To make home-styled pan-fried fish, one needs patience. Wash a fresh fish until clean, chop it into pieces, and marinade it with salt. Flatten each piece and pan-fry both their sides until golden brown, then add a good quantity of wine and autumn sauce and simmer slowly with a low flame. When it is close to done, finish by reducing the cooking liquid, ensuring that all the flavours from the seasoning have entered the fish.1
This recipe is only for preparing fish that is no longer alive.2 For live fish, it is best to cook it rapidly.3
1This is pretty much red-braised fish. This preparation would make the flesh of the fish a bit firmer than the usual methods of Chinese fish preparations, but it would also cover over any off smells from a less-fresh fish. Reading this recipe reminds me of three cup chicken.
2Fish are usually dead when being prepared in recipes, the statement here is for differentiating whether the fish is still alive at the moment just before preparation, or if it’s already dead-on-arrival.
3Yuan Mei’s comments in the the end allow us a bit of insight into the preferred preparations for fish. First, saying that this recipe is for cooking fresh dead fish while the previous fish recipes used only live fish points to an important difference in techniques used cooking “live fish” well and “dead fish” well. Second, saying that this recipe, which uses “dead fish”, is home-style may also imply that in most households it is uncommon to prepare fish dishes from live fish, be it due to convenience or for economy. Indeed, while the best tasting fish dishes use fish that is still alive and slaughtered just before cooking, the process is tedious and expensive. In most restaurant and in some home kitchens in Asia, slaughtering fish at home is still common, though a waning practice. Still, it all goes to show how much difference there is between Qing Dynasty Chinese and modern western (and even modern Chinese) ideas of preparing fish.
Remove the head and tail of a live black carp. Chop it into small square pieces, marinate it thoroughly with salt, and dry it in the wind. Pan-fry in a wok, add seasoning and reduce any juices from cooking. Next, stir-fry some sesame, toss with the fish, and serve. This is a Suzhou recipe.1
1 Two very different dishes can come from this recipe, all depending on how well dried the fish is. It is only lightly dried then it would feel more like a typical fish dish akin to the some of the likely dried chicken and pork dishes. However, if the fish was thoroughly dried, than this would be more a snack eaten for fun. Given that the fish is described as being more jerky-like (脯, lit. dried meat ), the latter is more likely the case. In fact, I bet the resulting food from this recipe would have been similar to the dried anchovies stir-fried in sweet and savoury seasonings served throughout East and South-East Asia. Ikan bilis represent!
During the summer, choose a white, clean, belt shad xiang1 and soak it in water for a day to remove its salty taste. Dry it under the sun and pan-fry with oil. When one side of the fish is golden brown, remove it from the pan. Place shrimp the side of the fish that that has not been fried, then put everything on a plate, add white sugar, and steam for a stick of incense’s duration in time until done. This dish is perfect for late summer.
1 Xiang is basically a salted dried fish similar to Western salt cod except in this case, it is made from leyu (勒魚, sometimes written as 鰳 with the “fish” character as root) or Ilisha elongata. In English, this long-ish fish is commonly known as “slender shad”. In the Chinese text “daizi lexiang” (帶子勒鯗, literally: belt slender shad xiang) probably refers to a particularly slender, long, and belt-like specimen of slender shad made into salted fish.
2 Xiazi le qian xiang (蝦子勒簽鯗) sounds cryptically poetic, if we listen to the Mandarin phonetics of this creatively it could be interpreted as: “The blind happily holds the elephant”. Reminds me of that Indian blind people and elephant story.
In the winter, salt a large common carp and then dry it. Cover it with wine lees, place in a earthenware jar, and seal the jar’s opening.1 Serve it in the summer. Do not use distilled liquors to prepare this dish, since it would have the harsh stinging of the liquor.2
1Somewhat similar to fish kasuzuke, though I’m not sure if the Japanese do this with dried fish as with this recipe.
2Buwu lawei (不無辣味) means “not lacking a spicy taste”, so I’ve gotten rid of the double negative. I’ve also translated the “spicy” part with “stinging” since that’s a more accurate description of the taste of distilled liquors.
There are many differences between good and bad Taixiang.1 That which comes from Songmen of Taizhou is the best, with its soft but savoury and rich tasting flesh. When the raw item is pulled to shreds by hand, it can be served directly as a side dish without cooking.
When braising with fresh pork, first wait until the pork has softened before adding the Taixiang, otherwise the Taixiang would have long melted away and no longer visible.2 When this dish is chilled, it becomes “xiang” aspic. This is a Shaoxing recipe.
1Taixiang is a type of salted dried fish, typically made of Large or Small Yellow Croaker, and much loved for its salty umami taste and pungent flavour.
2This feels almost like an a postscript of the Section on Pork Braised with Taixiang.
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.