Vegetable Dishes 11: Fiddleheads

When preparing fidddleheads1 one must not be frugal, first remove all the fern’s mature branches and leaves, keeping only the straight shoots.2 Rinse them until clean and simmer until soft,3 then braise them in chicken broth. One must use only the shortest and most tender specimens since these are the most plump.

蕨菜
用蕨菜不可愛惜,須盡去其枝葉,單取直根,洗淨煨爛,再用雞肉湯煨。必買矮弱者才肥。

Note:
1I was tempted to translated this as bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum). However the last sentence says that the short tender shoots of the ferm should be used, which makes these fiddleheads (Canadian term for immature fernshoot tips) enough for me.

2Yuan Mei says zhigen 直根 here, which means “straight roots”. Although one might think this refers to the woody rhizomes, I believe that he is actually trying to say geng (莄or 梗) which sounds similar to gen (根) and refers instead to the straight peduncle-like leaf shoots that come out from the center of a fern. To this day, the leave shoots are the parts of the plant that are collected in many parts of Asian and the world as a vegetable, and never the roots or rhizome of the plant.

3This describes the important preboiling process to leach some of the noxious, and possibly carcinogenic substances out of the fern.

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Vegetable Dishes 10: Chrysanthemum Greens

Sear the chrysanthemum greens tips in hot oil until they start shrivelling, than add them to chicken broth to boil. When ready to plate, add a hundred stalks of pine mushroom.1

蓬蒿菜
取蒿尖用油灼癟,放雞湯中滾之,起時加松菌百枚。

Note:
1Search for the term songjun 松菌 or “Pine fungus” and two different types of mushrooms show up. First is the matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake), the other is red pine mushroom (Lactarius deliciosus). I believe that it is less likely to be the former, due to its large size and firm texture that is ill suited for a quick cooking described here. Furthurmore, matsutake is commonly referred as songrong 松茸. Still, I admit I may be wrong as such I’m doing a literal translation and let those curious refer to this note.

Vegetable Dishes 9: Shrimp-sauce Tofu

Use an aged shrimp-sauce to substitute for the light soy-sauce when stir-frying tofu. Both sides of the tofu should be pan-fried until golden brown. The wok must be hot. Cook with rendered lard, green onions, and Szechuan pepper.

蝦油1豆腐
取陳蝦油代清醬炒豆腐。須兩面煎黃。油鍋要熱,用豬油、蔥、椒。

1Xiayou 蝦油 (translated literally as “shrimp oil”), or shrimp-sauce, is a soy sauce that has been boiled and aged with shrimp, and probably much more umami and rich in taste than plain soy sauce. See the later section on Shrimp-sauce. In some Chinese communities, xiayou is sometimes used to describe an oil flavoured by frying shrimp heads and shells in vegetable oil. However, this is not the case here since Yuan Mei defines it in a later chapter and indicates it here that it substitutes regular light soy-sauce.

Vegetable Dishes 8: Frozen Tofu

Freeze tofu for one night, cut into square pieces, and boil them to rid them of their bean-like smell. Add them to a mixture of chicken broth and extracts, ham extract, and pork extract and braise. When serving, remove the chicken and ham and the like, leaving only the shitake and the winter bamboo shoots.

When tofu has been braised for a long time its texture becomes spongy, with its surface becoming honey-combed like frozen tofu.1 For stir-frying use soft tofu, while braising should be done with firmer tofu.2 The household of Officer Jia Zhihua cooks tofu with mushrooms, even during the summer they follow the same recipe for frozen tofu, since it is very good. Do not use strong flavoured hun meat broths3 for this dish since doing so would destroy to delicate light flavours of this dish.

凍豆腐
將豆腐凍一夜,切方塊,滾去豆味,加雞湯汁、火腿汁、肉汁煨之。上桌時,撤去雞、火腿之類,單留香蕈、冬筍。豆腐煨久則鬆,面起蜂窩,如凍腐矣。故炒腐宜嫩,煨者宜老。家致華分司用蘑菇煮豆腐,雖夏月亦照凍腐之法,甚佳。切不可加葷湯,致失清味。

Notes:
1I think Yuan Mei is trying to say normal tofu looking like frozen tofu after prolonged boiling.

2This feels slightly off on a tangent, and may not apply exclusively to frozen tofu. In fact, the rest of the paragraph goes on a tangent.

3Though the term hun 葷 (pronounced hoon) is commonly used to refer to any meat from any animal, this is clearly not the meaning here. When Yuan Mei say’s “葷湯”, or “hun soup”, he is not saying “animal broth” since there is already chicken and ham used to make this dish. Most likely he is referring to the stronger and richer tasting pork, and possibly beef broth, thus I translating it as such. It seems that every “vegetable” dish here is full of animal ingredients. This is still true for most Chinese vegetable dishes where lard and broth (or MSG) are “musts”.

Vegetable Dishes 7: Cheng Liwan’s Tofu

During the 23rd year of the Qianlong Emperor, I visited the home of Cheng Liwan with Jin Shanmen and had a pan-fried tofu that was unparalleled in deliciousness. The tofu was dry and golden brown on both sides without the least bit of cooking liquid. It also had a hint of the delicate savouriness one finds in giant clam, yet there was no giant clam nor any other ingredients to be found in the dish.1

The next day I told Cha Xuanmen about this, and he proudly stated: “Oh, I can make that dish! I’m going to invite you over to try it.” Thus, I went together with Hang Jinpu to eat at Cha’s place.

