Things to Avoid 14: Sloppiness (戒苟且)


List of Things to Avoid::Sloppiness
Sloppiness should not be tolerated for any task, including matters of gastronomy. Cooks are uncultured people of lowly up-bringing, thus if one does not properly reward or punish them, they will begin taking short-cuts and become negligent of their culinary duties.[1] Should you willingly ingest the barely cooked vegetables you were served today, you can be sure it will be served raw to you tomorrow. If you hold your tongue when you are served ruined food, then the dishes served next time will be thrown together even more carelessly.[2] Continued tolerance of such behaviors in a cook would eventually render any future attempts at rewards and punishments useless.

Dishes that were well executed should be identified and praised. Conversely, dishes that were done poorly should be investigated and interrogated upon. The standards of flavours in a dish must be stringently upheld and deviations must not be allowed. Likewise, the length and intensity of the heat for preparing a dish must never be left to the whims of the cook but be explicitly prescribed. Cooks that take short-cuts and diners that do not care; such are the factors that are detrimental to food and cuisine.[3]

Interrogation, introspection, and understanding; these are the principles of building knowledge. Timely advice to a student and lessons that sufficiently challenging; such are principle of being a teacher.[4] Should this not also be true for cuisine?

Random notes:

[1]: The literati did not have a very high opinion of their cooks back then, a clear case of class discrimination. That being said, modern Chinese cooks had refined their shortcut taking skill to such an extent, that in the process of ruining their own cuisines, their more hideous creations eventually morphed into some of the most well known Western Chinese dishes (many examples in American Chinese cuisine and Canadian Chinese cuisine).

[2]: This is why the quality of “ethnic” foods in a town quickly go down the drain when there are not enough people of that ethnicity/culture to demand the same standards and quality. For instance, Montreal has a lot of Chinese restaurants because the local populations have demands for it. However, there are insufficient Chinese people in Montreal to demand better and many times more clientele who are willing to shovel down the fried crap sweet goopy sauce that they are served. A new Chinese restaurant in Montreal that began with serving food that examplify the clean constrasting flavour and textures found in Chinese cuisine quickly degrades to pouring out buckets of that sweet greasy mess, which many North Americans would call “Chinese food”. This process is frighteningly rapid. There was a Sichuanese restaurant that used to be on Rene Levesque across from the SNC Lavalin building that my then fiance and I loved to eat at. So much so, that we decided to book them for our wedding. Eight months later, we were served a meal that was so terrifyingly bad that it was forever etched into my mind. It would have been only slightly worse if they had just served us soy sauce and syrup mixed with grease.

[3]: Contemporary General Tso Chicken is the unholy love-child of these two factors. We need a brave chef to retransform this dish back into something edible.

[4]: I like this philosophy: The diners and critics are the teachers for the chef, providing guidance and introducing challenges to them such that they can grow and develop.


Things to Avoid 13: Muddiness (戒混濁)


List of Things to Avoid::Muddiness
Just because a dish is muddy and turbid doesn’t mean that its texture will be thick and unctuous. Soups that resemble silted water from an agitated barrel; broths with the colour of grey liquids left in a dyeing vat; neither of them have appearances and flavours that anyone could enjoy.[1] The way to rescue turbid and muddy dishes is as follows: rise all the solid ingredients well, prudently adjust the amount of seasonings, add the right quantities of water, cook at the right heat, and correct the salty and sourness of the food. Most importantly, the resulting dish should not coat the mouth of the diner with that unpleasent filmy feeling.[2] Yuxin in poetry stated: “Those who tremble lack inner strength. Those with confused characters have vulgar hearts”, which perfectly described the character of such dishes.

Random notes:

[1]: Maybe it just the difficulty of getting back into translating, but I found this string of sentences really difficult to do. The more literal translation goes something like: “A soup, neither black or white, like water stired up from a tank. A brine/soy-sauce broth, neither light nor greasy, like the slurry poured out from a dyeing vat. Such appearances and flavours are hard to bear.” I started out with this (more poetic?) translation but I ended up with the above. I’m not sure if it was for better or for worse. Expect a rewrite in the future

[2]: Like chewing on a banana peel. The American Chinese food place in the food court of my hospital serves a “Honey Garlic Chicken” that does this. I think it’s the grease that they use tha just coats the sides of your cheeks and tongue while having this taste that in Taiwanese we call “ga-ga”; a more agressive taste than “gam”.

