Seafoods 2: Three Ways of Preparing Sea Cucumbers (海參三法)


List of Seafoods::Three Ways of Preparing Sea Cucumbers
As an ingredient, sea cucumbers have little to no taste, are full of sand, and are remarkably fishy in smell. For these reasons, it is also the most difficult ingredient to prepare well.

This is a classic preparation of sea cucumber, braising with shitake. Looking at this makes me so so hungry. (Photo Credit: avixyz)

Due to its heavy and thick texture, sea cucumbers should never be cooked in mild and delicate soups. For the small spiked sea cucumber [1], one must first soak it in water [2] and remove all the mud and sand embedded in the item. It must then be boiled three times in meat broth and then simmered in chicken and pork extracts with soy sauce until supple and soft. One should use shitake or wood-ear mushrooms [3] as supporting ingredients to sea cucumber since their colours match well. If one is entertaining guests the next day, preparations for the sea cucumbers must be started immediately since it needs to be simmered for an entire day in order for it to be soft enough to eat.

In the summer, Observer Qian’s abode[4] serves an exceptionally good salad of shredded sea cucumber tossed with a ground mustard and chicken extract dressing, or soups of finely cubed sea cucumber with cubed bamboo shoots and cubed shitake mushrooms in chicken broth. In the abode of Assistant Minister Jiang [5] they serve a dish made with simmered tofu sheets, chicken thighs, and mushrooms with sea cucumbers that is also very good.

Random note:
[1]: Apostichopus japonicus. These are popular for individual servings due to their smaller size. But for more gourmets, Holothuria fuscogilva, known as the “white teatfish”, is more alluring due to the thickness of its gelatinous flesh. The thickness criteria for quality extends to squid and cuttlefish. There is nothing better than biting into thick slice of fresh grilled squid simply seasoned with olive oil and salt, like they do in Valencia, Spain.

[2]: Sea cucumbers, the “Ginseng of the oceans” (海參), are almost never sold fresh and any “fresh” sea cucumbers should be suspect. When dried they are hard as a rock and a bit heavy for its size. Check-out this site for pictures. Yes, by many people’s standards they look far from appetizing, but note too that by many people’s standards a moldy spoiled chunk of coagulated milk is also rather disgusting.

[3]: Shitake and woodear. Delicious.

[4]: For a while I had no idea what was “錢觀察家”. Roughly translated it means: “Person/family in a profession that watches money”. Accountant? Money handler? Treasurer? Financier? Little did it occur to me tha perhaps “錢” could have been a last name. So, 錢觀察家 should actually be translated as “Observer Qian’s abode”. Go figure.

[5]: Jiang was also famous for his eponymous tofu dishes the “Assistant Minister Jiang Tofu” (蒋侍郎豆腐)


Seafoods 1: Bird’s Nest (燕窩)


List of Seafoods::Bird’s Nest
Bird’s Nest is an a precious ingredient and should not be used trivially. If one wishes to serve bird’s nest, each bowl must contain at least 2 liang [1] of the ingredient, prepared by first soaking it in boiled rain-water and any dark strands or debris removed with a needle. It must then be boiled in stock made by combining the broths made from tender chickens, good ham, and new mushrooms until the bird’s nest takes-on the tone and clarity of jade. Note that bird’s nest is extremely delicate [2] in flavour and must not be prepared with anything oily. Its soft and elegant texture also necessitates that is never combined with foods that are firm or aggressive in taste. People today like to serve bird’s nest with shredded pork and chicken. In doing this they are only tasting shredded chicken and pork, not bird’s nest.

Mo’ money mo’ problems? Easily solved. Just eat it away. Three pieces of bird’s nest of the quality in the image, each only about size of two small fingers, will set you back around $150 Canadian dollars. Easily. (Photo Credit:Reforma.imufomot)

In a futile effort to feint wealth, some host would scatter 3 qian [3] of raw birds nest as a thin facade on top of a bowl of soup. One could have picked them out like wisps of grey hair. [4] These shreds of birds’ nest immediately disappear when a guest stirs their bowl, revealing it full of only base ingredients. Like the ruse of a beggar child pretending to be rich, they only reveal how poor they actually were.

If for whatever reason one must add anything else to the bird’s nest soup, use shredded mushrooms [5], shredded bamboo shoot tips, fish maw, or slices of pheasant breast. During my visit to Yangmingfu, Guandong I had an incredibly good winter melon and birds’s nest soup. It was richly flavoured with only chicken and mushroom extracts, with the soft textures and delicate flavours of the two main ingredients matching each other superbly.

Bird’s nest should always jade coloured and translucent, but never opaque white. Those who make bird’s nest into balls and pound it into powder are doing nothing but forced and exaggerated interpretations of the ingredient.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: About 75 g

[2]: I had been struggling with how to translate 清 (qing). In the past I used “light”, “clear”, and “mild”, or a combination of them but none have felt completely correct. However I think I now have found a satisfactory English translation for this; one that gives the essence of this culinary term both the right meaning and feel: “delicate”. A few years ago, I had a clear cucumber soup that exemplified qing. The broth was clear, devoid of fat and not overburdened by umami. The mature cucumber gave the soup a slightly sour edge. The delicate elegance of the soup somehow calmed the clamor of the restaurant despite one being perfectly aware of it, like a petal floating in a rippleless puddle. Similar to how great French chefs of past elevated the lowly Coq-au-Vin, the chef that crafted this soup managed to take a rather unremarkable, homely peasant dish and transform it into a transcendental work of art. Drinking it was possibly as close as one could get to imbibing a physical bowl of Zen.

[3]: About 13g

[4]: May have come from the phrase “白髮數莖”?

[5]: At first I thought 蘑菇 (mogu), a loose term translating to “mushroom”, would mean shitake, but that does not make sense since the dark skin of shitake would clash with the birds nest. Sure enough Yuan Mei referred to shitake as 香蕈 (xiangxun) in other parts of the manual. This leaves one thinking what mushroom he was talking about here. My guess is a common white colour mushroom such as Coprinus comatus (Shaggy mane young/known as chicken drumstick mushroom) or Pleurotus eryngii (a thick fleshed oyster mushroom/”king oyster”杏鮑菇). Note, I may be wrong.

[6]: If your culinary experiment over-strech the “capabilities” of your ingrediants, don’t try to serve to your guests.

Seafoods: Introduction (海鮮單:開篇)


List of Seafoods::Introduction[1]
The Eight Delicacies referred to by the Ancients made no mention of seafoods.[2] A failure to do so today would be contrary to modern tastes and offend the masses.

Random notes:
[1]: We’re finally here! The first section of recipes of Suiyuan Shidan! One year ago, I had doubts that I would have the stamina to push forwards to this point but thanks for everyone’s support it proved quite fun. I’m looking forwards to making some good progress with it this year. On the translation side of this, I think I’m less sure of calling this chapter “seafood”. Fact is the ingredients in the sections are really delicacies either from the sea or imported from overseas, in calling them seafood one would lose this idea. Maybe “Ocean delicacies”? Or just “Delicacies”?

[2]: Bazhen, has been also translated as “Eight treasures”, and today always includes seafood products. Is there such an “Eight treasure tofu pot” (八珍豆腐堡) without either shrimp or squid?

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.