Pork 23: Babao Pork (八寶肉)

“Take one jin of pork that is half lean and half fatty. Boil it in plain broth for ten to twenty guun then cut it into willow-leaf shaped pieces. Prepare two liang of small mussels, two liang of shrimp, one liang of shitake, two liang of jelly-fish, four pieces of walnuts with the bitter membrane removed, four liang of bamboo shoot slices, two liang of good dry-cured ham, and one liang of sesame oil. Braise the pork in autumn sauce and wine in a pot until half done. Combine the pork with all of the accompanying ingredients and continue braising until done. The jelly-fish should only be added at the very end.”


One of the many many Babao recipes in existence. This one in particular is called “Babao vegetables” (八寶菜). (Credit: Lombroso)

Look through a typical Chinese cookbook and one is bound find at least one recipe for a Babao dish. These “Eight Treasure” dishes range from savoury appetizers and main dishes to a slew of sweet desserts, but they are connected by the fact that they all contain eight different multicoloured, sometimes expensive, but always interesting-to-eat ingredients. In this recipe, the pork was considered a precious enough ingredient to be included as one of the treasures, but usually the base ingredient is not counted as one of the eight. For example, the famous Babao rice (八寶飯) is a sweet dish containing eight notable ingredients plus rice.

I also love how Yuan Mei decided to refer to the shrimp here as “Eagle’s talons“ (鷹爪). In all likelihood, this may just be an abbreviation for the “Eagle talon shrimp” (鷹爪蝦) Trachypenaeus curvirostris, but by omitting the “shrimp” part, he raises the status of the otherwise lowly crustacean to something more exotic, precious, and maybe more fitting to be one of the eight treasures. And a treasure they are. When fresh, these shrimp are so delicately crisp that biting into them you are almost shocked by the sensation. Needless to say, they would have worked wonders with other “crisp” textured ingredients such as bamboo shoots and jelly fish. While “eagle talons” could also arguably refer to chicken feet (known as “Phoenix talons”, 鳳爪), or even be read quite literally, the texture of bird talons whether they are from chickens or eagles would not have fit well in this dish. Besides, if you wanted to serve real eagle talons, you would serve them on their own, not mixed in and confused with a whole bunch of other stuff. When you’re trying be flamboyant and extravagant, it is probably good to be as direct as possible.

As for where the whole thing about “eight treasures” came from it, the most obvious answer would be the Buddhist eight treasures. However, I suspect that it goes back earlier than the introduction of the Buddhism to China from India. Fact is, Chinese culture from ancient to modern always had a tendency towards using numerological concepts in daily life, something which can be attributed directly to the Taoists. I will leave it to somebody to do the real research while I “armchair” it.


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