[3]: From YuXin, from the Northern Song, in his poem Niyonghuai (擬詠懷). I think here it is used to indicate that a dish must not be turbid in order to have impact and character in both appearance and flavour.

Real life takes over…again

Who in the world would willingly move apartments three times in a year? Me, I guess. Hopefully this is the last time for a long while.

Regardless, translation is on a stand-still due to the craziness of the on-going move and the fact that the ISP technician will not show up for another week.

So bear with me as I relocate myself from one TTC accessible intersection in Toronto to another. Once I can breath, I’ll post the soon-to-be-finished translation. Only 2 more sections in the “Things to Avoid” Chapter until we get the the recipes part of the Suiyuan Shidan. Exciting!

Things to Avoid 12: Cliché (戒落套)


List of Things to Avoid::Cliché
Tang poetry is esteemed to be the pinnacle of classical poetry, yet it is seldom referred or quoted by famous Tang-style poets.[1] Why? Due its popular widespread use, the material has become hopelessly cliché.[2] If this can be true with poetry, it can also be so for gastronomy.

In today’s Court Cuisine, one too often hears of ostentatious references to “sixteen dishes, eight vessels[3], and four side-dishes”, the “Manchurian-Han banquet”, the “eight small delicacies”[4], or the “ten great dishes”. These hackneyed categories stem from the vulgar habits of bad chefs. Displays this trite are useful only for welcoming new relations through one’s gates or when the boss comes to visit. They serve as perfunctory acts of duty; mere decorations to be set alongside tables and chairs draped in embroideries, fine ornamental screens, and embelished incense platforms.[5] Of course, all this is to be accompanied by one’s endless bowing as required by custom.

If one is having a celebratory banquet at one’s abode, where the grand meal will be interwoven with prose, poetry, and fine wine, how could one feel comfortable hosting it in manner as trite as those mentioned above? When feasting with close friends and kin, the food need to be assembled together in joyous disarray of dishes and bowls such that an intimate air of refinement is brought to the meal.

Birthday and wedding banquets at my abode tend to become rather large affairs that gather enough guests to easily fill five or six tables. On these occasions, outside cooks need to be hired, which inevitably leads the food to become the aforementioned sad and ostentatious displays. However, if the hired cooks are in fact skilled and experienced, capable of preparing the dishes to my specifications, then the resulting food is quite something else altogether.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: In Chinese it says something like “experts of the Wuyan-Bayun style”, but I’ve decided to translate it as “Tang-style poets” and not transliterate it as “Wuyan-Bayun”. I think it makes it easier to read and the sentence more logical. Wuyan-Bayun literally translates to “five sylabels, eight rhyme poetry” and is an East Asian poetic form consisting of eight lines with five sylable each. originating and popular in the Tang dynasty. It is also known as the Imperial Examination poetic form (試帖詩) due to it’s use in the Chinese imperial examinations over several dynastic periods.

[2]: This is like Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which has been played so often as background in elevators worldwide that it has lost all impact. We aren’t even accounting for the fact that it’s probably the most commonly butchered piece by kids learning piano. I for one can no longer listen to it without feeling both irritated and slightly nauseated.

[3]: I’ve translated 簋 (gui) as “vessel”. The “Gui” are a type of ceremonial vessels used in Ancient China from the 11th Century BCE up until Zhou dynasty. An “Eight Gui” dinner is probably a rather pompous affair.

[4]: Although commonly (mis)translated as “snack”, xiaochi (小吃) in Chinese cuisine is more of a small quick-to-eat dish or meal-in-a-bowl, than a snack in the modern Western sense. Something like a hot-dog or poutines would be more akin to xiaochi in Chinese cuisine than a bag of crisps or cheesies. In the context of Imperial Court cuisine, “eight xiaochi” is not likely to be eight small snacks but more like 8 small delicacies, hence the translation.

[5]: In modern Chinese society, these things are brought out during days of worship, like the Taiwanese “大拜拜” (da-bai-bai) day where ancestors and deities are venerated. When I hear “da-bai-bai”, my head immediately fills with images of these tables with embroideries, food piled high on tables, gigantic incense burners fumigating temple courtyards, and throngs of people extruding themselves through the temple gates. These are loud, extravagant, and ritual-filled events. It suffices to say that they are INTENSE.

