When icefish1 are freshly caught from the water, they are known as “savoriness of ice”. Braise them in chicken broth with dried-cured ham. Alternatively, stir-fry them for a more tender fish. For the dried item, soak them in water until soft. They make a good dish when stir-fried with diluted soy sauce.2
1Although the direct translation of the Chinese name is the somewhat ambiguous “silver fish”, the fact that Yuan Mei indicates this fish looks like ice tells use that it is most likely Salanx prognathus or Salanx chinensis, one of the species among a genus of Asian “ice fish”. These fish are quite interesting in that the adults retain much of the features present in a fish’s larval or juvenile stages. They are small, translucent, largely cartilaginous, and look amazingly like whitebait (and sometimes mistaken as such). They are also sometimes known as “noodle fish” since its form and texture resemble the small thick rice noodles. It goes to show that when you think you’ve seen all the wonders of nature, nature throws living rice noodles your way.
2I’m not sure what is jiangshui (醬水), or “watered sauce”. Could it soysauce and water or diluted soysauce, or just liquid extracted from a wet bean sauce? Either way it’ll likely taste like the former, hence the translation.
Chop a live black crap into large pieces, sear the pieces in oil, then add soy sauce, vinegar, and spray with wine. The more broth in the dish the better. When it is done immediately remove everything from the pan. This dish is most famously prepared by Hangzhou West Lake’s Wuliuju.1 But ever since they started using an ill-smelling soy sauce, the fish served there is now inedible. What a pity!
The fame of Songsao Fish Geng2 is not warranted at all. The discussions in “Menglianglu” should also not be believed.3 The chosen fish must not be big, since the flavours will not penetrate into a big fish. The chosen fish must also not be small, since small fish tend to have more spiny bones.
1Wuliuju translates to the “house of five willows”
2The famed fish geng by Madamn Song, consists of fish in small pieces and cooked in a thick and rich soup punctuated by vinegar. I guess Yuan Mei did not think much of it.
3Menglianglu (夢粱錄), or “Records on Dreams of Millet” was written in Song Dynasty by Wu Zimu (吳自牧). As for what contents in the work were considered untrustworthy by Yuan Mei, I am not sure.
Pan-fry a large silver carp until done, add tofu, spray on soy sauce, water, green onion, wine, and then let everything come to a boil. When the colour of the soup has turn slightly red in hue1, it is ready to be served. The flavours from the fish’s head is incredibly good. This is a Hangzhou dish. The amount of soy sauce to be used here is proportional to the size of the fish
1 I’m not sure what turns this soup slightly red/pink. Perhaps the heme from the fish’s flesh leaks out during the cooking process and somehow does not get denatured by the cooking heat?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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)
- 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
- Place fish fillet into a pan at medium heat and let it cook until the flesh starts to flake.
- Flake the fillet thoroughly
- Add salt, sugar, the juices, and stir them into the flaked fish
- 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.
- Repeat step 4.
- When the fish is quite fluffy and dry with a light brown toasted colour, add the sesame seeds and stir for another 3 minutes.
- Let cool and seal in a airtight jar
- Serve on top of any starch you like (rice, bread, pancakes, whatever) or eat it on its own if you so desire.
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.
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.
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.