Essential Knowledge 1 : Basic Nature (先天須知)

須知單::先天須知
凡物各有先天,如人各有資稟。人性下愚,雖孔、孟教之,無益也;物性不良,雖易牙烹之,亦無味也。指其大略︰豬宜皮薄,不可腥臊;雞宜騸嫩,不可老稚;鯽魚以扁身白肚為佳,烏背者,必倔強於盤中;鰻魚以湖溪游泳為貴,江生者,必槎枒其骨節;穀餵之鴨,其膘肥而白色;壅土之筍,其節少而甘鮮;同一火腿也,而好醜判若天淵;同一台鯗也,而美惡分為冰炭。其他雜物,可以類推。大抵一席佳餚,司廚之功居其六,買辦之功居其四。

List of Essential knowledge::Basic Nature
All things have their basic nature, just like each person has their own qualities. If a person is by nature dim-witted, it would be pointless even if they were taught by Confucius or Mencius. Similarly, if the starting ingredients are of low quality, even the extraordinary culinary skills of Yi-ya [1] would produce an mediocre dish. As a brief overview on the qualities of ingredients:

  • Good pork should have thin skin and lack any strong or foul smells [2].
  • Good chicken should be tender and neither too old (tough) or too young (under-developed).
  • Quality carp [3] should have flat bodies with white bellies. Carp with darker backs will prove less edible.
  • Eel taken from the lakes and streams are exquisite, while those who have lived in the large rivers tend to be scrawny and full of spines and bone.
  • Grain-fed ducks should be round and fat such that their flesh is pale.
  • Cultivated bamboo shoots with less segments taste fresher and sweeter [4].

The difference between a quality of a good ham and a bad one is miles apart. As for the xiang [5] of Taizhou, one cannot even begin to measure the difference between a good and bad. The same sort of reasoning applies to other food-stuffs. For the quality of of a banquet’s dishes, 60% of the credit goes to the cook, but 40% goes to the person who selected the ingredients.


Random notes:

[1]: A famous chef of great cooking prowess from the Spring and Autumn period of China’s tumultuous history. Infamous for allegedly cooking his infant son in soup after his king expressed interest in tasting meat from human babies. Go state-sponsored cannibalism!

[2]: Literally fishy/raw meat smells (腥) and foul urine-like smells (臊)

[3]: The Crucian carp

[4]: How does one translate “甘鮮”? Sweet and umami? Sweet and fresh? Sweet and delectable?

[5]: A dried salted fish usually made from Yellow croaker

Essential Knowledge: Introduction (須知單:開篇)

須知單::開篇
學問之道,先知而後行,飲食亦然。

List of Essential Knowledge[1]::Introduction
In the scholarly arts, one must first understand something before putting it to practice. Such is the same with the culinary arts.


Random notes:
[1]: Basically, “A list of essential things that you must know”

The Preface (序)

隨園食單::序
詩人美周公而曰:「籩豆有踐」,惡凡伯而曰「彼疏斯稗」。古之於飲食也,若是重乎!他若《易》 稱鼎烹,《書》稱鹽梅,《鄉黨》、《內則》瑣瑣言之,孟子雖 賤飲食之人,而又言飢渴未能得飲食之正。可見凡事須求一是處,都非易言。《中庸》曰:「人莫不飲食也,鮮能知味也」;《典論》曰:「一世長者知居處,三世 長者知服食」。古人進鬐離肺,皆有法焉,未嘗苟且。子與人歌而善,必使反之,而後和之。聖人於一藝之微,其善取於人也如是。余雅慕此旨,每食於某氏而飽, 必使家廚往彼灶觚,執弟子之禮。四十年來,頗集眾美。有學就者,有十分中得六七者,有僅得二三者,亦有竟失傳者。余都問其方略,集而存之,雖不甚省記,亦 載某家某味,以志景行。自覺好學之心,理宜如是。雖死法不足以限生廚,名手作書亦多有出入,未可專求之於故紙;然能率由舊章,終無大謬,臨時治具,亦易指 名。或曰:「人心不同,各如其面,子能必天下之口皆子口乎?」曰:「執柯以伐柯,其則不遠。吾雖不能強天下之口與吾同嗜,而姑且推己及物。則飲食雖微,而 吾於忠恕之道則已盡矣,吾何憾哉!」若夫《說郛》所載飲食之書三十餘種,眉公、笠翁亦有陳言;曾親試之,皆閼(音惡)於鼻而蜇於口,大半陋儒附會,吾無取 焉。

Suiyuan Shidan::Preface
Poets of the past praised the founding Duke of Zhou dynasty, stating: “His tableware was arranged in an straight and orderly fashion” [1] to describe his methodical and effective governing methods. Ministers criticized the King You of Zhou, stating: “Coarse grains of the past, Delicate grains of the present”, angered by his indulgent and ostentatious lifestyle and lamenting the end of the Dynasty. From these verses, we can clearly see how cuisine was something of great importance even to the Ancients!