[6]: Here, Yuan Mei excuses himself from any clichéd banquets he may have hosted. The problem lies with those bad chefs he had to hire, not him. Uh huh…sure.

Translating the Name

There are many ways of translating 隨園食單 to its “English equivalent”. In fact, there are enough permutations that it is helpful to have table to keep track of things. Even better, by using this table you can roll your own translation.

Choose a word from each column from left to right and see what you get.

隨園 食單
Suiyuan Shidan
Sui Garden Cookbook
Contentment Recipes List
Leisure Cookery manual

If you don’t like the sound of “Sui Garden Cookery List” just flip it around to make it: “Cookery list of Sui Garden”. Do so recursively and get “List of Cookery of the Garden of Sui”. It’s bucket-loads of fun!

Things to Avoid 11: Rendering Fat (戒走油)


List of Things to Avoid::Rendering Fat
Although ingredients such as fish, pork, chicken, and duck can be rather fatty, it is imperative that most of this fat be retained within the meat itself and not be allowed to render out into the cooking stock to prevent its flavour from being diluted.[1] If this fat becomes rendered,[2] what flavour the meat contained would have been leached into the stock. There are three bad cuilinary practices that result in fat being rendered from meat: first, the cooking heat was too high and extra water had to be added to restore the amount of cooking liquid in the food. Second, the cooking heat was turned-off only to be resumed again later after a long pause. And finally, an impatient cook who continually checks the doneness of cooking food, resulting in the pan’s lid being opened numerous times throughout the process, which inevitably leads to the rendering of fat from the meat.[3]

Random notes:
[1]:If you managed to cook the fat out of a chuck of meat, it has probably become tough and dry, not to mention the meat would taste rather bland. It would be like eating meat after it’s been used to make stock. That and you have to deal with a pool of fat on the surface of the dish. I found the content of this and the following sentence a bit repetitive in Chinese, and as such I modified it to talk more about preventing dissipation of flavour caused by rendering while the next sentence talks about the transfer of flavour caused by rendering.

[2]: The intramuscular fat in meat makes it tasty and juicy. THE reason to eat Kobe beef or most highly marbled meats rare or very lightly cooked.

[3]: Large temperature fluctuations cause rendering of fats, I guess.

Things to Avoid 10: Imposition (戒強讓)


List of Things to Avoid::Imposition
A banquet host extends his courtesy and generosity towards his guests by providing them with good food. But once the food is laid out on the table, the guests should be allowed to choose whatever food they fancy, regardless of whether it is refined, oily, cut in chunks, or chopped into bits. A person of reason attends to the preferences of his guests, therefore, why would he wish to impose his own?[1]

It is all too common to see an annoying host endlessly piling food up on their guest’s dishes and bowls until they overflow.[2] It is not as if these guests are missing their hands or eyes, nor are they young children or new brides graciously holding back out of modesty, so why would a host emulate something done by crass old dames from the countryside? In doing so, they play a poor host by deliberately ignoring the wishes of their guests! Recently, I have seen even more despicable manners, where a host would go so far as violating his guests’ person by insistently shoving chopsticks-full of food into their mouths![3]

In Chang-an there was a man who loved entertaining guests but tended to serve rather mediocre food at his banquets. During an occasion, one of his guests asked: “Are we good friends?” to which the man replied “Of course!”. The guest then knelt down, begging: “If we are indeed good friends, then I have a request to make and will not stand until you agree to it.” Astonished the man asked: “What is it?”, to which the guest replied: “In the future when you host banquets, I beg you to not invite me.” There were roars of laughter all around as they all sat down.

Random notes:
[1]: I admit I’m guilty of this. Things I’ve uttered include: “Drink this soup while it’s still hot!”, “Don’t order that! This is better!”, “You MUST try this chicken! NOW.”, etc.

[2]: These is quite common in Chinese get-togethers. While it is one way in which a Chinese person shows another their good will or endearment, those of us not of fully immersed in Chinese culture growing up (yours truly included) may find this a touch annoying, even in limited doses.

[3]: Let’s hope this never ever gets resurrected.