Fish 8: Fish Slices (魚片)

Take slices of black carp or a grouper, season with autumn sauce, then add starch powder and egg white. Start a wok and stir-fry them over high heat. Plate them using a small dish and add green onions, Szechuan pepper, and soy-pickled ginger. Each dish should not contain more than six liang of fish, since heat cannot be evenly and thoroughly applied when there is too much ingredients.

魚片
取青魚、季魚片,秋油郁之,加芡粉、蛋清,起油鍋炮炒,用小盤盛起,加蔥、椒、瓜薑,極多不過六兩,太多則火氣不透

Notes:
This recipe is quite similar to the preparation of our contemporary stir-fried fish slices (炒魚片), which shows how old this method of fish preparation likely is. Although some recipes contain more ingredients than this, regardless the core technique for stir-frying the fish is the same.

While stir-frying fish slices (likely stir-frying itself) sounds easy to do, all too often the fish slices gets cooked into jerky by the novice cook or stirred until it disintegrates into something more like fish floss. Successful preparation of this dish takes some skill and a few tricks. First the fish’s flesh needs to be sliced with its grain so the pieces does not easily fall apart. Next, the fish must be first quickly pan fried in a wok to set their shape before being quickly and gently flipped until the fish is barely cooked. The cooking typically takes less than a minute or so. Any other ingredients that goes into the dish must be precooked to not mess up this timing.

When done well, the resulting dish is sublime.

Fish 7: Fish Balls (魚圓)

Use either a live redfin culter or black carp, split the fish in half, and nail it to a board. Use a knife and scrap off the meat, leaving the bones and spine on the board. Chop the meat until fine, mix with lard and bean starch,1 then stir the mixture with one’s hand. Add a little salt water, but do not use light soy sauce. Add green onion and ginger juice, and form the mixture into balls. When this is done, place them in boiling water to cook. Scoop them out when done, and let them rest in a bath of cold water.2 When they are ready to be served, boil them with chicken broth and laver.3

魚圓
用白魚、青魚活者剖半釘板上,用刀刮下肉,留刺在板上;將肉斬化,用豆粉、豬油拌,將手攪之;放微微鹽水,不用清醬,加蔥、薑汁作團,成後,放滾水中煮熟撩起,冷水養之,臨吃入雞湯、紫菜滾。

Notes:
1 I’m still wondering if “豆粉” (doufen) is bean starch or bean vermicelli, since both can be used in fish balls. The ambiguity stems from the fact that 粉 (fen) can either be used to mean starch, or one of the many Chinese pasta products made from starch. I’m going with the former since it’s a more common ingredient when making fish balls.

2 This is a very accurate and detailed description of the fish-ball-making process. Definitely one of the better recipes noted-down by Yuan Mei.

3 The laver described here is a type of red algae likely from Genus Porphyra

Fish 6: Fish Floss (魚鬆)

Steam black carp1 or grass carp2 until done and pull the meat off the bones. Fry the meat in a wok until golden brown, then add fine salt, green onion, Szechuan pepper, and soy-pickled ginger. When stored in a sealed jar during winter, this can keep for a whole month.3

魚鬆
用青魚、鯶魚蒸熟,將肉拆下,放油鍋中灼之,黃色,加鹽花、蔥、椒、瓜薑。冬日封瓶中,可以一月

Fish floss is the piscine variant of the more commonly found pork floss. Although not much to look at on its own, fish soong is one of those little condiments that light up an otherwise mundane bowl of congee or rice at mealtimes. It’s actually very easy to make, but rather time consuming since one has to stay in front of the stove to continuously stir and lightly mash the fish until it is fluffy  and dry.

If you are interested in trying it out, below is our family recipe:


Chen Family Fish Floss (陳氏魚鬆)

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg        Fish fillet (any fresh seasonal medium to large local fish. I’ve tried this on salmon, trout, pickerel, swordfish,… and they all worked fine)
  • 1 Tsp      Salt (or to taste. Soy sauce is fine but I find it overwhelms the flavour of the fish)
  • 4 Tbsp   Sugar (or to taste)
  • 2 Tsp      Ginger and green onion juice (puree ginger and green onion and squeeze)
  • 1 Tsp      Sesame seeds

Instructions:

  1. Place fish fillet into a pan at medium heat and let it cook until the flesh starts to flake.
  2. Flake the fillet thoroughly
  3. Add salt, sugar, the juices, and stir them into the flaked fish
  4. Keep stirring and flipping the flakes of fish in the pan to dry out the water. Take out any bones you see during the process.
  5. Repeat step 4.
  6. When the fish is quite fluffy and dry with a light brown toasted colour, add the sesame seeds and stir for another 3 minutes.
  7. Let cool and seal in a airtight jar
  8. Serve on top of any starch you like (rice, bread, pancakes, whatever) or eat it on its own if you so desire.

Notes:
1Mylopharyngodon piceus

2I’ve translated junyu(鯶魚) as being grass carp, but if it is written as “軍魚” then the fish would be Spinibarbus caldwelli

3This fish soong is more similar to the commonly found dried meat product, rousong.

Fish 5: Dark Sleeper (土步魚)

In Hangzhou, dark sleepers1 are highly prized. Yet people in Jinling2 consider them worthless, and look upon them as tiger-headed snakes: with grotesque amusement. Its flesh is very tender and soft, and it can be pan-fried, boiled, or steamed. It can also be cooked with picked mustard3 as a remarkable delicate and delicious geng.

