Things to Avoid 9: Chafing Dishes (戒火鍋)


List of Things to Avoid::Chafing Dishes
Chafing dishes are often used when hosting banquets in winter [1], which is a rather irritating practice considering how noisy they are. This is not to overlook the more serious problem of their use; it ignores the fact that cooking a dish with optimal flavour requires the precise control of heat and the duration of its application.[2]

Recently people have started using alcohol-based chafing dishes instead of charcoal, believing it to an improvement. This is not the case. Regardless of its type, the use of chafing dishes will lead to over-boiled food that hasd changed its flavour for the worse. Some people may contest: “But what if the food gets cold?” I would say they them: “If the boiled thing that had just been scooped out of the pot does not whet a guest’s appetite, then let them eat it cold so they know how bad it really tastes.”[3]

Random notes:
[1]: The term 火鍋 (huoguo) here likely does not refer to the hot-pot/fondue of present times. Judging from the context of this section it more likely refers to a heated vessel, similar to a chafing dish used to keep food warm in colder venues. In modern hot-pots, you don’t really let your ingredients boil, at least not the more tender ones. Rather, you swish it in the stock and fish it out when it is perfectly done. This is purely speculation but perhaps the original huoguo was indeed a pot of boiled food served on a chafing dish at the table, more akin to sukiyaki. But due to this method’s tendency to overcook food, it has lead to the development of “dip-and-swish” cooking techniques in modern Chinese hot-pot or Japanese shabu-shabu. I think Yuan Mei would have approved the our version of houguo, assuming he would tolerate the noise of boiling stock at the table.

[2]: Let’s not forget that Yuan Mei has an entire section devoted to the topic of heat control (火候).

[3]: I personally think he was trying to say something like: “If the boiled food is so unpalatable that your guest would not touch it while hot, there’s no difference it letting them eat it cold.” However, I think the translation is more accurately registered with the sentence in Chinese. Is it? I’ll have to think about it.


Things to Avoid 8: Indulging in Drink (戒縱酒)


List of Things to Avoid:: Indulging in Drink
Only one who is alert can tell the difference between right and wrong. Likewise, only one who is mindful can discern the differences between good and bad flavours. Yi Yin [1] had observed: “The profound nuances of flavour cannot be rightly expressed in words.” If a drunkard cannot even speak, how can there be any hope that he can express, much less discern the flavours of anything?

Once in a while, I see people playing drinking games during banquets, their minds clouded and absent from having had too much alcohol. In such inebriated states, those great dishes they were eating might as well have been sawdust.[2] The heads of those preoccupied with drinking are somewhere else entirely, with their faculties for judging food thrown out the door. If one really must indulge in drink, first have a proper meal where the dishes can be tasted, then only afterwards bring out the alcohol. In this way, you get the best of both worlds.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: Yi Yin, head chef and political adviser to the first Emperor of Shang.

[2]: I remember reading a New Yorker cartoon that shows a Roman host in his mansion, surrounded by his drunken rowdy guests, turning to his servant to say: “You may now switch to the cheap wine”. In a Chinese banquet version of the comic, the host would say “You may now switch to sawdust”

[3]: Yuan Mei prefers that you get smashed AFTER you have had your meal.

Things to Avoid 7: Waste (戒暴殄)


List of Things to Avoid::Waste
Tyrannical individuals are not emphatic to people’s labours, just as wasteful individuals care little about the value of things. From head to tail, all parts of a chicken, fish, goose, or duck are delicious in their own way. As such, there is no need to carve out the best part of something only to relegate the rest as waste. One often sees soft-shell turtle being prepared by portioning off the “skirt” [1] while the rest of the turtle with its fragrant meat was discarded. It is also not uncommon to see the belly of a shad [2] sliced-off and reserved for steaming without considering the fact that the best flavour comes from its dorsal parts. By far the most common example of pointless waste can be found in some chef’s preparation of salted eggs. The yolk of a salted egg is inarguably its best part, with its white ranking a distant second. But discard the whites and serve only the yolk and the eating experience would not feel half as enjoyable.[3]

This is not to say that I champion the commoner’s ideas of conserving every part of an ingredient. Quite the opposite, if the “waste” of part of an ingredient can greatly enhance the resulting dish, then all the better.[4] But if one purposefully discards the portions of an ingredient to the detriment of a dish, then what is the point indeed?

As for the practice of roasting the feet of live geese or cutting out the liver of live chicken for the sake of gastronomy, such are foods that a gentlemen should never partake. Why?[5] Taking the life of a creature for food can be justified, but doing so in a way that it begs for death is unjustifiable.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: The “shell” of a soft-shell turtle is actually covered in skin and hard only in the center. The edges of this dome is a fatty and fleshy skirt that many consider to be the choice portion of a soft-shell turtle. I have no idea if this is truly the case since I’ve never had soft-shell turtle.

[2]: Tenualosa reevesii (Reeves’ Shad). Supposedly chocked full of spiny bones.

[3]: When I was a kid, I used to peel the flavourful and chewy cheese-enveloped toppings off a slice of pizza before eating the crust. Nowadays, you would have a tough time making me eat pizza without the crust. That said, eating the toppings alone may be justified if the crust is really that terrible. For an excuse to eat melted cheese (more or less) straight, I now go for a nice “pull” of truffade or aligot. Oh, and [ NY-Style >> Chicago-Style]; the latter is at best a terrible attempt at being neither pizza nor pie. Note this is in regards to American-style pizza. To the Italian readers, ignore everything you’ve read in this note.