But as we reached with our chopsticks to try it, we broke out in laughter. Before us was a dish made with chicken and sparrow brains without any tofu to be seen. It was so greasy and nauseating that it proved hard to stomach. The cost of this dish was also ten times that of Cheng’s, but the flavours were not even close.

Sadly at the time, I had to quickly depart due to the death of my younger sister and lacked the time to ask Cheng for the recipe. Cheng passed away after a year, leaving me with much regret. Now all I have is the name of this dish. Still, I will ask for the recipe when opportunity comes.2

程立萬豆腐
乾隆廿三年,同金壽門在揚州程立萬家食煎豆腐,精絕無雙。其豆腐兩面黃乾,無絲毫鹵汁,微有蛼螯鮮味。然盤中並無蛼螯及他 雜物也。次日告查宣門,查曰︰﹁我能之!我當特請。﹂已而,同杭菫浦同食於查家,則上箸大笑;乃純是雞、雀腦為之,並非真豆腐,肥膩難耐矣。其費十倍於 程,而味遠不及也。惜其時,余以妹喪急歸,不及向程求方。程逾年亡,至今悔之。仍存其名,以俟再訪。

Notes:
1My guess is the tofu was boiled and marinated in concentrated clam broth or extract before being lightly air dried and pan fried.

2This reads like a diary entry, where Yuan Mei visits his buddies to shoot the breeze, then something like a cooking contest happens. I have no idea who these people Yuan Mei ate with actually are but I would not be surprise if they are all important political or literary figures of the time. It’s not a recipe, but still quite informative and fun to read.

Vegetable Dishes 6: Prefect Wang’s Babao Tofu

Take tender tofu, then slice and cut it until thoroughly pulverized. Add to it pulverized1 shitake, pulverized mushrooms, pulverized pine nuts, pulverized melon seeds, pulverized chicken, and pulverized dried-cured ham. Put everything into concentrated chicken extract, and boil2 the mixture until boiling, then plate and serve.3 One can also used douhua in place of the tofu. Eat this with a spoon and not with chopsticks.

Prefect Meng Ting recounted: “The recipe for this dish was bestowed by the Sagely Forefather4 to Minister Jian An. When the Minister went to acquire the recipe, the Imperial kitchens charged him one thousand taels of silver.”5 The Prefect’s ancestor was Master Lou Cun, who was born to the aformentioned Minister, which is how he got the recipe.

王太守八寶6豆腐
用嫩片切粉碎,加香蕈屑、蘑菇屑、松子仁屑、瓜子仁屑、雞屑、火腿屑,同入濃雞汁中炒滾起鍋。用腐腦亦可。用瓢不用箸。孟亭太守云︰﹁此聖祖賜徐健庵尚書方也。尚書取方時,御膳房費一千兩。﹂太守之祖樓村先生為尚書門生,故得之。

Notes:
1I have translated xue 屑 as pulverized, which is not the best or most accurate translation. However, I feel it’s better than calling it “bits” or “crumbs”, since they have the same meaning of even fineness that one get by cutting in an orderly manner. The term “dice” would give the “orderly cut” meaning, but even if one said “dice finely” one still cannot describe the fineness required, thus we have “pulverized” until something better comes along.

2The actual term used here is chaogun 炒滾, which literally means “stir-fry until boiling”. Basically you boil this thick mixture at high heat and stir continuously, just like you are stir-frying food.

3This feels like a more tedious version of wensidofu 文思豆腐). While Wensi needs everything to be cut into fine threads, this require another set of cuts to “dice” all the ingredients into bits around <1mm cubed.

4The Qing Dynasty Sagely Forefather/Saintly Ancestor 聖祖 is none other than Emperor Kangxi.

5A recipe from the Qing Imperial kitchens, all the way back around 300 years ago!

6Babao 八寶 means “eight-treasure”. While I could translate it as such, I think it cheapens this otherwise culturally rich phrase. If interested, the reader should go figure it out for themselves what it’s all about.

Vegetable Dishes 5: Furong Tofu

Take douhua,1 add boiling water to it and soak for three times to rid it of its bean-like smell. Add it to chicken broth at medium boil. When plating, add laver and peeled shrimp.

芙蓉2豆腐
用腐腦,放開水泡三次,去豆氣,入雞湯中滾,起鍋時加紫菜、蝦肉。

Notes:
1I used “douhua” in the translation, but the actual term used in the Chinese text is funao 腐腦, or “tofu brains”, which is rightly soft and tender, like brrraaaaaains. All tofu is made from this ingredient, which is what one gets immediately after curdling soy milk. Nowadays it more commonly referred to in Chinese as douhua (豆花). In English, this is sometimes called “tofu jelly”, which is culinary-wise an rather inaccurate term. Still it’s leagues better than the literal translation “tofu flower”, which is sadly also commonly used. Is such cases, where no equivalent English term exists for the Chinese concept, we should just borrow directly from the transliterated Chinese term and call it douhua instead.

2All furong (芙蓉) dishes, are so name since their main ingredients are generally pale in colour and has an irregular form or texture much like the Chinese hibiscus flower. Furong dishes typically involves egg, but in this case the use of douhua, a super soft unpressed tofu freshly curdled from soy milk, is irregular enough to be dubbed “furong”.