Assorted Animals 1: Beef (牛肉)

“The way to purchase beef is as follows: First, one must go to all the butchers in the market and put down enough money in order to reserve that cut of beef sandwiched between the back legs’ tendons that is neither to lean nor too fat. Bring this cut of beef home and slice off any sinew or membranes, then take three parts wine and two parts water to braise it until soft. Reduce the cooking liquid and add autumn sauce.

Note that beef has a rather unique and distinct flavour that should not be accompanied with other ingredients.”

雜牲單::牛肉
買牛肉法,先下各鋪定錢,湊取腿筋夾肉處,不精不肥;然後帶回家中,剔去皮膜,用三分酒、二分水清煨極爛;再加秋油收湯。此太牢獨味孤行者也,不可加別物配搭。

A twined beef top round. Yuan Mei’s chunk of meat may or may not be inside this hunk of meat. (Credit: Colin Henein)

One gets the sense from reading this that beef is eaten rarely in Qing dynasty China. Not only does it necessitates an explanation on how to purchase it, but also that the desired cut of beef must be purchase from every butcher at the market to have enough for the dish. It is also clear that Yuan Mei considered the choicest part in the entire 800kg beast is this small cut of meat likely found inside the round.

All this is interesting, but what stands out most for me is contrasting how Yuan Mei highly regards this cut of beef from the leg while Western cuisine tends to view it with some degree of indifference. In fact, this puts into the spotlight somewhat fundamental differences in cultural preference in animal portions and cuts. For instance, beef and pork tendons sell at quite a premium in East Asia due to their scarcity. Fish heads and skin are highly regarded and eaten as a delicacy. In Western cuisine these rather choice parts are basically discarded or ground-up and turned into meat fillers. And let’s not get started about the North American silliness of favouring chicken white meat over dark.

That’s not to say that it has not been beneficial for those living in Western countries with East Asian preferences. Family friends in Vancouver said that in the early 1970’s you used to be able to go down to the local fishmonger and pick up a large plastic bag of salmon heads for a quarter or for free. Butchers everywhere in Canada and the US, even in large urban centres, used to give away beef tendons if you asked for it. Even more crazy was that my uncle used to be able to buy beef shanks for next to nothing in Sacramento and Ames.

Speaking of beef shanks, the recipe above will actually work well for cooking well exercised cuts of meat in from the legs. The only thing I would add would be star anise and Szechuan peppercorns during the braising. Stop cooking while the beef is not too soft, cool it, slice it thinly, and then serve it with chili oil in the manner of fuqi feipian (夫妻肺片).

Assorted Animals: Introduction (雜牲單:開篇)

The three animals: cattle, sheep, and deer, are not commonly served in the households of Southerners. However, one cannot be ignorant of their preparations, thus necessitating this chapter on the ‘List of Assorted Animals’.

雜牲單::開篇
牛、羊、鹿三牲,非南人家常時有之物。然製法不可不知,作《雜牲單》

Things have dramatically changed since Yuan Mei wrote this introduction. While venison is even less commonly found on Chinese menus, beef and mutton/lamb has becomes dramatically more common, almost to the point of becomes something like a “staple” meat such as pork.

Nevertheless, mutton still retains an air of exoticism in Chinese cuisine due to their common use by Chinese of Central Asian and Mongolian ethnic backgrounds. This is in some ways reflected by the generous used of spices such as cumin and all the grilling or roasting involved in its preparation. Beef too, though now found everywhere in modern Chinese cuisine, is also still seen as a less “morally wholesome” meat in Taiwan and parts of Southern China.

It should also be noted that China still does not raise its own cattle and sheep, relying more or less completely on beef and mutton imports to satisfy domestic needs. Perhaps this too can be seen an echo of gastronomic preferences from an earlier China where these meats were considered rather exotic items.

Pork pork pork pork…

Thank goodness, after half a year the translation, the pork chapter is finally done! As much as I love pork, I have to say I was getting really tired of translating all these recipes on it all the time. Needless to say, I am very much looking forwards to working on the “Assorted animals” section, or anything that’s not pig related for that matter.

