River Delicacies 1: Two Ways of Preparing Grenadier Anchovy (刀魚二法)

江鮮單::刀魚二法
刀魚用蜜酒釀、清醬,放盤中,如鰣魚法,蒸之最佳。不必加水。如嫌刺多,則將極快刀刮取魚片,用鉗抽去其刺。用火腿湯、雞湯、筍湯煨之,鮮妙絕倫。金陵人畏其多刺,竟油炙極枯,然後煎之。諺曰︰「駝背夾直,其人不活」。此之謂也。或用快刀,將魚背斜切之,使碎骨盡斷,再下鍋煎黃,加作料,臨食時,竟不知有骨,蕪湖陶大太法也。

Coilia grayii, yet another species of Grenadier Anchovy. Unlike most mentioned recipes in the Suiyuan Shidan, Grenadier Anchovy prepared using the Nanjing fried-to-dessication method is actually available in canned form at your local Chinese grocers. Problem is Yuan Mei mentions it in this section only to laugh at how poor a way it is for preparing this fish. Indeed, the canned product looks about as appetizing as deep-fried toenails, hence the use of this lovely illustration instead. (Credit: efishalbum.com, for all your fish picture needs)

List of River Delicacies::Grenadier anchovy
Grenadier anchovy[1] is best when cooked in the manner of shad: seasoned with sweet wine lees and light soy sauce then placed on a plate and steamed. One does not need to add water in preparing the dish. If one dislikes having to deal with fish bones, use a sharp knife to fillet the fish, then pull out the bones with tweezers. Simmer these fillets in a mixture of ham, chicken, and bamboo shoot broth, and one gets a incredibly delicious soup.

People in Nanjing do not wish to deal fish bones, so instead they bake the anchovies in oil until they are dried and shriveled and then pan-fry them more afterwards.[2] There is an adage that goes: “Straighten a humpbacked person’s back and you’ll surely kill him”, which quite suitably describes this method for cooking Grenadier anchovy. Tao Datai from the city of Wuhu has another way of preparing this fish. A sharp knife is used to obliquely slice down the back of each grenadier anchovy to sever their bones. They are then pan-fried until golden brown and seasoned with the proper condiments when done. One would be hard-pressed to feel any bones when eating anchovies prepared so.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: A quick search of daoyu (刀魚, lit. knife fish) will reveal that the name used to refer to at least half a dozen types of fish. Many of them, like the popular Pacific saury (秋刀魚) or one of the many types of beltfish do not fit the bill here, not only because they are saltwater fish but also because they have bones that are far too thick and coarse to be “tamed” using the methods described here. As such, we have to assume that the fish described is actually the Coilia genus of anchovies that swim in the Yangtze River, either Coilia ectenes, also known as the Japanese grenadier anchovy, Coilia macrognathos, the Longjaw grenadier anchovy also known as the Yangtze dao fish 长江刀鱼, or Coilia mystus. All three anchovies are also known as Phoenix tail fish (鳳尾魚) or simply as daoyu (刀魚).

[2]: In this section, we have “2 ways for preparing grenadier anchovies” and not 3, because this is mention only to make fun of people from Nanjing. Although mocked by Yuan Mei here, this preparation is actually quite similar to that of a rather tasty dish known as “congshao jiyu” (蔥燒鯽魚, lit. scallion braised crucian-carp), whose preparation involves first soaking the fish in vinegar, followed by a long deep-frying, then stewing in a vinegar sauce. The result of this preparation is fish that can be eaten like a think piece of Scottish shortbread, with its head, bones, flesh and all crumbling and melting in one’s mouth; the ultimate lazy diner’s fish dish. This should be available at any good Shanghai cuisine restaurant though one may have to order ahead of time.

[3]: I wonder if “regular” anchovies are any good cooked this way.

