Essential Knowledge 9: Speed (遲速須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Speed
When inviting guests over, one normally set the event 3 days in advance such that there is enough time to put together a well concerted and varied menu. But if there are unplanned guests and food needs to be quickly served, or guest arrive unannounced outside the door or drops in by boat, how do we resolve such a predicament? [1] In these cases, one needs to have a set of quick-to-prepare dishes, such as stir-fried chicken slices, pork strips, and dried shrimp with tofu, or the likes of pickled fish [2] and tea-smoked ham [3]. These versatile dishes can be quickly prepared on short notice, and one should know at least several of them [4].

Random notes:

[1]: It literally says: “How can one take the waters of the eastern sea to put out the raging fires at the western pond?” A predicament where one must resolve a situation since resources are not immediately available.

[2]: A wine-dregs and salt pickled fish quite popular in Shandong province

[3]: A dry-cured ham smoked from Yunnan province

[4]: Quick versatile dishes? Most Italian pasta dishes.

Essential Knowledge 8: Colour and Fragrance (色臭須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Colour and Fragrance
As neighbours to the mouth, both the eyes and the nose also act as guides in engaging the mouth [1]. When a dish is seen and smelled, its colour and fragrance is compounded. If the dish looks crisp and clear as the autumn clouds, its colour as voluptuous as amber, and its alluring fragrance wafts into the nose, one does not need to feel a piece of the food against one’s teeth or taste it with one’s tongue to know how great it actually is [2]. It should be noted however, that in wanting colour in a dish, one should not resort to using caramel colouring, and in wanting fragrance, one should not resort to using flavourants [3]. Once such “make-up” is applied, a dish’s true flavours would be obscured and irreparably damaged.

Bouillon cubes
Flavouring “make-up” cubes. Made from the condensed shame of second-rate chefs.

Random notes:

[1]: The Chinese text is more interesting, indicating that the eyes and noise are neighbours (鄰) but also match-makers (媒) for the mouth. This parallels Chinese societies, where neighbours often act as introductors or match-makers for local young men and women.

[2]: I find this to be rather observant on his part since this Scientific American article says: “…food and drink are identified predominantly by the senses of smell and sight, not taste”.

[3]: This is industrialized food in one sentence; using caramel colouring and fragrance compounds as substitutes to quality and technique. It’s the swill in your frozen food isle, the “grill marks” on your Chicken at your local McBurger’s, and that giant box of Knorr’s cubes found in the kitchen of those chic French restaurants.

Essential Knowledge 7 : Heat control (火候須知)

熟物之法,最重火候。有須武火者,煎炒是也;火弱則物疲矣。有須文火者,煨煮是也;火猛則物枯矣。有先用武火而後用文火者,收湯之物是也;性急則皮焦而裡 不熟矣。有愈煮愈嫩者,腰子、雞蛋之類是也。有略煮即不嫩者,鮮魚、蚶蛤之類是也。肉起遲則紅色變黑,魚起遲則活肉變死。屢開鍋蓋,則多沫而少香。火熄再 燒,則走油而味失。道人以丹成九轉為仙,儒家以無過、不及為中。司廚者,能知火候而謹伺之,則幾於道矣。魚臨食時,色白如玉,凝而不散者,活肉也;色白如 粉,不相膠粘者,死肉也。明明鮮魚,而使之不鮮,可恨已極

As a chef, one must have excellent control of Huo Hou

List of Essential Knowledge::Heat control
In the art of cooking, the most important skill is one’s ability in controlling heat [1]. Some ingredients require a strong flame, such as those being pan-fried or stir-fried. If a weak flame is used on such ingredients, they will become wilted and lifeless. Some ingredients require a gentle flame, such as those for stewing. Using an aggressive flame will make such ingredients tough and dry. Others ingredients require one to begin cooking with a strong flame but finish with a gentle flame, such as those dishes with ingredients requiring sauce reductions. If one is impatient during the reduction process and uses heat that is too strong, the ingredient’s surface will be charred while the inside remains raw. Certain ingredients become tender with prolonged cooking, such as kidneys and (chicken) eggs, however some ingredients such as fresh fish and clams, will not become tender if it is even exposed to a slightly stronger flame. When one does not remove meat from the heat in a timely manner after its completion, its colour will not be an appetizing red but rather a charred black. Likewise, a fish not removed from the heat in a timely manner will not be tender and “alive”, but rather dry and “dead”. If you frequently open the pot’s lid while the food is cooking it will tend have foamy sauces and be less fragrant. As well, if you attempt to relight a spent flame while cooking, the ingredients will be rendered of its oil [2] and become flavourless.