If anything, the plethora of pork recipes in the Suiyuan Shidan shows that despite all the exotic animals that Chinese like to boast of eating and foreigners love to gawk at, the preferred meat in Chinese culture is pork. Pork, pork, pork.

And maybe chicken. Actually, that’s going to be one hell of a chapter to translate too.

Pork 43: Honeyed Ham (蜜火腿)

“Take a good ham and chop it into large chunks with its skin on and braise it in sweet wine until it is very soft and tender. This is an excellent dish.

Note though, the differences between a good and bad ham are as great as the distances between the heavens and the ocean’s abyss. There are numerous well known hams from Jinhua, Lanxi and Yiwu that simply do not live up to their reputations. These bad hams are frankly no better than dried salted pork.

Wangsan’s store in Zhongqingli Hangzhou sells a very good ham that cost four qian per jin. I have had this ham once at the abode of Yin Wenduan. Its fragrance was so intense that the neighbours could smell it during preparation and its flavours were uncommonly good. Sadly, I have never had such a extraordinary ham since.”

持牲單::蜜火腿
取好火腿,連皮切大方塊,用蜜酒煨極爛,最佳。但火腿好醜、高低判若天淵。雖出金華、蘭溪、義烏三處,而有名無實者多。其不佳者,反不如醃肉矣。惟杭州忠清里王三房家,四錢一斤者佳。余在尹文端公蘇州公館吃過一次,其香隔戶便至,甘鮮異常。此後不能再遇此尤物矣。

The blood-red fat-speckled hams of Spain. Truly incredible stuff. (Credit: Evaglesias)

With North Americans having learned how to eat dry-cured hams over the past two decades, today’s supermarket shelves and deli counters are rarely short of it. Still, most of these dried hams leave a lot to be desired. Even in Toronto, which claims to be a “world class city” with products from all around the planet available at our finger tips, one never seems to be able to get anything beyond just lame, uninspiring, “salted meat”.

Sure, better things are found at those yuppy or hipster ham bars, but seriously, are you going to go there and pay out of your nose for some average thing that you can get for a few euro in Salamanca?

Yuan Mei is right, good ham is hard to come by.

Pork 42: Napa Cabbage Hearts Braised with Ham (黃芽菜煨火腿)

“Take a good ham and peel off its skin, remove the fat and reserve the meat. First braise the skin in chicken broth until tender, then add the meat of the ham and braise it until tender. Cut the napa cabbage hearts with the stem into 2 inch long pieces. Add the cabbage along with honey and fresh rice wine to the ham, then braise for half a day.

The flavours of this dish are sweet and umami. While the meat and vegetables are very soft, the stem and leaves of the cabbage nevertheless hold their form. The flavours of the broth are incredible. This recipe comes from the Head Taoist at Chaotian Temple “

持牲單::黃芽菜煨火腿
用好火腿削下外皮,去油存肉。先用雞湯將皮煨酥,再將肉煨酥,放黃芽菜心,連根切段約二寸許長;加蜜、酒釀及水,連煨半日。上口甘鮮,肉菜俱化,而菜根及菜心,絲毫不散。湯亦美極。朝天宮道主法也。

The tender yellow heart of the napa cabbage is considered a delicacy by quite a few Chinese gastronomes. (Credit: Veganbaking.net)

Napa cabbage is usually known in Chinese as the “great white vegetable” (大白菜), though it is also sometimes referred to as the “yellow shoot vegetable” (黃芽菜). The former name refers to its general form of the vegetable in that it can grow quite large and much of each leaf is bright milky white in colour. The latter name refers to the preferred internal “heart” of the Napa cabbage, which is revealed after most of the tougher and green-tinged leaves of the head of cabbage has been pulled off.

When one is trying to cook something special with napa cabbage, one typically uses only its bright-yellow endive-shaped heart. The heart is not only incredibly tender but quite sweet in taste and an absolute joy to eat. When prepared for more formal dishes, the heart is cooked whole or sliced along it’s vertical axis with its stem intact at its base in order to keep the leaves of the cabbage heart together and hold its form.

