Things to Avoid 5: Exaggeration (戒穿鑿)


List of Things to Avoid::Exaggeration[1]
Each ingredient has its own innate characteristics, which are best shown off using a specific set of culinary techniques. One must not be “force” an ingredient using techniques that exaggerate or overextend these characteristics. Bird’s nest is delectable the way it is, so why would one wish to pound and shape it into balls? [2] Sea cucumbers are fine in their original forms, so why would one wish to turn it into a sauce? One knows that sliced watermelon quickly loses its delicate freshness if left out too long, yet some would go so far as to process it into cakes and pastries. Similarly, overripe apples lose their crispness, yet there are those who would steam and dry them.

Then there are the pastries such as the Qiuteng Bing, described in Gao Lian’s “Zunsheng Bajian”, and the Yulan Gao described by Li Liweng, [3] all of them examples of ingredients forcefully bent and twisted out of their normal character. It would be as if one tried to make cups and bowls out of willow twigs; a rather sorry and futile exercise. If a person of earnest virtue and manner can attain sainthood on their own at home, why would they wish to hide this fact? [4]

Random notes:
[1]: There must be a better term than “exaggeration” or “over-extension” here. The idea is that an ingredient should not be “coerced” into dishes or forms that do not suit it’s nature. The analogy in people is like dressing a prudish accountant up like a rapper with sagging pants; it’s so out-of-place that it’s painful to look at. Suggestions welcome.

[2]: Watch the (original) Iron Chef episode on Bird’s Nest where Chen Kenichi battles Li Junlun. Some of the bird’s nest dishes looked pretty good, but most of them makes you go WTF.

[3]: Qiuteng Bing translates to something like “Wisteria biscuits” while Yulan Gao to “Magnolia cake”. Airs of pretense surround the names of these little pastries. Yuan Mei mocked the authors of these imaginative creations at the end of the Preface, calling them “mediocre scholars”. Oh Snap!

[4]: In Chinese folk tales, in order to attain sainthood, a person has to climb to the peak of a mystical mountain to apprentice themselves to a long white bearded saint, being tested in trials and undergoing years of physical and psychological struggle. Become a saint in the comfort of one’s home is infinitely tamer and less extraordinary. I think what Yuan Mei was trying to indicate here that one should not be ashamed of cooking an ingredient in the canonical way, because the technique is simple or common. If the cooking technique does wonders to the ingredient, who cares whether it’s simple or common? Making a great steak is simple, requiring only 2 ingredients (good beef and salt, 3 if you add pepper/spices) and a hot grill. Pretension, bad technique, trying to do something out of the ordinary too often destroys the dish. Case in point, there is a place on Peel street in Montreal called “Entrecôte St Jean” which grills their steak salt-less and then covers it in a greasy mustard sauce before serving. For a restaurant that does ONLY steak, it is remarkably meh. I attribute their success largely to the nice French Bistro décor and the tasteless clientele that frequents the place (4 stars on yelp? What?). The term “庸德庸行” probably comes from Zhongyong (中庸: Scroll 13).


Things to Avoid 4: Dishes for the eyes (戒目食)


List of Things to Avoid::Dishes for the Eyes
What are “Dishes for the eyes”? Dishes for eyes exist only to satisfy one’s desire to see large quantities and varieties of food. Present day people are most impressed when the banquet table is over-laden [1] with food-filled dishes and bowls of every size, which are undoubtedly great for viewing but not made for tasting.

One must understand that even the best calligrapher will fault if they overextend himself in writing and the most renown poet will invariably compose tired verses when vexed. Note that even through great effort, an excellent chef can produce only four or five good dishes over the course of a day, not to mention that each dish’s success is not guaranteed. Therefore can we really expect much of the food if a chef had to throw together enough of it to cover a banquet table?[2] Even with numerous helpers in the kitchen, each of the helpers have their different skill levels and opinions on how things should be done, as such the more of them there are, the worse the dishes usually become.

