“Cut a large five to seven jin chunk of mutton into large pieces, and skewer them on iron skewers to broil over flames. The mutton’s flavours are delectably sweet and its texture crisp. It is no wonder the thought of it caused Emperor Renzong of Song Dynasty such cravings in middle of the night.”
Eating grilled or broiled mutton (not lamb) is one of those great pleasures of life. The anticipation of biting down on those the sizzling morsels of meat dripping with hot rendering fat, right as they are pulled off the smoking flames…simply thinking about it is unbearable.
In French cuisine, there is a saying that milk itself is a soup and butter is itself a sauce. I would say that out of all the meats, it is only mutton (not lamb) with it powerful aromatic stench and rich fat, that provides its own robust seasoning. While dusting the meat with cumin and chili powder is the norm in Beijing and much of China, or the additions of pepper or mint jelly by the misguided, all a good skewer of flame-broiled mutton really needs is a healthy (or for that matter, un-healthy) sprinkling of salt. That itself is enough to elevate this rather prosaic stick of semi-charred meat into the realm of the divine. It’s no wonder the Emperor craved it so much as to rouse him from sleep… (唐宋文醇·卷二十六)
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to march myself down to the hole-in-the-wall at Dundas and Spadina and order myself a few skewers. While it may not the best, it’s only 10 mins away. And to being able to sate one’s late-night cravings in this manner, it ain’t half bad.
“The preparation of this dish is similar to red-cooked pork. Add shelled walnuts while braising to cut the mutton’s strong odour. This is an old recipe .”
Sure, it’s basically red-cooked pork with the meat substituted with lamb, and yes, it’s an old recipe, but what the hell is a “ciyenhetao” (刺眼核桃)?
Since the term translates literally to “pierced eye walnut”, most sources have concluded that they are basically whole walnuts with holes punched into the shell. Despite my relative ignorance, I have decided to get rid of the hole-punching, eye-piercing part and translate them as just “shelled walnuts”. Since let’s face it, braising whole walnuts with shell on, even if they have holes in them, is just a tad ridiculous. And indeed, there are quite a few recipes online for lamb and walnut soup (核桃羊肉湯) that are eaten as a restorative for the cold winter months. And all are without walnut shells.
Another intriguing possibility is that the “pierced eye” (刺眼) part was actually transcribed wrongly from “來服”, which is an alternate way of writing an archaic Chinese term for radish (莱菔). I actually read this explanation somewhere online but can’t seem to find the site again. What this would mean is that ciyenhetao may actually call for “radish and walnuts”，which would not be totally out of the ordinary since lamb is often braised with radish.
Going off on a tangent, the latin word for radish is “Raphanus”. This sounds tantalizingly close to the pronunciation for “莱菔” (laifu/raifu). I wonder if there is a connection here?
“Wash the sheep’s stomach clean, boil it until soft, slice it into thin strips, and braise it in its boiling liquid. Pepper and vinegar can be added when braising the stomach. The Northerners have a technique for making stir-fried sheep’s stomach, but Southerners that prepare it fail to get the desired crisp texture. Prefect Qian Yusha makes a very good pan-fried mutton. I will soon learn how to prepare it from him.”
Judging from the way this sheep’s stomach geng or “thick soup” is made, it’s likely a Southern Chinese preparation. Indeed, Yuan Mei kinda indicates this in the third sentence, basically saying that Northern Chinese prepare their stomach “crisp” while Southern Chinese are only good at making it soft. The fact that sheep stomach here is similarly prepared to the Southern Chinese pork stomach recipe from a previous chapter, is probably also a good indication that it’s Southern.
As for that recipe from Qian Yusha, it seems Yuan Mei never got to writing about it, not to mention also that an entire section on pan-fried mutton (鍋燒羊肉) appears to be missing in the Suiyuan Shidan.
“Mutton shanks can be braised similarily to pork knuckles in either the red-cooked or white-cooked forms. In general, that which is cooked in light soy sauce is red-cooked and that cooked with salt is white cooked. Shanks are good served with mountain yam.”
Missed this section out of all the craziness recently so it’s appearing here rather than just after the section for sheep’s head, where it really should be.
Most Middle Eastern eateries in large cities of Canada will usually serve lamb shank along with chicken and beef shawarma or shish taouk. When I lived in Montreal as a student, I used to go to one at the corner of University and Sherbrooke, where portions tended to be large and the managers were generous with hummus. These “sharwarma places”, as a friend calls them, are some of the cheapest places that one can get lamb shank. The quality is also rather decent, though seriously, it’s hard to ruin mutton/lamb shank.
Still, if such establishments offend your refined tastes, you can go to some fancy French bistro type affair where you won’t have to dine with us plebs. There, they will serve you lamb shank at thousands of percent the cost of the cut of meat, but with table cloths, elegant décor, and “service”.
I previously translated 牲 (sheng) is simply “animal”. But upon revisiting this, I see that this character actually conveys concepts much more specific then English words such as “animal” or “creature” allow.
Sheng is used to describe domesticated animals used for sacrifices to deities or ancestors. In Ancient China, domesticated livestock were consider more desirable and valuable than wild game and more suitable as items for sacrifice, which makes sense in many ways since livestock tends to be more tender, meaty, and less “gamey” that hunted wild animals. Thus the better translation for sheng would be “livestock suitable for sacrifice”, or simply “livestock”.
As such, the names of the previous sections will be changed from “Assorted Animals” to “Assorted Livestock”. A small tweak, but still important.
“Take some cooked mutton and cut it into small pieces the size of dice. Braise the meat in chicken broth. Add diced bamboo shoots, diced shitake mushrooms, and diced mountain yam then braise until done.”
I love geng. The thick texture, rich umami flavours, and the delicateness of its broth makes geng one of the most comforting things one can have for dinner during a cold autumn evening or frigid winter night. It’s a silk comforter in soup form.
The thick texture of geng is conferred through the addition of a starch, such as potato, corn, or arrowroot starch. These starches give the otherwise texture-less broth a silky body, which stays in the mouth and feels somehow more “weighty”. They make the liquid broth much more substantial, while maintaining the broth’s clarity. In this regard, all thick textured Chinese soups are technically geng since they consists of ingredients in clear broth given substance through added starch. While this recipe does not call for starch explicitly, it may simply be that it’s assumed to be added or more likely that mountain yam (known to be quite mucilaginous) provides the thickening during braising.
Geng is sometimes translated as “stew” or “thick soup”, but I feel both are inadequate since they allude to the stogy opaqueness of dishes thickened by flour and roux. The clear delicateness of a geng’s thickened broth is mostly lost in such translations. Just as very few refer to tofu as “bead curd”, and sushi as “seaweed roll”, geng should not be called anything but “geng”.
That aside, it is interesting to note that mutton geng is now rarely called “yang geng” (羊羹) but rather “yang rou geng” (羊肉羹, lit. sheep meat geng). The addition rou (肉, meat) is required since when someone uses “羊羹” they are usually talking about a Japanese Yōkan, a sugary bean jelly that is largely unrelated to mutton geng except for its culinary ancestry. A summary of how this came about is as follows: A mutton geng made with gelatinous broth becomes an aspic when chilled and was eaten this form in Ancient China. Then Medieval Chinese vegetarians Buddhists who moved from China to Japan replaced the meat with bean pastes and starch. Then the medieval Japanese replaced starch with agar and added sugar into the mix, which turned everything super sweet. And that my friends, was how “羊羹” went from a savoury meaty soup to become a sweet sugary block of firm bean jelly.