The Daoists attain perfection of sainthood by channeling their internal forces through “nine revolutions” [3] and the Confucianists attain perfection by not faulting and striving to overcome failure [4]. Likewise, if a cook knows how to control the cooking flame and attends to it diligently and attentively, they too are close to attaining perfection. When eating fish, if the flesh is as translucent white as jade and holds together without flaking apart, this is tender and “live” flesh. But if the flesh is white, opaque like powder, and falls apart, this is “dead” flesh. To have a fresh fish and then cook it until it is stale and flavourless is something truly despicable.

Random notes:

[1]: Huo hou (火候) lacks a good direct translation. It describes the processing of controlling both (1) the intensity of the cooking heat and (2) the length of time the that the food stays in contact with the heat, with the latter being key in a traditional pit or charcoal stove. I previously wanted to say “flame control”, since Chinese cooking without a real flame is slightly impaired IMHO, even with new induction technologies, but “heat control” sounds more right.

[2]: Not sure how to phrase it, but the idea is that if you’re cooking on a twig or straw fired flame and it goes out while your meat is still being cooked, then consider it lost. Restarting the flame would produce low heat, causing the meat to stew and render its fat, thus producing something less than perfect.

[3]: Dan (丹) is this Daoist concept that can be either interpreted as being a pill-formed panacea-like medicine (仙丹) or as the fluid/elixir manifestion of qi-like forces (丹氣) in one’s body (See Dantian). The “nine-revolutions” (九轉) is a Daoist concept on the tiers of transformation needed to imbue body or substance with mystical powers. I think in the acheiving perfection context in this part of the text, saying something like “channeling of internal forces to attain sainthood” works much better than saying “brewing mystic medicines to achieve powers”. As such, I put down the former as translation.

[4]: The concepts of Wuguo (無過), not commiting errors, and Buji (不及), believing in inadaquacy, are important guides to conduct of a Junzi (“a perfect man” or what I translate as “true gentlemen”). The former concept is well summed up in the Chunqiu Zuozhuan (春秋左傳::宣公二年), which quotes “Who amoung us have not erred? To err and be able to correct oneself, there is nothing better than this.” (人誰無過,過而能改,善莫大焉) The latter is well understood through a quote from Confucius: “Study diligently as if you’re about fail and as if you’re about to be surpassed.” (子曰:學如不及,猶恐失之) Basically the ideas sum up as: “Do not do bad things and work very hard”.

Essential Knowledge 6: Lone ingredients (独用須知)

味太濃重者,只宜獨用,不可搭配。如李贊皇、張江陵一流,須專用之,方盡其才。食物中,鰻也,鱉也,蟹也,鮑魚也,牛羊也,皆宜獨食,不可加搭配。何也? 此數物者味甚厚,力量甚大,而流弊亦甚多,用五味調和,全力治之,方能取其長而去其弊。何暇捨其本題,別生枝節哉?金陵人好以海參配甲魚,魚翅配蟹粉,我 見輒攢眉。覺甲魚、蟹粉之味,海參、魚翅分之而不足;海參、魚翅之弊,甲魚、蟹粉染之而有餘。

All you need is Picard and a few extras to make a good STNG episode. Supporting roles not required.

List of Essential Knowledge::Lone ingredients
Ingredients with strong flavours are best when used on their own without accompaniment, much in the way the likes of Li Jiang [1] and Zhang Ju Zheng [2] must be allowed to work on their own to make the best use of their talents. For instance eel, soft-shell turtle, crab, abalone, beef, and lamb are ingredients best used in dishes on their own without using other main ingredients. Why? The above ingredients have thick and rich flavours that are powerful. As such, their flaws are readily apparent and thus required the seasoning and harmonization provided by the five flavours [3] to control them. This allows these assertive ingredients to show off their strength while hiding their deficiencies. So who in this world would willingly abandon these principles and even go the extra step to push thing beyond good taste? Well, give it to the people in Jin Ling [4] who enjoy combining sea cucumbers with turtle and shark’s fin with crab roe. When I see this accompaniment of ingredients I cannot help but frown in displeasure. I feel that in these combinations, the flavour of turtle and crab roe is dissipated and diluted by the sea cucumber and shark’s fin, while the less savoury flavours of sea cucumber and shark’s fin harm the turtle and crab roe and contaminate their tastes without end.

