It is best to avoid cooking eel with its bones removed. The item is naturally fishy in smell, but one should not over manipulate or attempt to control it, lest we risk losing its natural character. Like Reeve’s shad, it should not be cooked without its scales.
To prepare it plain braised, take a river eel, wash away its slime, and chop it into inch long segments. Put them in an earthenware jar and braise with wine and water until soft. Add autumn sauce when it is ready to serve. One can also make a soup with it using newly preserved mustards prepared during winter, along with large amounts of green onion and ginger to rid the eel of its fishiness.
I also remember well that a certain official’s1 household braised it in thickening starch and mountain yam for a good dish. It can also be seasoned and directly place on a plate to steam without any added water. Official Jia Zhihua makes the best steamed eel. Add four units of soy sauce and six units of wine,2 making sure to use just enough broth to cover the body of the eel. The steaming time must be well judged and controlled, since over-steaming would cause the eel’s skin to wrinkle and its flesh to lose flavour.
鰻魚最忌出骨。因此物性本腥重，不可過於擺佈，失其天真，猶鰣魚之不可去鱗也。清煨者，以河鰻一條，洗去滑涎，斬寸為段，入磁罐中，用酒水煨 爛，下秋油起鍋，加冬醃新芥菜作湯，重用蔥、薑之類以殺其腥。常熟顧比部家用縴粉、山藥乾煨，亦妙。或加作料直置盤中蒸之，不用水。家致華分司蒸鰻最佳。 秋油、酒四六兌，務使湯浮於本身。起籠時尤要恰好，遲則皮皺味失。
1Bibu (比部) is an imperial government official. As for which individual he was speaking about it unclear.
2Cui (兌), which translate to “a unit” or “a weight”, is used here as an actual volume or weight to specify a certain ratio of wine and soy sauce to be added. The exact unit is uncertain, thought the lack of specificity may indicate it’s not overly important as long as the fish is covered with the wine and soy sauce mixture.
3Tangman (湯鰻) means “souped eel”, but it’s probably better translated as “eel with/in broth”.
Aquatic creatures that lack scales are significantly fishier in smell than their counterpart. Thus, they require much greater attention in their preparation. Their shortcomings can be overcome through the judicious use of ginger and cinnamon. The following is the list of “Aquatic Creatures without scales”.
1The character 魚 (yu2, “fish”) when used in the Chinese can refer to more than fish but to a wide range of non-fish aquatic creatures, many of which are scaleless. Though there are more than a few of these, the most prominent scale-lacing non-fish “fish” in Chinese cuisine is arguably the soft-shelled turtle, which is also commonly known as “armoured fish” (甲魚) .
In Huizhou1 they raise a small fish around two to three inches in length that is sold and delivered dried . Prepare them by adding wine, removing their skin, and placing them on top of a rice pot to steam. This dish, known as “Huangu fish” is very savoury and delicious.
1Huizhou (徽州) is the old name for the She Prefecture in Anhui province.
2It is unclear whether this is the name of the fish, the name of the dish, or both. In modern usage, Huanggu fish (黃姑魚, lit. “yellow maiden fish”) refers to Nibea albiflora, which is a relative of the Yellow croaker commonly known as the yellow drum. Smaller specimens of this fish are sold in dry form all around Zhejing and Anhui.
And yes, it’s summer here.
Our climate is officially “broken”.
To make home-styled pan-fried fish, one needs patience. Wash a fresh fish until clean, chop it into pieces, and marinade it with salt. Flatten each piece and pan-fry both sides until golden brown, then add a good quantity of wine and autumn sauce and simmer slowly with a low flame. When it is close to done, finish by reducing the cooking liquid, ensuring that all the flavours from the seasoning have entered the fish.1
This recipe is only for preparing fish that is no longer alive.2 For live fish, it is best to cook it rapidly.3
1This is pretty much red-braised fish. This preparation would make the flesh of the fish a bit firmer than the usual methods of Chinese fish preparations, but it would also cover over any off smells from a less-fresh fish. Reading this recipe reminds me of three cup chicken.
2Fish are usually dead when being prepared in recipes, the statement here is for differentiating whether the fish is still alive at the moment just before preparation, or if it’s already dead-on-arrival.
3Yuan Mei’s comments in the the end allow us a bit of insight into the preferred preparations for fish. First, saying that this recipe is for cooking fresh dead fish while the previous fish recipes used only live fish points to an important difference in techniques used cooking “live fish” well and “dead fish” well. Second, saying that this recipe, which uses “dead fish”, is home-style may also imply that in most households it is uncommon to prepare fish dishes from live fish, be it due to convenience or for economy. Indeed, while the best tasting fish dishes use fish that is still alive and slaughtered just before cooking, the process is tedious and expensive. In most restaurant and in some home kitchens in Asia, slaughtering fish at home is still common, though a waning practice. Still, it all goes to show how much difference there is between Qing Dynasty Chinese and modern western (and even modern Chinese) ideas of preparing fish.
Remove the head and tail of a live black carp. Chop it into small square pieces, marinate it thoroughly with salt, and dry it in the wind. Pan-fry in a wok, add seasoning and reduce any juices from cooking. Next, stir-fry some sesame, toss with the fish, and serve. This is a Suzhou recipe.1
1 Two very different dishes can come from this recipe, all depending on how well dried the fish is. It is only lightly dried then it would feel more like a typical fish dish akin to the some of the likely dried chicken and pork dishes. However, if the fish was thoroughly dried, than this would be more a snack eaten for fun. Given that the fish is described as being more jerky-like (脯, lit. dried meat ), the latter is more likely the case. In fact, I bet the resulting food from this recipe would have been similar to the dried anchovies stir-fried in sweet and savoury seasonings served throughout East and South-East Asia. Ikan bilis represent!
During the summer, choose a white, clean, belt shad xiang1 and soak it in water for a day to remove its salty taste. Dry it under the sun and pan-fry with oil. When one side of the fish is golden brown, remove it from the pan. Place shrimp the side of the fish that that has not been fried, then put everything on a plate, add white sugar, and steam for a stick of incense’s duration in time until done. This dish is perfect for late summer.
1 Xiang is basically a salted dried fish similar to Western salt cod except in this case, it is made from leyu (勒魚, sometimes written as 鰳 with the “fish” character as root) or Ilisha elongata. In English, this long-ish fish is commonly known as “slender shad”. In the Chinese text “daizi lexiang” (帶子勒鯗, literally: belt slender shad xiang) probably refers to a particularly slender, long, and belt-like specimen of slender shad made into salted fish.
2 Xiazi le qian xiang (蝦子勒簽鯗) sounds cryptically poetic, if we listen to the Mandarin phonetics of this creatively it could be interpreted as: “The blind happily holds the elephant”. Reminds me of that Indian blind people and elephant story.