Choose a large eel, remove its head and tail, and chop it into inch-long1 segments. First, fry them in sesame oil until thoroughly cooked and place them on the side. Take the tender tips of fresh chrysanthemum greens2 and stir-fry them until done, using the oil previously used to cook the eel. Next, place the eel on top of the greens, season, and braise them for one incense stick of time.3 The quantity of chrysanthemum greens used should be about half that of the eel.4
1I know, I know, the Chinese cun (寸) is not related to any of the Western inches. But it reads better.
2Tongcai (蒿菜), which is also known as tonghao (茼蒿) or the “edible chrysanthemum” in English, has a unique flavour that can be strangely addictive once you get used to it.
3Basically, the chrysanthemum greens are to be cooked until brown and mushy. There seems to be this dichotomy in Chinese vegetable cooking: it’s either done quickly over high heat, no more than a few minutes, or it’s deliberately cooked until brown and falling apart.
4By the time you finish reading this, you would have realized this dish is not any sort of fried food in the Western sense (and that appetizing header image is a total lie). Actually, it would be more accurate to call this “eel braised with chrysanthemum greens”. The initial frying is most likely there to form a seared layer on the eel and prevent it from disintegrating during the incense stick’s worth of cooking time. The reason for the name would have be a mystery except for diners in the know.
Braise the eel in wine and water until soft, adding sweet sauce instead of the usual autumn sauce.1 Reduce the broth, add fennel seeds and star anise, then plate it. There are three common errors when cooking this eel dish. First, the skin had become marked by wrinkles and folds, thus rendering it no longer tender. Second, its flesh falls apart in one’s bowl, making it impossible to pick up with chopsticks. Finally, when salted fermented beans2 are added too early when cooking, the eel’s flesh will no longer be tender. The household of Officer Zhu from Yangzhou is most skilled in making this dish. In general, red-cooked eel is best when its cooking juices are reduced, which allows the flavours to be fully absorbed into the flesh of the eel.
1Does Tianjiang (甜醬) refer to Tianmian Jiang (甜麵醬), or more like a sweeten soy sauce similar to Taiwanese thickened soy sauce (醬油膏)? While either could work taste-wise in the dish, I’m more inclined towards the latter since this would make the dish less muddy, which may be what Yuan Mei prefers.
2Yanchi (鹽豉) is likely the same as the fermented black bean (豆豉). It is referenced in the Han Dynasty texts.
*Header image (not the best quality) shows the Changji red braised eel (昌吉紅燒炖鰻) restaurant in Taipei. The eel is of course excellent, but the rest of the food is also very good, highly recommended if you’re there!
It is best to avoid cooking eel with its bones removed. The item is naturally fishy in smell, but one should not over manipulate or attempt to control it, lest we risk losing its natural character. Like Reeve’s shad, it should not be cooked without its scales.
To prepare it plain braised, take a river eel, wash away its slime, and chop it into inch long segments. Put them in an earthenware jar and braise with wine and water until soft. Add autumn sauce when it is ready to serve. One can also make a soup with it using newly preserved mustards prepared during winter, along with large amounts of green onion and ginger to rid the eel of its fishiness.
I also remember well that a certain official’s1 household braised it in thickening starch and mountain yam for a good dish. It can also be seasoned and directly place on a plate to steam without any added water. Official Jia Zhihua makes the best steamed eel. Add four units of soy sauce and six units of wine,2 making sure to use just enough broth to cover the body of the eel. The steaming time must be well judged and controlled, since over-steaming would cause the eel’s skin to wrinkle and its flesh to lose flavour.
鰻魚最忌出骨。因此物性本腥重，不可過於擺佈，失其天真，猶鰣魚之不可去鱗也。清煨者，以河鰻一條，洗去滑涎，斬寸為段，入磁罐中，用酒水煨 爛，下秋油起鍋，加冬醃新芥菜作湯，重用蔥、薑之類以殺其腥。常熟顧比部家用縴粉、山藥乾煨，亦妙。或加作料直置盤中蒸之，不用水。家致華分司蒸鰻最佳。 秋油、酒四六兌，務使湯浮於本身。起籠時尤要恰好，遲則皮皺味失。
1Bibu (比部) is an imperial government official. As for which individual he was speaking about it unclear.
2Cui (兌), which translate to “a unit” or “a weight”, is used here as an actual volume or weight to specify a certain ratio of wine and soy sauce to be added. The exact unit is uncertain, thought the lack of specificity may indicate it’s not overly important as long as the fish is covered with the wine and soy sauce mixture.
3Tangman (湯鰻) means “souped eel”, but it’s probably better translated as “eel with/in broth”.
Aquatic creatures that lack scales are significantly fishier in smell than their counterpart. Thus, they require much greater attention in their preparation. Their shortcomings can be overcome through the judicious use of ginger and cinnamon. The following is the list of “Aquatic Creatures without scales”.
1The character 魚 (yu2, “fish”) when used in the Chinese can refer to more than fish but to a wide range of non-fish aquatic creatures, many of which are scaleless. Though there are more than a few of these, the most prominent scale-less non-fish “fish” in Chinese cuisine is arguably the soft-shelled turtle, which is also commonly known as “armoured fish” (甲魚) .
In Huizhou1 they raise a small fish around two to three inches in length that is sold and delivered dried . Prepare them by adding wine, removing their skin, and placing them on top of a rice pot to steam. This dish, known as “Huangu fish” is very savoury and delicious.
1Huizhou (徽州) is the old name for the She Prefecture in Anhui province.
2It is unclear whether this is the name of the fish, the name of the dish, or both. In modern usage, Huanggu fish (黃姑魚, lit. “yellow maiden fish”) refers to Nibea albiflora, which is a relative of the Yellow croaker commonly known as the yellow drum. Smaller specimens of this fish are sold in dry form all around Zhejing and Anhui.
And yes, it’s summer here.
Our climate is officially “broken”.
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 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.