Random notes:

[1]: Li Jiang (李絳) an imperial chancellor who did some amazing stuff and rose to power. Read wikipedia.

[2]: Zhang Ju Zheng (张居正) an imperial officer who did some amazing stuff and rose in power. Read wikipedia.

[3]: Basically he means you need to season correctly to make the most of these powerful tasting foods. The Chinese “Five flavours” are pungent (辛), salty (咸), sour (酸), bitter (苦), and sweet (甘), which corresponds to the five elements for metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. This categorization everything with the five elements something to do with Daoist derived alchemist philosophies/medicines, which I think are fun in that strange and arcane way, but has little to do with scientific realities. If there are only five flavours, where does umami (鮮) go and what about fat (油) flavours?

[4]: Former Nanjing, a city of people with bad tastes according to Yuan Mei.

Essential Knowledge 5 : Accompaniment (配搭須知)

諺曰︰「相女配夫」。《記》曰︰「儗人必於其倫。」烹調之法,何以異焉?凡一物烹成,必需輔佐。要使清者配清,濃者配濃,柔者配柔,剛者配剛,方有和合之 妙。其中可葷可素者,蘑菇、鮮筍、冬瓜是也。可葷不可素者,蔥韭、茴香、新蒜是也。可素不可葷者,芹菜、百合、刀豆是也。常見人置蟹粉於燕窩之中,放百合 於雞、豬之肉,毋乃唐堯與蘇峻對坐,不太悖乎?亦有交互見功者,炒葷菜,用素油,炒素菜,用葷油是也。

List of Essential Knowledge::Accompaniment
It is said in a proverb: “For each type of woman there is a matching man.” In Li-Ji (禮記) it is said: “One should compare a person against those most similar to him.” Are the methods of cuisine any different? The success of a dish depends on its ingredients’ mutual support and accompaniment. One should accompany light tasting ingredients with other light tasting ingredients, rich ingredients with other rich ingredients, soft ingredients with the soft, and firm ingredients with the firm, this way they are well matched and in harmony. Note that some ingredients can be used as accompaniment in either meat or vegetarian dishes, such as mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots, and winter melon. Ingredients the accompany meat dish well but not vegetarian dishes, include green onions, garlic chives, fennel seed, and garlic. Ingredients that accompany vegetarian dishes well but not meat dishes, include celery, lily bulbs, and sword beans. I often see crab roe being added into bird’s nest soup and lily bulbs being cooked with chicken and pork. This is similar to someone sitting two bitter rivals such as Tang Yao [1] and Su Jun [2] facing each other; a completely ridiculous decision. That said, there are ingredients that coordinate well despite being on opposite sides. For instance, one can quite effectively use vegetable oil to stir-fry meats and use animal fats to stir-fry vegetable items.

Random notes:

[1]: Tang yao (唐尧) was one of the mythic emperors sages from even before Xia dynasty (2100-1600 BC) little is know definitively about his life but wisdom is often attributed to him by Chinese scholars and Chinese emperors often claim descent from him.

[2]: Su Jun (蘇峻) was a warlord/general in the Jin Dynasty who fought bloody wars, rebelled and tried to overthrow his imperial goverment (succeeding for a short while), and died a bloody death.

Essential Knowledge 4 : Seasoning (調劑須知)

須知單::調劑須知 調劑之法,相物而施。有酒、水兼用者,有專用酒不用水者,有專用水不用酒者;有鹽、醬並用者,有專用清醬不用鹽者,有用鹽不用醬者;有物太膩,要用油先炙 者;有氣太腥,要用醋先噴者;有取鮮必用冰糖者;有以乾燥為貴者,使其味入於內,煎炒之物是也;有以湯多為貴者,使其味溢於外,清浮之物是也。

List of Essential Knowledge::Seasoning
When seasoning a dish, one must take character of the dishes ingredients into consideration. Some ingredients require both wine and water in seasoning, some use only wine, while others use only water. Some ingredients use both salt with soy sauce, some use only light soy sauce, while others use only salt. Some ingredients are heavy and overly greasy, which require a thorough pan frying with oil [1] before further preparation. Some ingredients smell raw or fishy, which requires them to be sprinkled with vinegar as treatment. Some ingredients need seasoning with sugar to enhance their umami sweetness. Yet other ingredients benefit greatly from some drying. This is especially true in pan-fried or stir-fried dishes since drying allows surrounding seasonings and flavours to better enter the dish’s ingredients [2]. There are also ingredients that show-off their best when cooked in a soup, since this allows their exquisite flavours to meld and contribute to the broth. Examples of this are the swimming and floating aquatic ingredients [3].

