“Take egg whites and mix it with honey and wine lees, beat the mixture until even then steam. Cook until the mixture has set but is still tender. Do not overcook or else it will become tough. Likewise, using too much egg whites in this dish will make the dish tough.”
Considering how uncommon beef was back in Yuan Mei’s time, one could imagine how rare dairy would be. Perhaps this rarity caused milk to become something so desirable that people would want to imitate it?
Regardless of whether it was desirable because of rarity or because it just tastes so good, imitate it they did. The fact that Yuan Mei had a recipe imitating milk also tells us two things. First, that dairy may have been a popular exotic food when one had access to it. Second, it also shows that dishes such as “stir-fried” (炒牛乳) or “double-skinned” milk (雙皮奶), which are essentially like pan-cooked or steamed egg-white custards, may have had a rather long history in Chinese cuisine.
Like the imitation crab from before, we see how this recipe desperately tries to recreate the flavours of the milk through substitutes. Here, honey and wine lees were used to stand in for the sweet-flavours of boiled milk. I’ve tasted these two ingredient together and actually, if you let things the flavours go “out of focus” one could almost imagine it as being milk-like. Almost.
“It is hard to find palm civet in fresh form. To prepare dry-cured civet, steam it with sweet wine lees until done, and served it cut into slices with a sharp knife. Be sure to soak dry-cured civet in rice water for a full day to remove excess salt from the meat. Civet is more tender and oilier than a dry-cured ham.”
If people consider it beautiful or majestic, you can bet there will be many out there crying foul if you try to eat it. If it’s fuzzy and adorable, that outcry will be worse. But add “threatened species” and “Chinese” to this and what you get is a hoard of angry people screaming things tinged with covert racism.
Well, thankfully the Masked Palm Civet is not endangered or even threatened. But it is still cute. This means that if you mention eating it to anyone well-colonized or otherwise outside the culture, it will certainly bring about sneers and jeers of disapproval.
Sure, if an animal or plant is harvested until it is threatened or endangered it has to stop. But what right does anyone have to say that I cannot eat dogs, turtles, and civet cat and then morally judge me for being okay with it? Just because one had restricted themselves to only eating certain animals and pride themselves in doing so does not mean that everyone else have to follow. This is the same sort of crap that the Inuit have to deal with when they go on subsistence whale hunts or when the Newfoundlanders go on seal hunts. It’s a lot of international cross-cultural finger wagging and people crying foul, then everybody goes back to gorging on their bottom trawled seafood and endangeredtuna, all while complaining about those shark’s fin eating Chinese.
As for what fresh or dry-cured civet tastes like, I have no idea. Duck? Chicken? Dry-cured ham? Tell me if you have tried it.
But silently, lest you wish to brave the angry hoards.
“Prepare meat from the water deer as one would with beef or venison. It can also be dried into jerky. Water deer meat is not as tender and succulent as venison, but its much finer and smoother in texture.”
Just a quick note, I’ve decided to translate all instances of the character for the camphor tree (樟) in the original Chinese text to water deer (獐).
Trying to cook “meat” from a camphor tree or making it into jerky just does not make sense. And judging from the similar looking left radical, this is definitely a clear case of transcribing error.
“Deer tendon does not soften easily. For the first three days of preparations, one must pound and boil the tendons several times, while continually wringing out any foul-smelling juices from within it. Next, braise the deer tendon in pork broth and then after that braise it in chicken broth. Add autumn sauce, wine, and starch to thicken and reduce the cooking liquid.
The tendon can be served as-is as a white-cooked dish without addition of anything else. They can also be braised together with ham, winter bamboo shoots, and shitake until they take on a reddish hue and then served in a bowl without reduction. To finish the white-cooked dish, sprinkle it with finely ground Szechuan pepper.”
While I buy beef tendon and eat it often enough, I have never had deer tendon. And unless I have to chance to go deer hunting one of these days, I highly doubt I will. Coming at more than $100CAD per kg in dried form, deer tendon is not exactly cheap especially considering that beef tendon is usually much less than a tenth of the price. Truth is, if their texture and flavours are anywhere similar to one other, I’m not sure why I would pay anything close to eat the former.
Regardless, this recipe is still rather informative since it shows one how to reconstitute and process dried deer tendon, at least in the way the people in Qing Dynasty did it. The technique is the same as most dried texture foods used in Chinese cuisine (like sharks fin or sea cucumber) but with more pounding and wringing. Basically, you are trying to purge the ingredients of all its original smells and tastes, fill it with the flavours of a good meat broth, and then use in your recipe.
The two methods of preparing deer tendon described here probably works well enough for fresh pork and beef tendon. That said they still probably cannot beat a plate of mala tendon (麻辣牛筋).
