Essential Knowledge 20: Foundations (本分須知)

須知單::本分須知
滿洲菜多燒煮,漢人菜多羹湯,童而習之,故擅長也。漢請滿人,滿請漢人,各用所長之菜,轉覺入口新鮮,不失邯鄲故步。今人忘其本分,而要格外討好。漢請滿人用滿菜,滿請漢人用漢菜,反致依樣葫蘆,有名無實,畫虎不成反類犬矣。秀才下場,專作自己文字,務極其工,自有遇合。若逢一宗師而摹仿之,逢一主考而摹仿之,則掇皮無真,終身不中矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Foundations
Manchurian dishes tend to have more roasted and stewed dishes, Han dishes tend to have more soup-based dishes. When one is exposed to a culture’s foundations and trained in its methods from a young age, one can become extremely adept in the culture’s cuisine. As such, when a Han hires a Manchurian or a Manchurian hires a Han to prepare the cuisines for which they are most adept, the resulting dishes are a delight to eat, completely devoid of the jarring, confused qualities of poor imitations [1]. Sadly, today’s people have forgotten the importance of considering the cultural roots of the host and cook when eating. Rather, they prefer to appease and humour each other at the expense of the cuisine. When a Han invites a Manchurian to eat Manchurian food, or a Manchurian invites a Han to eat Han food, what is served is a sad pastich of the other culture’s cuisine, prepared without the needed fundamental skills and techinque [2]; like a person trying to paint a majestic tiger but ending up with a mangy dog. This is the same for scholars taking their examinations, namely, each scholar should make full use of their foundational skills and experiences during the exam, writing in his own words. By consistantly following this method, favorable results will come. However, if a scholar is always trying to imitate the style of every master that he comes upon, or the calligraphy of every chief-examiner he is trying to please, this person’s knowledge will be forever only skin deep, lacking in both depth and substance. Such an individual will never acheive anything in life.

Random notes:
[1]: 邯鄲故步 comes from “學步邯鄲” in which one not only fails to learn a new skill, but ends up losing and forgeting one’s original skills. In the context of cooking, chefs who cook dishes from a cuisine they don’t understand confuse its flavours and may end up not doing anything particularly well. Reminds me of all the “Fusion” cuisines that were so popular in the early 2000s, it’s like if you can’t cook French cuisine well and you can’t cook Chinese cuisine well, just open a restaurant and say you serve fusion foods.
[2]: Most people do this with good intentions, but when Western friends takes me to the “BEST Chinese restaurant” in some city it most often ends up being a giant disappointment. I’m sure I’ve done similar for other cuisines.

Essential knowledge 19: Rescuing Dishes (補救須知)

須知單::補救須知
名手調羹,鹹淡合宜,老嫩如式,原無需補救。不得已,為中人說法則:調味者,寧淡毋鹹;淡可加鹽以救之,鹹則不能使之再淡矣。烹魚者,寧嫩毋老,嫩可加火候以補之,老則不能強之再嫩矣。此中消息,於一切下作料時,靜觀火色便可參詳。

List of Essential Knowledge::Rescuing Dishes
A chef of the utmost calibre can create a dish with every element seasoned and cooked to perfection, never needing to rescue any dish from failure. However for the sake of the common cook, we shall speak about how to save a failing dish. When seasoning a dish, one prefers to fail on making it too bland rather than too salty. A bland dish can be rescued by adding more salt, but an overly salty dish cannot be made less salty.[1] When cooking fish, one rather that it be undercooked than overcooked. An undercooked fish can further cooked to doneness, while an overcooked fish cannot be made less cooked. In regards to how to figure this out, one simply needs to carefully watch one’s cooking technique when preparing a dish.[2]

Random notes:
[1]: Actually, this is not completely true. For stuff like stews and soups you can just add more stock and ingredients.

[2]: I think the term “此中”, is probably comes from the term “此中三昧”. This this case it means roughly to either “reveal the truth” or “to figure out”. Is this right?

Essential Knowledge 18: Thresholds (疑似須知)

須知單::疑似須知
味要濃厚,不可油膩;味要清鮮,不可淡薄。此疑似之間,差之毫厘,失以千里。濃厚者,取精多而糟粕去之謂也;若徒貪肥膩,不如專食豬油矣。清鮮者,真味出而俗塵無之謂也;若徒貪淡薄,則不如飲水矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Thresholds[1]
A dish that should be thick and rich, should not be so rich that it becomes greasy. A dish that is supposed to be umami and light, must not be so light as to taste insipid. When trying to find the thresholds for these criterion, missing by the breath of a hair can result in the complete failure of a dish. To bring out the essense of a rich dish, one should only clarify the dish to the point of removing just the sediment. If one enjoys a dish simply for its rich oiliness, one might as well eat lard. To bring out the true flavours of a light dish, one should refine the dish only to the extent that distracting flavours are removed. If one demands utterly light flavours, drinking water may be the better choice.

Random notes:
[1]: Originally this was called “distinctions”, as in, distinguishing the boundaries where good flavours become bad. But I think “threshold” works better.