Indeed, matters pertaining to the cuisine are well represented in the ancient Classics; Yi-Jing (易經) touched upon cooking techniques, Shang-Shu (尚書) touched upon flavouring food and seasoning, and brief discussions on the matter of cuisine are scattered throughout Xiang-Dang (論語:鄉黨) and Nei-Ze (禮記:内則). Even Mencius, who relegated cuisine as something frivolous nevertheless opined that it is not possible to properly savour ones food and drink in abject hunger and thirst [2]. As can be seen, trying to cover such broad subject as cuisine will not be an easy feat.

In Zhong -Yong (中庸), the Sage said: “Everyone eats and drinks, but those who can understand and discern their flavours are few in between.” In Dian-Lun (典論) it is said: “It takes an Elder [3] a lifetime to appreciate how to lodge and live, but it would take him three to fully appreciate eating”. The Ancients always meticulously prepared food sacrifices [4] for the rites and ceremonies in accordance to the decree, and was never negligent when performing these duties. It was said that when Confucius was touched in hearing someone’s singing, he would ask them to repeat their song and then try to accompany it with his own voice. By this method, the Sage shows how one can improve oneself and acquire the the skills of others. I admire this drive to continually improve oneself and I too seek to emulate it at all times. When ever I have eaten well and was inspired by the meal I have had at someone’s place, I would later send my cook to them to note down the dishes’ recipes and the techniques of their preparation.

It is in this manner, over the last forty years, that I have managed to compile and assemble the recipes of these delectable dishes together into a manual. Some of the techniques and recipes for the recorded dishes are complete in entirety, some are mostly complete, some have been learned and recorded in fragments, while others can only be described superficially or named.  I have sincerely asked each house for their recipes in order to gather them here. Thus, despite of the fact that some of the recipes and techniques are not quite detailed, I nevertheless recorded the dishes’ taste and originating houses as a show of gratitude to their generosity and for the sake of prosperity. Such is the nature of one with an inquisitive mind.

We should note that statically written recipes cannot match the capabilities of a living cook. Even the most capable writer cannot produce an error-less work. As such there is no need to attempt to exert oneself in trying to distill complete bodies of knowledge from old yellowing texts. If someone asks: “Each person has their own preferences, much like they all have different faces, how can you be so sure that their tastes will match your own in any way?” To that, I say: “Like arranging a marriage and chopping wood for an axe handle [6], if things are done in an orderly and practical manner then the results will not be too far off the expected norm. I cannot guarantee that everyone in the world will have the same tastes as I do, but I can still tentatively introduce them to dishes and recipes that I fancy.” Although the matters of food and drink are can be consider somewhat trivial, I have earnestly said all that I wish to said from my heart and for that I regret nothing! [7]

As for the book Shuo-Fu, which listed 30 types of food and drink, as well as the works of Mei Gong and Li Li-Weng, I have personally tested all their recipes. However, this has resulted in nothing but offensive and noxious dishes. I conclude that for the most part, these works are the results of the overextended imaginations of mediocre scholars, and as such I have cited nothing from them


Random notes:

[1]: It’s like saying “He has his ducks in a row” in modern parlance. In the case of the Duke the ducks were likely also literal. Peking ducks in a row! Haha.

[2]: Mencius’ full statement points to the idea that hunger and thirst robs people of their ability to savouring of food and in can damage the integrity of their being. Or something like that.

[3]: 長者 typically means a high ranking dignitary, but to me that makes less sense. So I’m going with “elder”.

[4]: It literally says: “Reserving the sharks fin and the animal lungs“. The line was taken from the Book of Rites 儀禮, which at this part is of a never-ending list of stuff about what to do with people, animals, and alcohol for various veneration rites. It is about as fun to read as that ancestry part of the Old Testament.

[5]: It literally says something like: “To ask in a formal custom to be taken in as a disciple.” This is clear an exaggeration, probably for the sake of humour. We KNOW he likely won’t want to lose his cook for several years in apprenticeship.

[6]: This is in reference to a poem from the “Making axe handles” (詩經‧國風‧豳‧伐柯) Which badly translated goes something like: “How does one make/chop an axe handle? It is not possible without an axe. How does one get a wife? It is not possible without a matchmaker. Oh making axe handles, making axe handles, the produced isn’t too far off the expected. And when I’m wish to be married? All the tableware will be lined up in a row.” (伐柯如何?匪斧不克。取妻如何?匪媒不得。伐柯伐柯,其則不遠。我覯之子?籩豆有踐。). Note the last line of them poem about the tableware (籩豆有踐) circularly refers to the first line of this preface about the Duke of Zhou. So in using this poetic reference to tie-up and conclude the preface, Yuan Mei is showing how smart scholarly, crafty, and smart he is. Yay.

[7]: Non! Rien de rien!

