“Boil the pork with its skin on until done, then pan-fry it with sesame oil in the wok. Cut the pork into pieces and serve with salt. Alternatively the pork can be eaten dipped in light soy sauce.
The Cantonese excel at all manners of roasted and grilled pork items. Part of this is no doubt because of skill, but some of it is also due to the specialized equipment they use. For instance, items such as shaorou (燒肉, lit. broiled/roasted pork), which involves roasting the whole animal, are almost always prepared using custom built ovens. This ensures that the pork skin turns into crisp crackling while the meat remains juicy and tender.
Yuan Mei’s “wok roasted pork” probably allows for cooking smaller portions of pork but still achieving the same delectably textured skin and meat as roasting a whole pig. Actually, the “roasting” part of the dish’s name is a bit of a misnomer, since the technique is just boiling and pan-frying pork. Nevertheless, boiling in water would have kept the meat moist and frying in sesame oil would have turned the skin into fragrant golden brown crackling.
As such, although it is not technically roasted, the resulting dish would have been just as delicious.
“Pound the pork until it becomes a thick paste. Take cold rendered lard, roll them into balls, then use them to fill each pounded pork meatball. Steam the filled meatballs such that the fat melts and flows away, leaving each meatball with a hollow core. The people of Zhenjiang are especially good at preparing this dish.”
What a gimmicky dish. If anything this was created for the sole purpose of impressing and eliciting praise from one’s guests.
While it’s possible that one could derive a modicum of enjoyment from eating hollow meatballs, I would liken it to eating chocolate foam: it’s mildly amusing the first time around, but its pretty much pointless every time after that.
“Take one portion of lean pork and one of fatty pork and mince them into a fine paste. Take pine-nuts, shitake, the tips of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, soy-pickled cucumbers and ginger, then mince them into a fine paste as well. Combine everything with powdered starch and shape the mixture into balls. Place the meatballs on a dish and steam with sweet wine and autumn sauce. When eaten, the texture of the meatballs should be crisp and tender. Jia Zhihua once said: “To make meatballs, the meat should be finely cut and not chopped”. There is truth in his statement.”
An “eight treasured” dish with only six side ingredients? Quaint. But truth is this recipe is missing more than just ingredients, it is missing a huge chunk of information on technique.
In order to have meatballs with that “crisp and tender” texture of good fishballs, you need to beat the pork mixture for quite a while with salt. If you made the meatballs exactly according to Yuan Mei’s instructions, what you would get are loose, floury meatballs like those from IKEA that don’t have much of any texture. By machine, mixing and beating the meat mixture for texture takes a good half an hour, by hand, this would have taken a lot lot longer.
The final statement extolling meatballs made with finely cut pork makes a good deal of sense. For the same reasons why coffee ground using mills are better than that ground using blade grinders, finely cut the pork produces minced pork with more even particle sizes. This evenly minced pork in turn produces meatballs with a more consistent and enjoyable texture. As for how long it would have taken to finely cut enough pork for one’s meatballs, I could not imagine.
Thank goodness for modern food processing machines.
“For this dish, use a mixture of half lean and half fatty pork that has been sliced thinly and marinaded in soy sauce. Stir-fry the pork in oil. When the pork starts to crackle, add soy sauce, water, green onions, squash, winter bamboo shoots, and white garlic chives. Be sure to finish the dish by stir-frying over very high heat.”
This describes a typical stir-fry recipe that easily falls into the category of “household dishes” (家常菜). These are simple dishes that anyone with a decent amount of cooking skill could prepare at home. Yuan Mei listed it probably because he liked it.
As usual, there were some ambiguous bits in this text the required some thought during translation. First, the part which I translated as “when the pork starts to crackle”, actually has the rather vague literal translation: “when you hear (it) making sounds” (聞響). But we all know that any ingredient “makes sounds” when you fry them, so one has to assume that this sound is pretty different from the usual frying pork sounds. And what sound would this be? My experience with frying pork is that sometimes it pops or crackles, thus my translation. Still, a more accurate translation may be: “when the pork starts to make some extraordinary sounds above what one expects to hear when frying.” I’ll leave it to whomever tries out this recipe to tell me what sound the pork actually makes.
Second is the ingredient “gua” (瓜), which I translated as “squash”. The word “gua” is basically used in Chinese to describe all manners of “vegetable fruits” under the Order Cucurbitaceae, which includes cucumbers, gourds, luffa, watermelons, and squashes. Papaya (木瓜), though not in this phylogenetic groups is also considered a gua due to its shape. As such, one has a world of possible gua to pick from from when cooking this dish. Personally, I think the edible varieties of the bottle gourd (瓠瓜), cucumber (黄瓜), or the miniature variety of wintermelon (毛瓜, Benincasa hispida var. chieh-qua) would all work well for this recipe. As for what “gua” Yuan Mei had in mind, heaven knows.
“Cut the pork into fine strips, remove any sinew, skin, and bones, then marinate the strips in light soy-sauce and wine. Heat a small quantity of vegetable oil in a wok until the white wisps of oil smoke become bluish wisps. Immediately add the strips of pork and stir continuously without pausing. Add steamed rice noodles, a drop of vinegar, and a pinch of sugar. Finish with garlic chives, garlic, the white portions of green onion, or similar ingredients. Stir-fry only half a jin of the dish at a time at high heat without using any water.”
