Birds 13: Chicken Stir-fried with Pear (梨炒雞)

Take chicken breasts from a young bird and slice them. Heat up three liang of rendered lard and stir-fry the chicken giving it three to four tosses. Add a large spoon of sesame oil, and a small spoon each of powdered starch, fine salt, ginger juice, and Szechuan pepper. Finally, add finely sliced snow pear and small pieces of shitake, then stir-fry everything for three or four tosses before plating in a five inch dish.


Unripened snow pear (Credit: Darkotico)

Nothing really to say about this other than a few translation notes:

  1. I don’t think there are any difference in anatomy between chicken breast described using the words xiong (胸) and pu (脯). Still I wonder if there are subtle difference in meaning that are being conveyed through the two terms. For example, the terms for sesame oil, could be mayou (麻油) or xiangyou (香油). The first simply indicates that it’s oil taken from the seeds of the sesame/hemp plant, while the second indicates that the oil is fragrant.
  2. Yuan Mei used the word ci (次) to describe the duration of cooking here, which literally means “times”, as in: “How many times were you forced watch Totoro and Frozen this week?”. When Yuan Mei says “stir-fry three or four times“, I’m taking that he means you stir and toss it that many times while cooking
  3. I translated 茶匙 as a “small spoon” instead of its literal meaning “tea spoon”, since most English readers would assume its the standard teaspoon measure otherwise. This small spoon was most likely a small scoop (勺) used for cleaning teapots in kung fu tea “ceremonies” and are probably around half a standard teaspoon.
  4. The pear used is the snow pear (Pyrus nivalis) with its crisp flesh that is similar to very fresh bamboo shoots. Actually, it could be quite an interesting substitute for bamboo shoots in most stir-fry recipes, assuming you don’t overcook it.
  5. If everything is supposed to be place on a five inch dish then it mush have been quite a mound of chicken.

Birds 12: Chicken Braised with Mushrooms (蘑菇煨雞)

Take four liang of white button mushrooms, soak them in boiling water to rid them of sand, then swirl them in a bath of cold water. Clean the mushrooms well with a toothbrush, then bath them in four changes of clean water. Stir-fry the mushrooms over high heat in two liang of vegetable oil until done, then dress them with several sprays of wine.

Chop the chicken into square pieces and boil them in a pot. Skim off the floating foam, add sweet wine and light soy sauce, then braise the chicken for eighty percent of the total required time. Add the mushrooms to the chicken and braise everything for the remaining twenty percent of time. Add bamboo shoots, green onions, Szechuan pepper and serve. Do not add water when preparing the dish.

Garnish with three qian of rock sugar.


Bite-sized globular white button mushrooms (Credit: Dennis Myts)

In the course of translating this thick manual on Qing dynasty gastronomy, invariably you learn some things. Sometimes this learning comes in one gigantic chunk of well integrated knowledge leading to an “Aha!” moment.  But more often the information comes in discrete disconnected pieces that present themselves in a “Hmmm…that’s interesting…” way. Sorta like unexpectedly biting into a nub of squeaky curd-cheese as you finish the last fries in your poutine.

In the case of this recipe there are a lot of hidden squeaky curd-cheese nubs:

  1. I thought the white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) was a very recent introduction from the West, but I guess it was already there in Mid-Qing Dynasty. The Chinese name for them is interestingly called “mouth mushrooms” (口蘑菇), possibly due to the fact the younger specimens are perfectly round and bite-sized.
  2. They had tooth brushes in Qing dynasty? Somehow I thought people didn’t brush their teeth back then and again toothbrushes were a Western hygiene thing. As I have suspected all along, I have been thoroughly colonized.
  3. Finishing a dish with sugar is not unusual in Chinese cuisine. What is odd here is that rock sugar is used as a topping to garnish the finished dish, and in relative large quantities no less (around 12g). This leads one to wonder if this step was purely for the sake of cuisine (crunching bits of sugar is sorta fun) or was it in fact a display of one’s wealth. Given the cost of sugar back then I’m inclined to believe it’s more the latter. My grandmother used to tell us that during 1920’s Taiwan, some families would show off their well-to-do-ness by serving meat dishes with crystalline MSG. And for all the same exact reasons.
  4. Did Yuan Mei get an editor or have somebody read his manuscript? There is a less complete repeat of this recipe later in the chapter.