“Venison is hard to procure. Once acquired and prepared, it is more tender, delicate, and sweeter than the meat of the Water deer. It can be prepared grilled or braised.”
I was listening to a past episode of Helen Zalzman‘s excellent podcast The Allusionist where she was talking about how venison came from Latin for “to hunt” and how this eventually got associated to the meat of any game animals such as wild boar or deer, which then somehow got stuck to deer meat in semi-modern times. This got me thinking again on how annoying it would be for someone trying to cook the period’s cuisine. Imagine you want to cook up a nice Medieval Europe recipe that asks for “venison” but really you have no clue what animal’s meat they are specifying.
One has more or less the same problem when reading (or translating) the Suiyuan Shidan. Just take a look at the River Delicacies chapter and you’ll see how annoyingly complicated it is to narrow down what species of fish was being specified in the recipe. And just in case you don’t think this matters, I posit that there is a life or death difference between eating the bones of a saury versus than of an anchovy.
So, while I would normally venture that venison from any of the adorable creatures from Family Cervidae taste the same, Yuan Mei was quite explicit here that the deer he is talking about tastes much better than another type of deer, namely the Water deer, and that not any would suffice. Which leaves us to figure out from what type of deer Yuan Mei’s venison comes from.
Immediately we can toss out most of the deer from the Subfamily Capreolinae, which consist of the Old World relatives of the Water deer and numerous other deer species existing only in the New World. Now only left only with deer from the Subfamily Cervinae, I would quickly toss out the animals that belong in the mutjacs and tufted deer Genus. These deer have small or no antlers and have sharp vampire-like tusks that look very much like the Water deer, which I’m guessing may have been regarded as the same Chinese animal (獐, zhang) by people of Yuan Mei’s time. This leaves us with the “true deers”, which is still a lot of species to consider, even if we were to narrow the list down by what was available in China.
For the sake of brevity and to not explode this into a full research project, I would like to go even further out on a limb and make the mildly educated guess that Yuan Mei’s venison comes from the Sika deer (梅花鹿). And although it is a guess, if I may, it’s not such a terrible one considering that Sika deer are quite common throughout China in the wild and it does have a historical connection to Chinese culture both in hunting, medicine, and thus likely, cuisine.
But in thinking over the premise of the importance of find the exact species required for the recipe, really, how many people in this world now eat deer on a regular basis, much less are able to tell if they are eating Sika, Sambar, Milu, or even Water Deer? What if you use elk? Or wild boar? Or substituted a lame horse just pulled off the track? Most people can’t even tell what they are eating half of the time and mislabelling is rampant (just look at what’s happening with fish). So at the end, maybe we should just forget about this whole deal with identifying the right type of venison.
“There are innumerable recipes for preparing the whole sheep, but out of all these different preparations there are only about eighteen or nineteen that can be considered edible. The skill of cooking sheep whole is quite esoteric, much like that of slaying dragons, as such it is difficult for a home cook to master. When the whole sheep is served-up in a large dish or a bowl, one should be able to enjoy the distinct flavours of all cuts of meat from the animal, only then can the dish be considered a success.”
The reason why people developed “cuts of meat” instead of hacking the animal up into random chunks is simple: each muscle group, each cut, has a different texture, toughness, and requires cooking times if not completely different cooking techniques altogether. What this also means is that when you decide to cook meat based on cuts, you have have primed yourself for success, while if you cook an animal whole you are always at the knife’s edge of failure and waste.
To illustrate how one can screw things up when cooking a whole animal, one only needs to look to the bemoaned roast chicken. While this item is now ubiquitous in the Western world, enjoyable or edible specimens are few and far between. At our present time, roast chickens, whether you buy them at a big box store, some ridiculous chicken chain, or even small restaurants, are typically the same depressingly dry carcasses. Which also explains why many places serve them amply with sauce and gravy to poorly disguise that they are serving you desiccated meat. A whole roast chicken with juicy legs and breast is uncommon indeed.
If cooking something as small as a chicken can be somewhat of a challenge, it should not be surprising that cooking whole animals becomes more difficult the bigger it is. While a well roasted chicken is not completely impossible to find, a well roasted turkey or goose can be considered rare enough that one reminisces about the last time one had one. For me, that last good chicken I had was half a year ago and turkey about fifteen years back. Given this trend, I can imagine how thoroughly impossible it would be to find a well cooked whole sheep in a lifetime.
And even if it was well prepared and one was lucky enough to have it, could a cooked whole sheep rival the chopped up mutton cuts found in a simple Sup Kambing, Karahi Gosht, or Yangrouchuan? I highly doubt it.