[4]: I have a tough time thinking up an example of this. For animals, almost all parts are good for eating save the horns, hooves and teeth. Meat aside, the bones make great stock, tendons are delectable when stewed, and cartilage make fun cold dishes with enjoyable textures. By all means, count me in as one of the uncouth commoners.

[5]: Judging by this question, it appears that such dishes were not uncommon at the lavish feasts attended by those who would consider themselves “gentlemen” (JunZi). This sadistic habit had likely stemmed from the perversion of the idea of avoiding delays. After all, what can be fresher and more nutritious than meat cut from an animal while it’s still screaming and alive! Right? Sadly, it seems this rather nasty and inhumane practice is still widely found in East Asia: just google “live sashimi”. It’s hard to imagine that there are people who actually enjoy this tasteless spectacle.

[6]: OMG! Is this the first recorded instance of Chinese animal welfare activism? Could Yuan Mei be the original Chinese animal rights advocate?

Things to Avoid 6: Delays (戒停頓)


List of Things to Avoid::Delays
To get the most of a dish’s flavours, it is best to serve it as soon as it has been finished. Consuming food that has been delayed can be likened to wearing an old mildewed robe; even one made of the finest material and finished with the most exquisite details will not make it more enjoyable nor smell better.

The American Chinese buffet, where food is placed on steam tables to be warmed and warmed and warmed and warmed and…

Some banquet hosts are rather impatient in nature, insisting that all dishes must be brought to the table at the same time. To make this happen, the kitchen staff would prepare all the banquet’s dishes before-hand, keep them warm in a steamer, and await the signal from the host to bring it all to the table. Can these dishes be expected to have any flavour left after such a long delay? It is interesting that on one side, a good cook toils to perfect the details in every bowl and dish of food produced, but when the food gets to the people who eat, it is violently swallowed without tasting, regardless of its state.[1] This is as wasteful as if one received some delectably crisp Aijia pears, and insisted that they be steamed for eating.[2]

While traveling in Guangdong province, I had an incredibly good rice-eel soup in Yanglanpoming prefecture.[3] When I inquired on the secret of making a dish so perfect, I was told: “The eel was killed and cooked to your order and served the moment it is done without delay. That is all.” This principle should be applied to all aspects of food preparation and serving.[4]

Random notes:
[1]: The line “鹵莽暴戾,囫圇吞下” combines the violent coarse nature of barbaric creatures and porcine-natured individuals into one elegant phrase. The latter part of the phrase likely came from the part of the story in Journey to the West where the greedy pig-headed character, Bajie, gobbled down a delicate fruit of immortality without so much as tasting it. (《西游记》第二四回:“﹝ 八戒 ﹞见了果子,拿过来,张开口,轂轆的囫圇吞咽下肚)

[2]: The famous Aijia pear or Ai pear (哀家梨) has been lauded since Han dynasty in literature for it’s large size and remarkably crisp yet tender texture. This contrasts with the more standard Asian pear, the Ya pear, which although crunchy tends to be much tougher and is thus sometimes steamed for eating. The reason why Yuan Mei mentioned steaming pears here is because of the Chinese idiom: “Steaming Ai pears for eating” (哀梨蒸食), which points to the fact that a foolish person has no idea of the quality of the thing they have in their hands and thus proceeds to ruin it; like destroying the texture and flavours of delicate Aijia pears by steaming. The idiom was itself derived from a section in ShiShuo XinYu which told of people in a certain part of China using it as an insult. (《世說》曰:桓南郡,每見人不快,輙嗔云:「君得哀家梨,復蒸食否?」舊說秣陵有哀仲家梨,甚大如升,入口消釋。言愚人不別,得好梨蒸食之。) “Steaming Ai pears for eating” would be like somebody making Sangria or Kalimotxo with a Château Pétrus or stewing fois gras for a meal. A family friend told me that she once gave an award winning (and rather pricy) Taiwanese High-Mountain oolong to her Western in-laws. When asked about the tea, the in-laws complained that its brew was so light that they had to use to whole tin of tea leaves to get the colour right, but then the brew was too bitter to drink, so they dumped everything. My mother-in-law did something similar, taking some of the best tea I have and mixing it with turmeric and ginger to make a health drink. I guess the concept being described here by Yuan Mei is somewhat similar to the Western idiom: “Pearls before swine”.

[3]: Yuan Mei wrote the Yanglanpoming prefecture Book (楊蘭坡明府書). I guess he ate some eel while doing the research.

[4]: My Europeans friends seems to always prefer their food cold. When served a steaming bowl of noodle soup, they would stir it forlornly until everything is limp and lukewarm, all while stating how it’s too hot. Even fried-chicken, which is best served soon after it has been fished out of boiling fat, would be left untouched on the plate until it’s cold and lifeless. I have to admit I’m helplessly annoyed by this; don’t they know how hard it is to perfectly time finishing and serving the food? This contrasts with East Asian friends who would dig-in, piping hot morsels and all, appreciating that you served the food in the best and freshest state possible. Perhaps Western folks expect foods to be served at the “right” temperature, while Chinese folks expect that foods be served as soon as it’s ready. This may explain why “resting” something after cooking is so common in Western cuisine (roast and grilled meats, bread, etc.) while such concepts are considered odd or pointless in Chinese cuisines. Thankfully, unlike their European cousins, it seems North Americans don’t have the same behavior for waiting on food to become tepid before eating it.

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.