Birds 11: Chicken Meatballs (雞圓)

This recipe consists of minced chicken breast meat formed into balls as large as wine cups. They are savoury and tender like shrimp balls. The household of Yangzhou Magistrate Zangba prepares this dish extremely well. The meat is kneaded into balls with pork fat, radish, and starch. They must not be stuffed with fillings.


Chicken meatballs. In this case, cooked in soup. (Credit: masa from Japan)

This is basically chicken breast prepared using a standard technique for making shrimp cakes. What this should mean is that they were most likely fried and eaten straight like shrimp balls and cakes.

Still it’s also possible that after frying they were cooked in soup like lions-head meatballs (獅子頭). However with chicken breast meat this is probably not a good idea since it makes the meat floury and dry, like the way my brother-in-law cooks them.

Birds 10: Diced Chicken (雞丁)

Take some chicken breasts, cut them into small dice, and stir-fry them in boiling hot oil. Add autumn sauce and wine to the chicken and remove from the pan. Toss the chicken with diced water chestnuts, dice bamboo shoot tips, and diced shitake, with the ones producing a dark broth being the best.


The famous Kungpao chicken can be seen as a variant of this dish. It substitutes the crunchy texture of peanuts in place of water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, and the flavour of hot chilies instead of the mild tasting shitake. (Credit: Prince Roy)

Lightly par-fry chicken, season, add some veggies, and it’s done. All in all, a rather typical Chinese chicken dish.

The only weird part here is the note in the last sentence saying that dark broth is the best. This is weird since the dish has mainly light coloured ingredients so a dark broth will not work. One can only assume that Yuan Mei was referring to the shitake, which when soaked from its dry form or cooked in soup lends a clear darkish tan broth.

Birds 9: Jiang Chicken (醬雞)

Take a raw chicken, brine it in soy sauce for a day and a night, then hang it in the breeze to dry. This is a winter dish.


Un poulet suspendu en guise d'enseigne, Lucques, Toscane, Italie
More or less how you would make jiang chicken (Credit: Myrabella)

Nice recipe, but again Yuan Mei left it a bit incomplete with no description on how to cook it. Still, given that air dried meats are typically steamed in Chinese cooking, this is probably the way to prepare jiang chicken.

This recipe is somewhat reminiscent of fengji (風雞; literally, wind chicken), which is first marinated in salt and wine, air dried slightly, and then steamed till done. The texture and flavour of fenji is quite remarkable, with texture of a wet-cured ham and a hint of flavour that one gets from a dried-cured ham. I’m sure jiangji is something like that too.

For the last sentence, I’ve translated “three dong” (三冬) as simply “winter”, since it indicates the last three months of the lunar calendar, which typically  hovers around  November, December, and January. In Canada, we had a typically have a “5 dong”, but at this rate of global warming we’ll be lucky if we have 2 in a few years.

Birds 8: Steamed Young Chicken (蒸小雞)

Place a whole young chicken on a plate. Add autumn sauce, sweet wine, shitake mushrooms, and bamboo shoots to it, then steam everything over a rice pot.


Om nom nom nom! (Credit: HKArchitect)

The chicken used in this recipe is probably an older chick, hovering around a month or two in age. I would have liked to use the French term “poussin”, which is perfect for describing the age of the chicken, but I’ve settled on “young chicken”, which sorta works.

In North America, the chicken sold as “Rock Cornish Game hen” could be used here. Still, in reality all the industrially farmed chicken that we eat now days are so young and soft that any would do for this recipe.

Oh, and Happy New Year!