending it with green onions, Szechuan pepper, and ground ginger. The household of Wu Zhuyu prepares this dish extremely well. Use a small amount of starch such that the prepared soup is sufficiently thick.


*Happy Canadian Thanksgiving all!

Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 7: Soft-Shelled Turtle with Grey Salt (青鹽甲魚)

Chop a soft-shelled turtle into four pieces and stir-fry thoroughly in a hot wok. For every jin of the turtle, braise it with four liang of wine, three qian of star anise, and one and a half qian of salt until half done. Add two liang of rendered lard and chop the turtle into small dice before braising, adding garlic and bamboo shoot tips. Before plating add green onion and Szechuan pepper. One can add autumn sauce before plating, but never add salt. This is a recipe from the household of Tang Jinghan of Suzhou. Large soft-shelled turtle are tough and small ones smell fishy. Its best to buy one that is medium in size.


*  This can be also called Ragoût de Tortue au sel de Guérande. Sounds more “refined”, for whatever reason.

Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 6: Bone-in Soft-Shelled Turtle (帶骨甲魚)

Take a soft-shelled turtle weighing half a jin1 and chop it into four pieces. Add three liang of rendered lard to a heated wok and pan-fry the turtle so that the pieces are golden brown on both sides. Braise with water, autumn sauce, and wine, first with a hot flame then a gentle flame. Add garlic when the turtle is eighty percent done. Before plating add green onion, ginger, and sugar. When choosing soft-shelled turtles for this dish prefer smaller ones to larger ones. Only those small turtles colloquially known as “boy’s foot turtle” are sufficiently tender.


1 Around 300g in Yuan Mei’s time, or a bit more than half a pound

* The actual size of the turtle used in this recipe is probably quite a bit larger than the one shown in the picture. One with the required weight would probably be large enough to fit in the palm of an adult hand.

Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 5: Soft-Shelled Turtle Stir-Fried with Soy Sauce (醬炒甲魚)

Par-boil a soft-shelled turtle,1 remove its bones, heat up a wok, and stir-fry over high heat. Add soy sauce, water, green onions, Szechuan pepper, reduce the cooking liquid to a sauce, and serve. This is a Hangzhou recipe.


1 Parboiling raw meat ingredients before stir-frying is de rigueur in Chinese cuisine especially if it tends to emit bloody liquids while cooking. Contrast the technique here with the previous recipe.

Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 4: Raw Stir-fried Soft-Shelled Turtle (生炒甲魚)

Remove the bones from a soft-shelled turtle1 and stir-fry it over high heat using sesame oil. Add one cup of autumn sauce and one cup of chicken broth. This recipe most definitely comes from the household of Prefect Wei.


1 One of the most commonly raised and consumed soft-shell turtles is: Pelodiscus sinensis

2 The term shengchao (生炒), can be roughly translated as “raw stir-frying”, may seems like a strange phrase since most people assume that one stir-fries an ingredient directly from its raw form. However, in Chinese cooking it is quite common to par-cook an ingredient by boiling or deep-frying before stir-frying to speed up and ensure even cooking. The par-cooking also limits the amount of juices that exudes from the stir-fried item, which allows for easier maintenance of high wok temperatures and formation of “wok-hei” flavours. I personally find the flavours of raw stir-fried meat dishes to be a bit rougher than their par-cooked cousins, which tends to be “cleaner”. That said either one can be just as delicious.