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River Delicacies: Introduction (江鮮單:開篇)

江鮮單::開篇
郭璞「江賦」魚族甚繁。今擇其常有者治之。

List of River Delicacies[1]::Introduction
Guo Pu’s [2] work “Endowments of the river” provides an exhaustive list of fish species. However, here I will only mention the more common ones.

Random notes:
[1]: Although I surrendered and went with “Seafoods” instead of “Ocean delicacies” in the last chapter, I’m not going to consider “Riverfoods” as the translation of the title in this chapter. First, it does not capture the meaning of the phrase. Second, it sounds lame. Since this chapter is really about several delectably edible river creatures, “River Delicacies” is far more fitting.

[2]: Guo Pu was an ancient scholar from Jin Dynasty China aronud 300AD

Seafoods 9: Oysters (蠣黃)

海鮮單::蠣黃
蠣黃生石子上。殼與石子膠粘不分。剝肉作羹,與蚶、蛤相似。一名鬼眼。樂清、奉化兩縣土產,別地所無。

Boiled oysters drying on a wire frame. These can be cooked in dishes of braised pork or filled in zongzi, lending its incredible umami to any dish in which it partakes. (Credit: Tksteven)

List of Seafoods::Oysters
Oysters grow with their shells stuck fast to rocks, making them particularly difficult to dislodge. After being shucked, they can be cooked as a thick soup [1] in the same manner of cockles and clams. Known also as “ghost eyes”[2], oysters can only be found in the two prefectures of Liqing and Fenghua and nowhere else.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: Cooking oysters as a “geng” (thick soup) is one of my favorite ways of eating them.

[2]: I wonder why it also has this strange name. Perhaps it’s because boiled oyster plump up into an eyeball shape and looks weird enough to be ghost-like? To be honest, I don’t even know why this section is called “li huang” (蠣黃), which translates to “Oyster yellow”. I get the oyster part, but where does the yellow come from?

[3]: In Chinese cuisine, Oysters are found in both fresh and dried form. The former is common around coastal regions while the latter is available in most parts of China and in Chinese dried food stores (海味乾貨) all around the world. I don’t know why Yuan Mei states that oysters can only be found in the two prefectures when fact is it can grow anywhere. Perhaps Liqing and Fenghua were the only places in Qing dynasty that cultivated oysters?

Seafoods 8: Scallops (江瑤柱)

海鮮單::江瑤柱
江瑤柱出寧波,治法與蚶、蟶同。其鮮脆在柱,故剖殼時多棄少取。

An open scallop, still alive, its heart beating. That delicious translucent cylindrical pillar of muscle is scooped out and sold. The rest of the scallop is much less palatable and is usually tossed. (Credit: Kevjonesin)

List of Seafoods::Scallop
Scallops[1] come from Ningbo and should be prepared in the same manner as cockles [2] and razor clams [3]. The most delicious and crisp portion of the scallop is the central “pillar”. Thus when shucking scallop, one will be throwing away most of it and keeping only this small portion.

Random notes:
[1]: The Chinese name of scallop in its dried and fresh form is jiang yaozhu, which means the “precious jade pillar of the river”; a poetic and evocative name. It is also commonly known in some Chinese languages and provinces as ganbei or conpoy, which means “dried shellfish”; a lot less poetic. The fresh scallops commonly found in Western supermarkets are delectable, but well made dried scallops are much so much richer in taste and can be mind blowingly good. The difference between the two is like eating a fresh hind-leg of pork versus a well cured Iberian ham. In short, there is no comparison.

[2] Cockles, that ridge shelled shellfish

[3] The oblong razor shell

Seafoods 7: Cuttlefish roe (烏魚蛋)

海鮮單::烏魚蛋
烏魚蛋最鮮,最難服事。須河水滾透,撤沙去臊,再加雞湯、蘑菇煨爛。龔雲若司馬家制之最精。

Illustration of matured and deposited cuttlefish egg sacs. The edible cuttlefish roe is a milky white egg bearing organ directly removed from the animal. Google for better images. (Credit: Adolphe Millot, 1857-1921)

List of Seafoods::Cuttlefish roe
Cuttlefish roe [1] is very tasty but also rather difficult to prepare. One needs to throughly boil it using river water to remove any sand and rid it of its stench. After that it must be simmered with chicken broth and mushrooms until tender. Marshall[2] Gong Yunruo’s household prepares this dish very well.