Essential Knowledge 17: Choice Portions (選用須知)

須知單::選用須知
選用之法:小炒肉用後臀,做肉圓用前夾心,煨肉用硬短勒。炒魚片用青魚、季魚,做魚鬆用鯶魚、鯉魚。蒸雞用雌雞,煨雞用騸雞,取雞汁用老雞;雞用雌才嫩,鴨用雄才肥;蒪菜用頭,芹韭用根︰皆一定之理。餘可類推。

List of Essential Knowledge::Choice Portions
The methods of choosing the right portions of ingredients are as follows: use pork tenderloin for quick stir-fries, use the inner muscle of the ham for meatballs [1], and use pork belly for slow braises. Black carp and grouper are good fish for stir-frying, while grass carp and the common carp are good for making fish floss [2]. Steamed chicken should be made using hens, braised chicken should be made using capons, and chicken broth should be made using mature chickens. For chickens, hens are more tender, while for ducks, drakes are more plump. For Brasenia [3], one uses the tips, while for celery and garlic chives, one uses the lower stems. There are definite reasons for choosing in these manners, with all ingredients having their own reasons.

Random notes:

[1]: Though I’m not completely sure, I do remember hearing that one uses the inside muscle of the ham for making gong wan (貢丸). The term “夾心” means “sandwiched in the middle”, which fits this. However, I’m not sure what the “front sandwiched in the middle” is (前夾心). Update: Actually if “夾心” is same as “胛心”, this would be the meat from the pork shoulder.

[2]: Fish floss is the fish analogue for pork floss, also known as rousong (肉鬆).

[3]: An aquatic plant, 蒪菜 is also known as 莼菜 Brasenia schreberi

Essential Knowledge 16: Using Starch (用纖須知)

須知單::用纖須知
俗名豆粉為纖者,即拉船用縴也,須顧名思義。因治肉者,要作團而不能合,要作羹而不能膩,故用粉以牽合之。煎炒之時,慮肉貼鍋,必至焦老,故用粉以護持之。此纖義也。能解此義用纖,纖必恰當,否則亂用可笑,但覺一片糊塗。《漢制考》:齊麯麩為媒。媒即纖矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Using Starch[1]
Bean starch is known as “xian”, just as boats are towed using “qian” [2]; from each item’s name, we can elucidate their use. When someone is shaping ground meat and wishes to make it hold its form, or if they wish to make a soup thick and smooth in texture, they need only to add starch to make it happen. If meat being stir-fried gets stuck to the bottom of the wok, its texture will turn dry. To prevent this, one could simply add some starch to meat to preserve their texture. Such are the ways of using starch in cooking. When one understands how to use starch, they can make it do wonders in dishes. However, when one has no idea how to use starch, they will make a hilarious mess of everything.

In “HanZhi Kao” a document about political administration in Han dynasty: The nation fo Qi, refers to “Fu” as “Mei” (the same character for “matchmaker”). “Mei” essentially means “xian” [3].

Random notes:

[1]: This is a “blah” translation. “纖” means velvety and smooth, which is what starch confers onto meats and dishes accented with them. By saying “Using Starch” is not exactly right since you lose the velvety smooth meaning. However, saying “Using Smootheners” or “Using Velveters” sound kind weird. You can also say “Using Thickeners” for a functional compromise, but it still does not do the job. Expect an update to this in the future.

[2]: “Qian” here means tow-line. The character is pronounced the same and related to the characeter “牽”, which means to lead by holding

[3]: Qi is now a region of northern shandong. By the way, I don’t actually get the purpose of this last sentence.

A bit tardy

Due to work related matters and other stuff, the next post will be a bit late in coming. Expect it in a few days.

In the meantime you should be hanging salted meats up on your porches for dried hams and preserved meaty whatnots. That is, if you’re the do-it-yourself type of person for this kind of stuff. As its name implies, 蠟肉 is ideally made during 蠟月 in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

If you live in Toronto condo like me, you hang your meats in the unheated unused guest bedroom with the window cracked open just so slightly during the day. It’s actually a great air-freshener, making your room smell like a Spanish tapas bar. Friends staying over have always commented on how hungry they got sleeping in that bedroom.

Essential Knowledge 15: Cleanliness (潔淨須知)

須知單::潔淨須知
切蔥之刀,不可以切筍;搗椒之臼,不可以搗粉。聞菜有抹布氣者,由其布之不潔也;聞菜有砧板氣者,由其板之不淨也。「工欲善其事,必先利其 器。」良廚先多磨刀,多換布,多刮板,多洗手,然後治菜。至於口吸之煙灰,頭上之汗汁,灶上之蠅蟻,鍋上之煙煤,一玷入菜中,雖絕好烹庖,如西子蒙不潔,人皆掩鼻而過之矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Cleanliness
Just as a knife used to cut green onions cannot be used to cut bamboo shoots, a mortar used to pound peppercorns cannot be used to pound flour. A dish that has the smell of a cooking towel means that the towel used was not clean, just as a dish that smells of a chopping board means that the board used was not clean. It is said: “To do good work, one needs good tools”. [1] As such, cooks must be deligent in sharpening their knives, changing their cooking towels, scraping their chopping boards, and washing their hands before preparing food. Even a well done dish would be inedible if the ashes from tobacco, a cook’s dripping sweat, flies and ants crawling on the stove, or the soot on the wok are mixed into a dish. Note, even if was Xishi [2] covered in filth, people would still cover their nose and avoid her. [3]

Random notes:

[1]: From Analects of Confucius (論語::魏靈公)
[2]: Xishi (西施), the fabled Chinese beauty
[3]: The phrase was attributed to Mencius (孟子)