Braising is the preferred method for cooking napa cabbage in Chinese cuisine. Unlike the European cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata), which start to stink badly if over-cooked, napa cabbage ( Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis) becomes sweeter and more delicious when braised for longer times. Still the half a day of braising for the cabbage in Yuan Mei’s recipe seems a little excessive since a good or 40 minutes of it would be more than enough to completely soften the napa hearts. I suppose it is partly a matter of taste since I know some of my aunts and uncles, and others from the previous generation, always preferred napa cabbage when cooked melt-in-the-mouth soft. Half a day of cooking would certainly render any vegetable into mud.

A more typical preparation of napa cabbage is Kaiyang napa cabbage (開陽白菜). The dish us usually made with the whole cabbage rather than just its heart. This is your home-style fare where the cabbage is braised in water or broth for around 10 minutes with umami providing ingredients such as shitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, dried flounder, and yes, dried ham too.

Of all the braised napa heart dishes, one of the most famous has to be the mundane sounding “napa cabbage in boiled water” (開水白菜). When served, this non-typical Szechuan dish looks exactly like what its name describes, basically, napa hearts in a tureen of clear water. However, the surprise comes when the soup is tasted. The “boiled water” is actually an exquisitely prepared consommé that is clear as water but rich and umami as a good Chinese superior broth (高湯). Despite its simple appearance, this dish is in fact one of the most flamboyantly wasteful and extravagant in all the Chinese cuisines. By the time you have sweated and prepared a tureen of this soup, you are left with a mountain of depleted remains from several chickens, ham, and egg whites used to create the broth, along with a large mound of outer napa cabbage leaves left over from extracting the heart.

If you ever decide to make this dish for your guest, make sure they are not raise on bouillon cubes and can appreciate the effort it takes to make it. Nixon was supposedly very impressed when served napa cabbage prepared thus in his famous visit to China. Whether he was gastronomically or “diplomatically” impressed is another topic altogether.

Vacation!

Will be on a vacation, so no updates for 2 weeks or so!

For fun, here is a video teaching the secret methods for preparing a Singaporean rice vermicelli (星洲炒米粉) that is not only pretty tasty but also doesn’t get stuck in the throat.

And for a change, a Chinese cooking show host that actually knows how to cook!

Pork 41: Yanggong Meatballs (楊公圓)

“The meatballs made in Yangming prefecture are as large as tea cups and are unsurpassed in delicateness and flavour. Served in a clear umami soup, these meatballs melt in the mouth. They are likely made from a mixture of half lean and half fatty pork with tendons and ligaments removed, minced finely and held together with starch.”

持牲單::楊公圓
楊明府作肉圓,大如茶杯,細膩絕倫。湯尤鮮潔,入口如酥。大概去筋去節,斬之極細,肥瘦各半,用芡合勻。

  

I’m a fan of almost all of the Cantonese dim sum fare, but one dish that I refuse to order is the beef meatballs. That flabby, starchy-springy texture is really less than appealing. If there is a point to eating these “meat”-ball, I surely don’t see it. Seriously, the ratio of starch to meat is so high you can tell just by looking at them. (Credit: Tamchinglaihing)

This recipe brings up the topic of using of starch to hold together minced/ground meat. While this is nothing out of the ordinary, very few actually manage to do so successfully.

Using starch is like using salt, one must use the minimal amount possible or risk ruining a dish. Personally, I favour a technique from Liang Shiqiu‘s (梁實秋) food memoir “Yashe discusses cuisine” (雅舍談吃), where starch was actually not used in the ground meat mixture itself. It is only after the meatball has been shaped does one rub onto its surface a small amount of starch lightly coated on one’s palms. Meatballs made using this method hold their form, are light and tender, but most importantly, still tastes like meat.

The point here is that one should never overuse “structural ingredients” just to make a food hold its form. Starch used in tiny quantities is almost imperceptible and works wonders. But when it is used in even slightly larger quantities, one might as well be eating paste. A rather dense sturdy paste, that is. If possible, it’s better to avoid using starch altogether. The same goes for using eggs or breadcrumbs in Western meatballs and meatloaf.

On somewhat related note, anyone who add starch, eggs, or breadcrumbs into their hamburger patties deserves to be publicly flogged. Just eat a Harvey’s burger and you’ll agree with me on the first bite.