Translating the Suiyuan Shidan (隨園食單)

A long long time ago in Qing Dynasty China, a hedonistic elite scholar and gastronome by the name of Yuan Mei (袁枚) sat down in his chair and condensed 40 years of his gastronomic experiences into one of China’s most fascinating and important food manuals: The Suiyuan Shidan (隨園食單).

The background of Yuan Mei quite interesting. Born of a poor family, here was a person who against all odds, through a combination of luck, hard-work, and sheer talent, made it to the top of the Qing Dynasty’s societal pyramid at a young age of 24 years old. Competing in the Chinese imperial exams, he beat out almost all of the other candidate and was appointed an imperial magistrate [1]. This is a rather high position that people pined for and most would have clung to with tooth and claw if they even got close (The Power! The money! The Prestige!). But Yuan Mei after a few years as magistrate, drops everything, moves back home, and lived his life in leisure, doing whatever he wants [2]. This included composing poetry and writing essays like many literati, but ultimately also spending lots of time and money drinking, partying, and lustily chasing after young women and men alike.

The non-conformist that he is, Yuan Mei also published his manual…on cuisine. This may not strike people of our era as out-of-the-ordinary, but one needs to understand that cuisine was a subject matter collectively shunned by most Chinese literati. While, enjoying food and being extra picky about it [3] was something to which most literati (and men) did all the time, cooking was something to be left to lowly women and uneducated men. Mencius typified this uppity attitude when he said: “A true gentlemen avoids the kitchen.” (君子遠庖廚也) Due to this stigma towards cooking and cuisine, those who had the skills to write about it either did not pay it much attention or did so by more or less making everything up [4]. As a result, there are lots of works throughout the dynasties talking about how great the food and drink was, but little to no reliable sources on how the great foods and drinks were made.

This is why Suiyuan Shidan is such an important work. Through this manual, we have a window to not only see what constituted Chinese cuisine back then and be able to understand in geeky detail what people thought about the food: how should ingredients be prepared and matched for optimal effect, what were the crucial skills of a cook, how the quality of dishes were judged, etc. Moreover Yuan Mei has provided us a large list of recipes, allowing us to see what high and low-brow dishes existed in mid Qing Dynasty China. The surprisingly clear instructions in the recipes also gives us the opportunity to recreate the dishes and compare them to contemporary ways of making them. I also laughed while browse some of the items in the “Things to Avoid” section of the manual, namely where Yuan Mei bemoaned the tastelessness of rich people ruining food and when he made snide comments about those trying too hard to make their dishes sound fancy. Note that these complaints are still the staples of modern gastronomic writing, which goes to show how even after almost 300 years the work is still highly relevant in our time.

Anyways, the purpose of this blog is to ultimately for me to try translating this important work in Chinese cuisine into English. It’s going to much of a challenge translating Classical Chinese (文言文) into English, but I’ll do my best to be accurate and faithful to the original text. Note that in this Suiyuan Shidan/隨園食單 translation project, I will be actively learning at every step on the way, as such the results may not be “professional grade”. If someone’s life hinges on the perfect translation, please visit a professor at your local Asian Studies department for direct help.

Anyways, we’ll see how it goes. Stay-tuned.


Random notes:

[1]: Becoming a highly-educated super-elite Confucian literati magistrate was not something easily accomplished. Not only must one be fortunate enough to be born into a family capable of support your education, you must study for years; from childhood to adulthood, memorizing and trying to understand volumes of arcane ancient texts. Only then, will you have the opportunity to take a qualification exam to earn the right to take whole series of even longer and more difficult exams. Do well in these exams and gigantic golden doors will open for you. You will be showered with money, power, and the everlasting awe and respect of everyone you ever knew. This is why over 2 million scholars competed each year in these examinations during Qing Dynasty China. Almost ALL of them (around 99%) invariably failed. The ones that didn’t fail could earn the right to be a county clerk, but only 300 individuals from the initial hoard will be recognized as Jinshi (進士) and “win” an appointment as a imperial magistrate. At 0.015%, the odds are better than the lottery, but it’s still pretty slim.

[2]: This totally reminds me of Grigori Perelman who solved one of the most important conjectures in mathematics. After news broke of his breakthrough, people rushed to offer him awards and money and fame. But he turned all of it down and continue to live the quiet life with his mom in a tiny Soviet-era apartment. These are Men of convictions.

[3]: Confucius refused to eat stuff if it wasn’t cleaned right, if it wasn’t cut right, if he didn’t like the colour or smell, if the sauce wasn’t right, it the season wasn’t right, etc. Anyways, it’s all here, have fun.

[4]: There is this story about an emperor entranced by the great flavours of a suckling pig dish. Asking his host/son-in-law how it was made, the son-in-law told him that the exquisite tastes of the pork was due to the fact that the suckling pig was raise on human milk. Was it really true? Human milk pork? No idea, but this gives you an idea what a lot of the “recipes” were like when describe by “true gentlemen” of dynastic China. I personally think that guy was full of it.