I once attended a banquet hosted by a merchant, where three separate courses of dishes were served along with 16 appetizers. In total, the banquet amounted to almost 40 dishes! While the host was immensely satisfied with the pompous banquet, I left it hungry and had to cook congee at home in order to quell my hunger.[3] Such banquets, while abundant with food, are both vulgar and unwholesome. Kong-Lin of Southern Song once said: “People of present times enjoy numerous foods; few of them are for the mouth, most of them for the eyes.” I would only add that if the grand spread of dishes before you are rank and unpleasant, no pleasure can be derived on viewing them.

Random notes:

[1]: What was actually stated here is (食前方丈) literally means “food in front, squared zhang”. A Zhang (丈) a unit of measure of around 3 meters. This is supposed be around the height of a man (please insert joke here), hence the term 丈夫 for a husband/married man. Saying: “People are impressed by a spread of dishes of 3×3 meters (~10×10 feet)” does not really work well, hence the translation.

[2]: Chinese Emperors had a lot of “Dishes for the eyes” in their official meals in order to show their wealth and power. Most of the dishes served during these official meals were never touched and given to the underlings to show that they are still in the Emperor’s favour. It must be terrible for the palace chef to know that most of what you cook will never be eaten. I read actually that many of Emperors ate their real and rather simple meals in their private quarters, and this sometimes included (shockingly) plain rice congee. I wonder if this was what Yuan-Mei was referring to in the following lines.

[3]: In my younger and much sillier days in Montreal, we once went to a restaurant on Prince Arthur Street for a rather pricy celebratory 3 course Table d’hôte. It was so memorable that I after these years I still remembered what I ate. The first course consisted of Lipton cup-of-soup, followed by the main course, which came in the form of a dessicated grilled lobster, good only for training jaw muscles. Third course? A small slice of McCain® Deep ‘n Delicious® Chocolate Cake or one of its nameless relatives. We left the restaurant hungry and annoyed, then went home and drank ourselves silly.

Things to Avoid 3: Meals for the Ears (戒耳餐)


List of Things to Avoid::Meals for the Ears
What are “meals for the ears”? A meal for ears exists only for the purpose of bolstering name and reputation. By bantering the names of expensive and coveted ingredients to flaunt one’s wealth to one’s respected guests, such meals tease one’s ears but confer no satisfaction to one’s tongue. Don’t they know that the flavours of well-seasoned tofu excels that of bird’s nest and that badly prepared seafood is no better than spoiled food?[1] In the past I have often referred to chicken, pork, fish, and duck as the “talented nobility” of food ingredients since they each have their own unique, distinguishing flavours and by their own merits, hold a dish together and ensure its success. Ingredients such as sea cucumber and bird’s nest, on the other hand, are more akin to those vulgar and despicable individuals of society who are devoid of spirit and character and mostly reliant on the support and merits of others to succeed.[2]

I attended a certain prefecture banquet, where we were served bowls as big as tureens each filled with four taels [3] of bird’s nest cooked in plain water. It had not a shred of flavour, yet the guests were clamoring to praise it. To this I joked: “I came here to enjoy bird’s nest, not collect it for resale!” Tell me, what exactly is to purpose of serving pricy food at a banquet in such large portions if it tastes terrible?[4] If the sole expressed purpose of this exercise was to flaunt one’s wealth and position, one might as well fill the banquet bowls with hundreds of gleaming pearls worth tens of thousands in gold taels. It would be just as inedible and pointless.

Random notes:
[1]: In its plainest meaning 蔬筍 (lit. vegetables and shoots) refer the the vegetables eaten by barbarian/wild people (宋 王明清 《挥麈后录》卷二:“ 康节 云:‘野人岂识堂食之味,但林下蔬笋,则尝喫耳。’”) or sour, putrid, rank smells (宋 苏轼 《赠诗僧道通》诗:“语带烟霞从古少,气含蔬笋到公无。”自注:“谓无酸馅气也。”参见“ 酸馅气 ”。) In this context, I’m guessing it likely means something “bad tasting” commonly consumed by so-called “barbarians”.