Random notes:

[1]: An example of this is DongPo Pork (東坡肉), where you have to first boil the pork belly then pan fry all sides of the chunk, paying special attention to the skin side to fry it to a toasted golden-brown colour. This way you can get a rather fatty pork dish that is, as they say: “Rich but not greasy” (肥而不腻).

[2]: This suggestion may be related to why it’s best to lightly salt your tofu and then pat it dry prior to pan frying (油煎). The process draws some moisture out from the surface of the otherwise soft tofu, which when dried with a towel allows the tofu to take on a delicate slightly crisp pellicule when pan-fried. To make this dish all one needs is good tofu, oil, and salt. Drizzle in good soy sauce and what you get is something so simple and yet so delectable and soul satisfying. Drying the outside of food before pan-frying is almost always done with steak and chops of meat in Western cuisine to promote flavourful Maillard reactions. This is probably also why French chef give apprentices little brushes to clean mushrooms and yell at them when they try to wash them with water instead. So remember: Ne lavez JAMAIS votre champignons, and do not f**k with ze French chefs (or the Chinese ones for that matter).

[3]: This translation is a guess on my part. The direct translation of “清浮之物是也” is “clear floating item/thing are such”, but to me I have a tough time getting what a clear float item actually is. As such, I’m guessing that it’s a poetic way of referring to aquatic ingredients such as fish and squid or maybe kelp and sea-weeds. After all they are things that float in clear aqueous stuff like water and brine. He may also be referring to edibles like turtles, shrimp, and clams, but a note of technicality, they don’t float well and they tend to live in murky unclear waters.

Essential Knowledge 3: Cleaning (洗刷須知)


List of Essential knowledge::Cleaning
The requirements of cleaning and washing specific ingredients are as follows; one must remove all feathers from bird’s nest, remove all mud from within sea cucumbers, remove all sand from shark’s fin, and wash the foul smells from deer tendon. If the meat contain sinews, one needs to remove them such that the meat can remain tender after cooking. Duck kidneys have a foul odour [1], therefore be sure to remove them and rinse the cavity well. Be careful to not break the fish’s gall bladder when gutting and cleaning the fish since doing so will render the entire dish bitter. If one does not wash away the saliva of an eel during its preparation, the resulting dish will have an unpleasant fishy odour. One must remove the old leaves when cleaning garlic chive, leaving only the tender white stems. When preparing leaf vegetables, one should remove the coarser outside leaves and use only the heart. In Nei-Ze (禮記::內則) it is said: “One should remove the orbital bone around a fish’s eyes and remove the orifices [2] of the soft shell turtle.”, admonishing us to diligently clean the ingredients for a dish [3]. The common proverb: “If you want a fish to taste good, you will have to clean it extremely well.” [4], also highlights the truth behind these facts.

Random notes:

[1]: One can also read the text as “Ducks have a foul urine-like kidney odour, make sure to clean it (and it’s insides) well to remove the smell.” So, either the duck’s kidneys smells bad, or the duck has bad kidney smells. Your pick.

[2]: I have no idea what “醜” are. It says here they are “perforated openings of the turtle”. What does that even mean? Nostrils? Cloaca? Mouth? Ears? I’m going saying “orifices” here for the sake of generality.

[3]: The full text is in here. Basically, the whole sentence tells what to do with animals in cleaning and preparations. Did you know you should remove the head of a badger and the intestines of a wolf when preparing them? I didn’t.

[4]: The Chinese text says “To make fish taste good, wash it until the white tendons/nerves come out”. Basically what’s being said here is that you have to wash the fish very well, right? At first I thought this was indeed the case and the white tendon part was simply exaggeration for humour. That is, until I read this. It appears that there ARE long white strands of nerves tissues that you have to remove from each side of the spine near the gills to really rid a fish such as carp of its strong fishy smells.