“Venison is hard to procure. Once acquired and prepared, it is more tender, delicate, and sweeter than the meat of the Water deer. It can be prepared grilled or braised.”
I was listening to a past episode of Helen Zalzman‘s excellent podcast The Allusionist where she was talking about how venison came from Latin for “to hunt” and how this eventually got associated to the meat of any game animals such as wild boar or deer, which then somehow got stuck to deer meat in semi-modern times. This got me thinking again on how annoying it would be for someone trying to cook the period’s cuisine. Imagine you want to cook up a nice Medieval Europe recipe that asks for “venison” but really you have no clue what animal’s meat they are specifying.
One has more or less the same problem when reading (or translating) the Suiyuan Shidan. Just take a look at the River Delicacies chapter and you’ll see how annoyingly complicated it is to narrow down what species of fish was being specified in the recipe. And just in case you don’t think this matters, I posit that there is a life or death difference between eating the bones of a saury versus than of an anchovy.
So, while I would normally venture that venison from any of the adorable creatures from Family Cervidae taste the same, Yuan Mei was quite explicit here that the deer he is talking about tastes much better than another type of deer, namely the Water deer, and that not any would suffice. Which leaves us to figure out from what type of deer Yuan Mei’s venison comes from.
Immediately we can toss out most of the deer from the Subfamily Capreolinae, which consist of the Old World relatives of the Water deer and numerous other deer species existing only in the New World. Now only left only with deer from the Subfamily Cervinae, I would quickly toss out the animals that belong in the mutjacs and tufted deer Genus. These deer have small or no antlers and have sharp vampire-like tusks that look very much like the Water deer, which I’m guessing may have been regarded as the same Chinese animal (獐, zhang) by people of Yuan Mei’s time. This leaves us with the “true deers”, which is still a lot of species to consider, even if we were to narrow the list down by what was available in China.
For the sake of brevity and to not explode this into a full research project, I would like to go even further out on a limb and make the mildly educated guess that Yuan Mei’s venison comes from the Sika deer (梅花鹿). And although it is a guess, if I may, it’s not such a terrible one considering that Sika deer are quite common throughout China in the wild and it does have a historical connection to Chinese culture both in hunting, medicine, and thus likely, cuisine.
But in thinking over the premise of the importance of find the exact species required for the recipe, really, how many people in this world now eat deer on a regular basis, much less are able to tell if they are eating Sika, Sambar, Milu, or even Water Deer? What if you use elk? Or wild boar? Or substituted a lame horse just pulled off the track? Most people can’t even tell what they are eating half of the time and mislabelling is rampant (just look at what’s happening with fish). So at the end, maybe we should just forget about this whole deal with identifying the right type of venison.
After all it’s all game.