[2]: 寄人籬下 is similar to the idea of riding on coat-tails, where a person relies on the effort, strength, or merit of someone else to gain some sort of standing. The best example of this in Chinese cuisine is shark fin which is at best flavourless and requires an excellent broth made from hams, chickens, and numerous unsung heroes to be palatable. One finds quite a few shark fins in academia.

[3]: This must have been some extravagant affair considering that the stuff is usually served in small dessert bowls. Even at this day and age where bird’s nest is more accessible and easily (over) harvested, 150g of bird’s nest per person is still quite a large quantity. As of early 2014, 150g of mid-quality bird’s nest is around US$225. Top grade is easily double the price.

[4]: “Ear meals” are a mainstay of gastronomy, be it in Eastern or Western cuisine. Fois gras is fantastic, but if a restaurant serves it thin (< 5mm) just to be able to name it in their dish, it’s an ear meal. White truffle oil in your pasta? Ear meal. “Kobe beef” hamburgers? Ear meal.[5]

[5]: Fois gras should be served thicker than 1cm. If there are no truffle shavings there are no truffles. Kobe beef in the form of hamburgers is pointless.

Things to Avoid 2: Mixed pot cookery (戒同鍋熟)


List of Things to Avoid:: Mixed pot cookery
The offensive [1] problem of cooking by mixing everything in a pot has already been addressed previously in Section: “Transformations” [2].

Random notes:

[1]: Did someone take liberties in their translation by putting this word here? Yes.

[2]: Not mixing everything up it a dish does makes sense, but fact is, that when it is done well combining things can synthesize new and better flavours. Case in point, the famous Fujian dish Buddha Jumps Over the Wall (佛跳牆). Beyond translation for fun, life has been super crazy; moving, job stuff, more moving, income tax, previous work stuff…it really adds up and eats away any free time one has. This short translation is a good way to get back into things. Stay tuned.

Things to Avoid 1: Dousing with oil (戒外加油)


List of Things to Avoid::Dousing with oil
When preparing a dish, a vulgar cook will typically have a simmering pot of lard readied to douse on the finished dish before serving, just to impart some richness to it.[1] Even something as light and delicate as bird’s-nest would not be spared this polluting offense. Then there are those vulgar ignorant people, with their long greedy tongues and teeth, who would gladly gulp down these dishes doused with liquid grease. Perhaps they were reincarnated from a bunch of hungry ghosts.

Random notes:
[1]: I’m not sure if this is always bad. For example, when a fish has been steamed to perfection and garnished with shredded green onions, it’s quite nice to top it with a bit of sizzling hot sesame oil mixed with cooking oil to finish it. No doubt, Yuan Mei would consider such an act (and proponents of it) vulgar.

Things to Avoid: Introduction (戒單:開篇)


List of Things to Avoid [1]::Introduction
Politicians like to boast of the fabulous things they have created. Truth be told, it would be better if they could just just resolve preexisting problems [2]. Likewise, if one can eliminate undesirable cuilinary habits, one would have already made much headways into understanding cuisine [3].

Random notes:
[1]: 戒 is such an elegant word, something of a mix between “Taboos” and “Things to quit doing”. However at the end I felt “Things to Avoid” is an okay compromise.
[2]: In Montreal, the politicians boast of the the miles of granite that they’ve used to pave curbs and sidewalks. In all honesty, I would rather they just replace the rotting asphalt [i,ii] and fix the leaking sewer systems [iii,iv,v]. This line really resonates with me.
[3]: The last phrase comes from a work commenting on the Book of Changes, known at the “Ten Wings” 十翼:繫辭下:9 “知者觀其彖辭,則思過半矣” which goes something like: “A wise person through studying the commentaries on the Yi-Jing (I-Ching) divinatory symbols, would have already gained understanding of a significant part of the Dao.”