Seafoods 1: Bird’s Nest (燕窩)

海鮮單::燕窩
燕窩貴物,原不輕用。如用之,每碗必須二兩,先用天泉滾水泡之,將銀針挑去黑絲。用嫩雞湯、好火腿湯、新蘑菇三樣湯滾之,看燕窩變成玉色為度。此物至清,不可以油膩雜之;此物至文,不可以武物串之。今人用肉絲、雞絲雜之,是吃雞絲、肉絲,非吃燕窩也。且徒務其名,往往以三錢生燕窩蓋碗面,如白髮數莖,使客一撩不見,空剩粗物滿碗,真乞兒賣富,反露貧相。不得已,則蘑菇絲、筍尖絲、鯽魚肚、野雞嫩片尚可用也。余到粵東,楊明府冬瓜燕窩甚佳,以柔配柔,以清入清,重用雞汁、蘑菇汁而已。燕窩皆作玉色,不純白也。或打作團,或敲成面,俱屬穿鑿。

List of Seafoods::Bird’s Nest
Bird’s Nest is an a precious ingredient and should not be used trivially. If one wishes to serve bird’s nest, each bowl must contain at least 2 liang [1] of the ingredient, prepared by first soaking it in boiled rain-water and any dark strands or debris removed with a needle. It must then be boiled in stock made by combining the broths made from tender chickens, good ham, and new mushrooms until the bird’s nest takes-on the tone and clarity of jade. Note that bird’s nest is extremely delicate [2] in flavour and must not be prepared with anything oily. Its soft and elegant texture also necessitates that is never combined with foods that are firm or aggressive in taste. People today like to serve bird’s nest with shredded pork and chicken. In doing this they are only tasting shredded chicken and pork, not bird’s nest.

Mo’ money mo’ problems? Easily solved. Just eat it away. Three pieces of bird’s nest of the quality in the image, each only about size of two small fingers, will set you back around $150 Canadian dollars. Easily. (Photo Credit:Reforma.imufomot)

In a futile effort to feint wealth, some host would scatter 3 qian [3] of raw birds nest as a thin facade on top of a bowl of soup. One could have picked them out like wisps of grey hair. [4] These shreds of birds’ nest immediately disappear when a guest stirs their bowl, revealing it full of only base ingredients. Like the ruse of a beggar child pretending to be rich, they only reveal how poor they actually were.

If for whatever reason one must add anything else to the bird’s nest soup, use shredded mushrooms [5], shredded bamboo shoot tips, fish maw, or slices of pheasant breast. During my visit to Yangmingfu, Guandong I had an incredibly good winter melon and birds’s nest soup. It was richly flavoured with only chicken and mushroom extracts, with the soft textures and delicate flavours of the two main ingredients matching each other superbly.

Bird’s nest should always jade coloured and translucent, but never opaque white. Those who make bird’s nest into balls and pound it into powder are doing nothing but forced and exaggerated interpretations of the ingredient.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: About 75 g

[2]: I had been struggling with how to translate 清 (qing). In the past I used “light”, “clear”, and “mild”, or a combination of them but none have felt completely correct. However I think I now have found a satisfactory English translation for this; one that gives the essence of this culinary term both the right meaning and feel: “delicate”. A few years ago, I had a clear cucumber soup that exemplified qing. The broth was clear, devoid of fat and not overburdened by umami. The mature cucumber gave the soup a slightly sour edge. The delicate elegance of the soup somehow calmed the clamor of the restaurant despite one being perfectly aware of it, like a petal floating in a rippleless puddle. Similar to how great French chefs of past elevated the lowly Coq-au-Vin, the chef that crafted this soup managed to take a rather unremarkable, homely peasant dish and transform it into a transcendental work of art. Drinking it was possibly as close as one could get to imbibing a physical bowl of Zen.

[3]: About 13g

[4]: May have come from the phrase “白髮數莖”? http://baike.baidu.com/view/5125244.htm

[5]: At first I thought 蘑菇 (mogu), a loose term translating to “mushroom”, would mean shitake, but that does not make sense since the dark skin of shitake would clash with the birds nest. Sure enough Yuan Mei referred to shitake as 香蕈 (xiangxun) in other parts of the manual. This leaves one thinking what mushroom he was talking about here. My guess is a common white colour mushroom such as Coprinus comatus (Shaggy mane young/known as chicken drumstick mushroom) or Pleurotus eryngii (a thick fleshed oyster mushroom/”king oyster”杏鮑菇). Note, I may be wrong.

[6]: If your culinary experiment over-strech the “capabilities” of your ingrediants, don’t try to serve to your guests.

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