A few years back I was browsing through the overstacked shelves of a used bookstore in the Montreal (somewhere around Ave. Mont-Royal). It was a quaint and messy place, and despite the sheer quantity of books in it, I could not find anything particularly interesting out of its mass of predominantly old French novels and yellowing art books. I was about to turn and leave, when unexpectedly from the corner of my eyes spotted a string Chinese characters.
Wedged unceremoniously between some gargantuan art books on Kandinsky was a soft cover copy of “The Cookbook on 100 Double-Steamed Foods” (燉品食譜100種). Although printed in 1978 half way around the world, it was in surprisingly good shape and its charming cover with 70s-era puke coloured food photos beckoned. I quickly flipped through this book and by page four I knew I had to buy it.
While many of the recipes are relatively common, then as now, some of them, especially those from its chapter on “Treasures from the mountain and flavours from the wild” (山珍野味) absolutely blew my mind. The recipes read like a veritable zoo: rabbit, dog, bear paw, deep penis, partridge, civet, pangolin, soft shell turtle…etc. I’ve always thought that most of these recipes were lost in history after the end of the Qing dynasty, but to be able to read about it in a book published so recently was very surprising, if not a bit shocking.
Given how incredible and research resource this is, I think I’m going to translate and post some of the recipes from the cook book. Just reading through the book now, I know it’s going to be very interesting.
“Take a fat duck and boil it in water until eighty percent done. When cool, remove its bones and tear the meat in natural and disorderly pieces, neither ‘squared nor round’. Place the meat back into its cooking liquid than add three qian of salt and half a jin of wine. Also add coarsely crushed mountain yam into the pot to thicken the dish. When the meat is braised tender, add finely chopped ginger, shitake, and chopped green onion. If one wants an especially thick soup, add powdered starch. The dish is also very good if one substitutes the mountain yam with taro instead.”
The rather comical name of this dish probably comes from the fact that the duck is intentionally torn into random pieces and the yam is bashed into chunks. This is definitely a dish attributable to the culinary endeavors of a clumsy or confused person. To be honest, the name of dish can also be accurately translated as “Canard a la Clutz”, however I decided to side on the formal since it felt a bit more correct, for whatever the reason.
On a separate note, I’m not too sure about the appeal of this dish, but I suspect the scholars and high officials like to contrast their usually impeccably prepared meals with something that has the air of being haphazardly and coarsely cobbled together in a “peasant-like” way. After all that ultra-rich family in the largely biographical work Dream of the Red Chamber did this too, once eating grilled meats around the fire with their bare hands (which was used to hint at their eventual demise as beggars). So perhaps Yuan Mei and company, ate this dish while pretending they live the simple country peasant life, much in the way Marie Antoinette enjoyed playing make-believe at her fake peasant village?
I was browsing through pictures of Chinese food drawings online when I came across this:
Wow!! This is exactly what the Suiyuan Shidan feels like as it churns around inside my head! It’s a bunch of vegetables, meats, edible critters, spices, and dishes, some blurry and some detailed, all strewn haphazardly everywhere.
The artist behind these paintings is Li Jin (李津) and interestingly he did a bunch of them just like this involving food. Quite a few of these food related ones actually contain the Chinese text of the Suiyuan Shidan as part of the work:
Perhaps this is how Goggle “personalized” my image search and led me to them?
This next one is flooded with the character for “eat” (吃):
I like how all of these food paintings have a light-hearted feel and some sort of humour to them. A book on the translation of the Suiyuan Shidan NEEDS to have something like this for its cover. Actually, it SCREAMS for it.
The only thing that would make it better is if it had more of a American or Canadian (or any other Anglophone) Chinese narrative to it. This would match the idea of an English translation for a completely Chinese work.
“Remove the bones from a raw fat duck. Stuff the duck’s body cavity with a mix consisting of one wine cup of glutinous rice, diced dried-cured ham, diced kohlrabi, shitake, diced bamboo shoots, autumn sauce, wine, warm-pressed sesame oil, and chopped green onions. Place the duck on a plate and ladle chicken broth on it. Steam the duck, separated from the water, and do so until it is thoroughly cooked. This recipe definitely comes from the household of Prefect Wei.”
Not much to say about this other that the fact that this would have been quite an opulent dish back in the day. This would be be served in celebratory meals much like a roast turkey would be served in North American Thanskgiving and Christmas day. Come to think of it, the stuffing described here could be used directly for turkey too.
Now, to fill-up some space here are some translation notes:
: In modern usage, datoucai (大頭菜) can be one of three vegetable items, all produced from the mustards of genus Brassica: Kohlrabi, the stem of the tatsai (Brassica juncea subsp. tatsai), or turnip. Of the three, the first two are stems while the latter is a root. It’s hard to figure out which of these are the vegetable selected so I’m going with the kolrabi since it’s the most common modern usage. Still, tatsai is native to China so it would be a strong contender.
: Xiaomo Mayou (小磨麻油) is a warm pressed white sesame oil using hot water to separate out the oil instead of the typical hot roasting and hydraulic pressing. A more gentle sesame taste, than the typical sesame oil.
“Cut the meat of the wild duck into thick slices and season well with autumn sauce. Sandwich each slice of meat between two slices of snow pear and fry them on both sides until done. The household of Bao Daotai of Suzhou was most apt at preparing this dish, but sadly their recipe has been lost. Wild duck can also be steamed in the manner for steaming duck of the domesticated variety.”