Another method is to fry the pork in oil first then quickly braise it with soy-sauce and wine. Plate the pork when it is red in colour. The dish is particularly good when finished with garlic chives.
In this section are two rather different recipes for pork strips, one stir-fried and one braised. The first recipe is more or less Ganchao Niuhe (乾炒牛河), but done with pork instead of beef. The details given here about the temperature of the oil, the continuous stirring, and the relatively small portions of ingredients illustrates the key to this type of stir-frying, known as “bao” (爆). Cooking more pork and using oil that is not burning hot would create a wet stewed dish devoid of the wok-hei needed to make this recipe a success.
The second recipe actually sounds a lot like a simple dish my mother used to make for dinners. I can attest that it’s quite good.
“Take the tender flower buds of the cauliflower, pickle lightly in brine, and then sun dry. Braise the dried cauliflower with the pork.”
Is the pork here being braised with dried semi-pickled cauliflower? Maybe. The section title refers to the vegetable as caihuatou (菜花頭), which translates to “the head of the vegetable flower”. In modern Chinese, cauliflower is known as “caihua” (菜花), so we may be tempted to say that caihuatou means “a head of cauliflower”. But the problem is we do not know whether our cauliflower today was known with the same name during Qing dynasty. Indeed the first few words of the section translates to “Take the tender buds of a taixin vegetable” (用台心菜嫩蕊), which clearly indicates that the name of the vegetable that bears a head-like mass of flower buds came from a vegetable variety known as “taixin” (台心菜). So what exactly is this vegetable?
While a Google search for “taixin” proved unfruitful, Yuan Mei’s descriptions had already narrowed the possibility of vegetables down to two types, namely broccoli and cauliflower. The next step is more or less a guess, but considering that name of the floral portion of the vegetable (菜花) used by Yuan Mei is now used to refer to the modern cauliflower, perhaps this could be taking as some sort of evidence that the cauliflower was indeed taixin vegetable.
So yes, after all that blabbering I’m saying it’s cauliflower after all.
In any case, this recipe is rather interesting in that the cauliflower was prepared by first being lightly pickled and dried before used in braising. This is somewhat similar to meigancai (霉乾菜), a type of fully pickled dried leaf mustard that is famously used in the braised pork dish Meicai Kourou (梅菜扣肉), lending its delicious savoury aroma to the pork. Perhaps Yuan Mei’s dish was equally good?
“Take one jin of pork that is half lean and half fatty. Boil it in plain broth for ten to twenty guun then cut it into willow-leaf shaped pieces. Prepare two liang of small mussels, two liang of shrimp, one liang of shitake, two liang of jelly-fish, four pieces of walnuts with the bitter membrane removed, four liang of bamboo shoot slices, two liang of good dry-cured ham, and one liang of sesame oil. Braise the pork in autumn sauce and wine in a pot until half done. Combine the pork with all of the accompanying ingredients and continue braising until done. The jelly-fish should only be added at the very end.”
Look through a typical Chinese cookbook and one is bound find at least one recipe for a Babao dish. These “Eight Treasure” dishes range from savoury appetizers and main dishes to a slew of sweet desserts, but they are connected by the fact that they all contain eight different multicoloured, sometimes expensive, but always interesting-to-eat ingredients. In this recipe, the pork was considered a precious enough ingredient to be included as one of the treasures, but usually the base ingredient is not counted as one of the eight. For example, the famous Babao rice (八寶飯) is a sweet dish containing eight notable ingredients plus rice.
I also love how Yuan Mei decided to refer to the shrimp here as “Eagle’s talons“ (鷹爪). In all likelihood, this may just be an abbreviation for the “Eagle talon shrimp” (鷹爪蝦) Trachypenaeus curvirostris, but by omitting the “shrimp” part, he raises the status of the otherwise lowly crustacean to something more exotic, precious, and maybe more fitting to be one of the eight treasures. And a treasure they are. When fresh, these shrimp are so delicately crisp that biting into them you are almost shocked by the sensation. Needless to say, they would have worked wonders with other “crisp” textured ingredients such as bamboo shoots and jelly fish. While “eagle talons” could also arguably refer to chicken feet (known as “Phoenix talons”, 鳳爪), or even be read quite literally, the texture of bird talons whether they are from chickens or eagles would not have fit well in this dish. Besides, if you wanted to serve real eagle talons, you would serve them on their own, not mixed in and confused with a whole bunch of other stuff. When you’re trying be flamboyant and extravagant, it is probably good to be as direct as possible.
As for where the whole thing about “eight treasures” came from it, the most obvious answer would be the Buddhist eight treasures. However, I suspect that it goes back earlier than the introduction of the Buddhism to China from India. Fact is, Chinese culture from ancient to modern always had a tendency towards using numerological concepts in daily life, something which can be attributed directly to the Taoists. I will leave it to somebody to do the real research while I “armchair” it.