Translating the Suiyuan Shidan (隨園食單)

A long long time ago in Qing Dynasty China, a hedonistic elite scholar and gastronome by the name of Yuan Mei (袁枚) sat down in his chair and condensed 40 years of his gastronomic experiences into one of China’s most fascinating and important food manuals: The Suiyuan Shidan (隨園食單).

The background of Yuan Mei quite interesting. Born of a poor family, here was a person who against all odds, through a combination of luck, hard-work, and sheer talent, made it to the top of the Qing Dynasty’s societal pyramid at a young age of 24 years old. Competing in the Chinese imperial exams, he beat out almost all of the other candidate and was appointed an imperial magistrate [1]. This is a rather high position that people pined for and most would have clung to with tooth and claw if they even got close (The Power! The money! The Prestige!). But Yuan Mei after a few years as magistrate, drops everything, moves back home, and lived his life in leisure, doing whatever he wants [2]. This included composing poetry and writing essays like many literati, but ultimately also spending lots of time and money drinking, partying, and lustily chasing after young women and men alike.

The non-conformist that he is, Yuan Mei also published his manual…on cuisine. This may not strike people of our era as out-of-the-ordinary, but one needs to understand that cuisine was a subject matter collectively shunned by most Chinese literati. While, enjoying food and being extra picky about it [3] was something to which most literati (and men) did all the time, cooking was something to be left to lowly women and uneducated men. Mencius typified this uppity attitude when he said: “A true gentlemen avoids the kitchen.” (君子遠庖廚也) Due to this stigma towards cooking and cuisine, those who had the skills to write about it either did not pay it much attention or did so by more or less making everything up [4]. As a result, there are lots of works throughout the dynasties talking about how great the food and drink was, but little to no reliable sources on how the great foods and drinks were made.

This is why Suiyuan Shidan is such an important work. Through this manual, we have a window to not only see what constituted Chinese cuisine back then and be able to understand in geeky detail what people thought about the food: how should ingredients be prepared and matched for optimal effect, what were the crucial skills of a cook, how the quality of dishes were judged, etc. Moreover Yuan Mei has provided us a large list of recipes, allowing us to see what high and low-brow dishes existed in mid Qing Dynasty China. The surprisingly clear instructions in the recipes also gives us the opportunity to recreate the dishes and compare them to contemporary ways of making them. I also laughed while browse some of the items in the “Things to Avoid” section of the manual, namely where Yuan Mei bemoaned the tastelessness of rich people ruining food and when he made snide comments about those trying too hard to make their dishes sound fancy. Note that these complaints are still the staples of modern gastronomic writing, which goes to show how even after almost 300 years the work is still highly relevant in our time.

Anyways, the purpose of this blog is to ultimately for me to try translating this important work in Chinese cuisine into English. It’s going to much of a challenge translating Classical Chinese (文言文) into English, but I’ll do my best to be accurate and faithful to the original text. Note that in this Suiyuan Shidan/隨園食單 translation project, I will be actively learning at every step on the way, as such the results may not be “professional grade”. If someone’s life hinges on the perfect translation, please visit a professor at your local Asian Studies department for direct help.

Anyways, we’ll see how it goes. Stay-tuned.

Random notes:

[1]: Becoming a highly-educated super-elite Confucian literati magistrate was not something easily accomplished. Not only must one be fortunate enough to be born into a family capable of support your education, you must study for years; from childhood to adulthood, memorizing and trying to understand volumes of arcane ancient texts. Only then, will you have the opportunity to take a qualification exam to earn the right to take whole series of even longer and more difficult exams. Do well in these exams and gigantic golden doors will open for you. You will be showered with money, power, and the everlasting awe and respect of everyone you ever knew. This is why over 2 million scholars competed each year in these examinations during Qing Dynasty China. Almost ALL of them (around 99%) invariably failed. The ones that didn’t fail could earn the right to be a county clerk, but only 300 individuals from the initial hoard will be recognized as Jinshi (進士) and “win” an appointment as a imperial magistrate. At 0.015%, the odds are better than the lottery, but it’s still pretty slim.

[2]: This totally reminds me of Grigori Perelman who solved one of the most important conjectures in mathematics. After news broke of his breakthrough, people rushed to offer him awards and money and fame. But he turned all of it down and continue to live the quiet life with his mom in a tiny Soviet-era apartment. These are Men of convictions.

[3]: Confucius refused to eat stuff if it wasn’t cleaned right, if it wasn’t cut right, if he didn’t like the colour or smell, if the sauce wasn’t right, it the season wasn’t right, etc. Anyways, it’s all here, have fun.

[4]: There is this story about an emperor entranced by the great flavours of a suckling pig dish. Asking his host/son-in-law how it was made, the son-in-law told him that the exquisite tastes of the pork was due to the fact that the suckling pig was raise on human milk. Was it really true? Human milk pork? No idea, but this gives you an idea what a lot of the “recipes” were like when describe by “true gentlemen” of dynastic China. I personally think that guy was full of it.



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