土步魚
杭州以土步魚為上品。而金陵人賤之,目為虎頭蛇,可發一笑。肉最鬆嫩。煎之、煮之、蒸之俱可。加醃芥作湯、作羹尤鮮。

Notes:
1Known in Chinese as “walking-on-ground fish”, the dark sleeper (Odontobutis obscura) is from the suborder containing gobies, many of which have an affinity to shallow river and lake shores. In fact, the mudskippers belong to it.  This rather large species of goby-like fish is known by its rather sinister sounding dormant monster/undercover spy name because of its ability to camouflage itself, changing its colour to a blackish blue hue to avoid predation.

2Jinling is the old name for Nanjing.

3Yanjie (醃芥) translates to marinated mustard, but considering the way it’s used in other recipes of the Suiyuan Shidan this is most likely the fermented and pickled mustards, known as suan cai (酸菜, “sour vegetable”). As such, it is better translated as pickled mustard. Suancai Yu (酸菜魚), is actually a relatively common method for preparing fish hroughout China.

Fish 4: Groupers

Groupers1 have few bones and are best when sliced and stir-fried. For stir-frying, the more thinly sliced the grouper’s flesh the better. Lightly season the fish with autumn sauce, then mix it with starch-powder and egg-white before putting it into the wok to stir-fry, adding the appropriate seasonings while stir-frying. The oil that should be used here is vegetable oil.

季魚
季魚少骨,炒片最佳。炒者以片薄為貴。用秋油細郁後,用縴粉、蛋清摟之,入油鍋炒,加作料炒之。油用素油。

 
Notes:
1The grouper in this section is referred to as jiyu (季魚) or as “鲫魚”. It is one of many species of groupers from the genus Epinephelus. It is also known more commonly as shibanyu (石班魚) or sometimes just banyu (班魚). The latter name should not be confused with the fish described in River Delicacies 5: Snakehead Fish (班魚).

Fish 3: Redfin Culter

The flesh of the redfin culter1 is the finest texture of all fish. It’s best when steamed with shad that has been cured in rice lees. It’s also very good lightly marinated during winter for two day in wine and its lees.

I once got a live culter just caught from the Yangzi and steamed it with wine, it was delicious beyond words.2 Culter goes best with wine lees but in should not be over-marinating since doing so turns its meat dry and hard.

白魚
白魚肉最細。用糟鰣魚同蒸之,最佳。或冬日微醃,加酒釀糟二日,亦佳。余在江中得網起活者,用酒蒸食,美不可言。糟之最佳,不可太久,久則肉木矣。

1 Baiyu (白魚) literally translates as “White fish”, which is a rather unfortunate and ambiguous name, given that the fish that are called such in Chinese are almost too numerous to count. But looking at the Herbal Medicine Classics of China, “white fish” is likely from “鲌” (《滇南本草》 from 140 years earlier than Compendium of Materia Medic, which was eventually also known as “鱎魚”《綱目》) all of them referring to scientific names used to indicate the Redfin culter. It certainly doesn’t help that this culter is known by numerous latin names, among them Erythroculter ilishaeformis and Culter alburnus. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Life, its accepted scientific name is actually Chanodichthys erythropterus.

2 Yuan Mei’s actual words on the flavours of the fish were meibukeyan (美不可言), or “so beautiful I could not describe/express it”, which is a lot to say considering someone with his skill in words.

Fish 2: Crucian carp

One needs a certain level of expertise to buy crucian carp.1 Choose individuals that are flatter and have whiter skin since they have tender and flaky flesh that falls off the bones when cooked. Rounder and darker skin crucian carp have thick and hard bones. The innards2 of the fish must not be consumed.

It is best to prepare it steamed in the manner of the White Amur Bream. It is also good eaten pan-fried. The flesh can also be removed to make geng. The people of Tongzhou3 can braise crucian carp such that its bones and its tail becomes biscuit tender, a dish which they call “Suyu” that is well suited to be eaten by a young child.4 Still it cannot compare to the steamed version which presents the fish’s true flavour.5

The carp from the Dragon pond of Liuhe6 are large and tender, which is rather incredible. When steaming, used wine, not water, and use a small amount of sugar to enhance its delicate savoury flavour. Adjust the quantity of autumn sauce and wine used according to the size of the fish.

鯽魚
鯽魚先要善買。擇其扁身而帶白色者,其肉嫩而鬆;熟後一提,肉即卸骨而下。黑脊渾身者,倔強磋枒,魚中之喇子也,斷不可食。照邊魚蒸法最佳。其次煎吃亦妙。拆肉下可以作羹。通州人能煨之,骨尾俱酥,號﹁酥魚﹂,利小兒食。然總不如蒸食之得真味也。六合龍池出者,愈大愈嫩,亦奇。蒸時用酒不用水,稍稍用糖以起其鮮。以魚之小大,酌量秋油、酒之多寡。

Notes:

1 Crucian carp (Carassius auratus) is exactly the same species as the modern goldfish but they had not been bred for prettiness. They are found wild in the waterways of China.

2 This is my translation of the term “lazi” (喇子), but I’m actually not sure what it actually is. My guess is maybe Yuan Mei is talking about the saliva, gills, or the contents of the fish’s gut. Or its innards perhaps?

3 Tongzhou (通州) is the name of several historical provinces and districts in China. Considering the recipe’s described techniques, it is likely Tongzhou_District,_Nantong

4 Looking at this description of “Suyu”, it could actually be an early variant of congshao jiyu (蔥燒鯽魚), whose preparation involves curing the fish with vinegar and braising the fish until its the bones and fins are tender enough to eat.

5 Saying Suyu can’t compare to the steamed natural version is quite like Yuan Mei, who previously complained in an earlier section (River Delicacies 1: Two Ways of Preparing Grenadier Anchovy) that fish prepared to the biscuit tender manner is terrible.

6 Dragon Pond in Liuhe District (六合區, 龍池) is an actual pond, still existent in the district of Liuhe. (coordinates: 32.3249065,118.8163633) Whether the fish there is still good is highly doubt-able.