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.
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.
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).
Today, a small detour from the regular content: a gem of a piece of poetry by Taiwanese writer and poet, Ling Yu (零雨).
To me this poem evokes the experience of so many Chinese that have left our families and former homelands to pursue a dream on the other side of the Pacific. Here our cultural identities, habits, and thoughts slowly faded away, being washed and bleached to faint imprints and shadows.
Then one day, by accident, we rediscover pieces of our past like bits driftwood washing up on the beach. It is only then the we frantically try to reclaim and reconstruct our lost identities. As we are left wondering how we could have unwittingly abandoned all of these memories and emotion through the hurried blur of our lives, we find ourselves nurturing the next generation in our rather bewildered state, for whatever is to come.
The Pacific – Ling Yu
Losing ourselves, in the ocean. Carrying the entirety of
Our scattered fragments. Coursing towards the East. To that Promised-land
Emotions. Beliefs. Memories. Slowly distancing themselves.
At that time, we allowed our tears to fall in torrents. Trivial,
In the surging currents of the ocean. And we turn.
One day, we will turn. To welcome that which has drifted over from the other side.
Emotions. Beliefs. Memories. Riding that feeling
Of exhilaration. Causing our blood to re-emerge anew. Surprised at how
Surreptitiously, we gave away that moment. How. That moment
Had been forgotten through time.
I too have a child.
You are in my bosom
太平洋 – 零雨
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.
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.