Random notes:
[1]: At first I thought the roe being referred to in this section was Mullet roe (烏魚子). In Yuan Mei’s time, the cuttlefish may have been known as “wuyu” (烏魚, lit. dark-fish) but it is now more commonly known as “moyu” (墨魚, lit. ink-fish). Thank goodness for Google search in helping me catch this error. That being said Taiwanese cured mullet roe (wuyuzi, 烏魚子), known in English by its Japanese name “Karasumi“, is absolutely incredible. Om nom nom nom.

[2]: Sima (司馬) is an ancient military position in charge of marshalling horses for war with the characters meaning “in-charge of horses”. It’s interesting that the English military/law-enforment positions Marshal (Frankish mare (“horse”) + skalkoz (“servant”)) and Constable (Latin comes (“count”) + stabuli (“stable”)) also have similar roots. As well, like Marshal, Sima is also used as a surname.

Seafoods 6: Whitebait (海蝘)

海鮮單::海蝘
海蝘,寧波小魚也,味同蝦米,以之蒸蛋甚佳。作小菜亦可。

Fresh sardine whitebait from the coasts of Italy. Chinese whitebait is almost always sold in dried form. Both are incredibly delicious. (Credit: Elisa Prato)

List of Seafoods::Whitebait[1]
Whitebait are small dried fish from Ningpo.[2] Their flavours are similar to dried shrimp and are very good in steamed egg.[3] When prepared well they also make excellent side dishes.[4]

Random notes:
[1]: Known as haiyan (海蝘) or “sea geckos”, which matches the visual description of these tiny translucent silvery speckled fish. Nowdays they are called haiting (海蜓), which translates as “sea dragonfly”. In any case, both sound way better than the unappetizing term “whitebait”. Truth be told, I was tempted to go with the Italian term for this food, “bianchetti”, since any thing with an Italian name seems to sounds sophisticated, exotic, and possibly delicious to the Western ear. Well, give it to the English to ruin yet another food by name.

[2]: Ningbo, a coastal city of Zhejiang. Renown for seafood in China and throughout Chinese history.

[3]: Only if they are small (~2-3mm in body width), the large kinds (>4mm) are better stir-fried to make side dishes or snacks for drinks.

[4]: I really like to eat these things, especially the tiny ones. All you have to do is stir-fry them dry and eat them with rice as a topping. Simply incredible. Problem is, eating fish fry and fishing them possibly one of the most destructive things on can do to a fish population and their local ecology. I mean, what better way is there to wipe-out a species by eating all its childern before they reach reproductive age? Given the state of our environment now, I can’t find it in me to go eat this anymore even though a part of me craves it. I bet this is how vegans feel sometime.

Seafoods 5: Mussels (淡菜)

海鮮單::淡菜
淡菜煨肉加湯,頗鮮,取肉去心,酒炒亦可。

Mussels out of the shell, not dried or cooked, but whatever (Credit: Alina Zienowicz)

List of Seafoods::Mussels
Braising pork with dried mussels in broth produces a dish with incredible umami. Remove the innards of the mussel and one can make a good wine flavoured stir-fry with the reserved flesh [1].

Random notes:
[1]: I’m a bit unsure about this translation. The text goes “take the flesh and remove the core” (取肉去心), which can be interpreted in two ways. In the first interpretation, the phrase “take the flesh” is repeated in “remove the core” to indicate that the soft edible meat of the mussel should be taken out of its shell. But if you read it another way, it can be interpreted as taking the flesh from the mussels and remove the core from that lump of flesh, which contain the stomach, intestines, gonads, and innards of the mussel. Given that dried mussels are sold without shell, I’m going with the second interpretation.