Essential Knowledge 17: Choice Portions (選用須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Choice Portions
The methods of choosing the right portions of ingredients are as follows: use pork tenderloin for quick stir-fries, use the inner muscle of the ham for meatballs [1], and use pork belly for slow braises. Black carp and grouper are good fish for stir-frying, while grass carp and the common carp are good for making fish floss [2]. Steamed chicken should be made using hens, braised chicken should be made using capons, and chicken broth should be made using mature chickens. For chickens, hens are more tender, while for ducks, drakes are more plump. For Brasenia [3], one uses the tips, while for celery and garlic chives, one uses the lower stems. There are definite reasons for choosing in these manners, with all ingredients having their own reasons.

Random notes:

[1]: Though I’m not completely sure, I do remember hearing that one uses the inside muscle of the ham for making gong wan (貢丸). The term “夾心” means “sandwiched in the middle”, which fits this. However, I’m not sure what the “front sandwiched in the middle” is (前夾心). Update: Actually if “夾心” is same as “胛心”, this would be the meat from the pork shoulder.

[2]: Fish floss is the fish analogue for pork floss, also known as rousong (肉鬆).

[3]: An aquatic plant, 蒪菜 is also known as 莼菜 Brasenia schreberi


Essential Knowledge 16: Using Starch (用纖須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Using Starch[1]
Bean starch is known as “xian”, just as boats are towed using “qian” [2]; from each item’s name, we can elucidate their use. When someone is shaping ground meat and wishes to make it hold its form, or if they wish to make a soup thick and smooth in texture, they need only to add starch to make it happen. If meat being stir-fried gets stuck to the bottom of the wok, its texture will turn dry. To prevent this, one could simply add some starch to meat to preserve their texture. Such are the ways of using starch in cooking. When one understands how to use starch, they can make it do wonders in dishes. However, when one has no idea how to use starch, they will make a hilarious mess of everything.

In “HanZhi Kao” a document about political administration in Han dynasty: The nation fo Qi, refers to “Fu” as “Mei” (the same character for “matchmaker”). “Mei” essentially means “xian” [3].

Random notes:

[1]: This is a “blah” translation. “纖” means velvety and smooth, which is what starch confers onto meats and dishes accented with them. By saying “Using Starch” is not exactly right since you lose the velvety smooth meaning. However, saying “Using Smootheners” or “Using Velveters” sound kind weird. You can also say “Using Thickeners” for a functional compromise, but it still does not do the job. Expect an update to this in the future.

[2]: “Qian” here means tow-line. The character is pronounced the same and related to the characeter “牽”, which means to lead by holding

[3]: Qi is now a region of northern shandong. By the way, I don’t actually get the purpose of this last sentence.

A bit tardy

Due to work related matters and other stuff, the next post will be a bit late in coming. Expect it in a few days.

In the meantime you should be hanging salted meats up on your porches for dried hams and preserved meaty whatnots. That is, if you’re the do-it-yourself type of person for this kind of stuff. As its name implies, 蠟肉 is ideally made during 蠟月 in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

If you live in Toronto condo like me, you hang your meats in the unheated unused guest bedroom with the window cracked open just so slightly during the day. It’s actually a great air-freshener, making your room smell like a Spanish tapas bar. Friends staying over have always commented on how hungry they got sleeping in that bedroom.

Essential Knowledge 15: Cleanliness (潔淨須知)

切蔥之刀,不可以切筍;搗椒之臼,不可以搗粉。聞菜有抹布氣者,由其布之不潔也;聞菜有砧板氣者,由其板之不淨也。「工欲善其事,必先利其 器。」良廚先多磨刀,多換布,多刮板,多洗手,然後治菜。至於口吸之煙灰,頭上之汗汁,灶上之蠅蟻,鍋上之煙煤,一玷入菜中,雖絕好烹庖,如西子蒙不潔,人皆掩鼻而過之矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Cleanliness
Just as a knife used to cut green onions cannot be used to cut bamboo shoots, a mortar used to pound peppercorns cannot be used to pound flour. A dish that has the smell of a cooking towel means that the towel used was not clean, just as a dish that smells of a chopping board means that the board used was not clean. It is said: “To do good work, one needs good tools”. [1] As such, cooks must be deligent in sharpening their knives, changing their cooking towels, scraping their chopping boards, and washing their hands before preparing food. Even a well done dish would be inedible if the ashes from tobacco, a cook’s dripping sweat, flies and ants crawling on the stove, or the soot on the wok are mixed into a dish. Note, even if was Xishi [2] covered in filth, people would still cover their nose and avoid her. [3]

Random notes:

[1]: From Analects of Confucius (論語::魏靈公)
[2]: Xishi (西施), the fabled Chinese beauty
[3]: The phrase was attributed to Mencius (孟子)

Essential Knowledge 14: Quantity (多寡須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Quantity
It is better to use more of an expensive ingredient in a dish and less of the inexpensive ones [1]. If too much of an ingredient is pan-fried or stir-fried at a time, there would be insufficient heat to cook [2] them through, meats done this way are especially tough. As such, a cooked meat dish should not have more than 300g of pork or more more than 222g of chicken and fish [3]. If one asks: “What if there isn’t enough to eat?”, I say: “If you’re not full after you’ve done, just cook-up some more”. However some foods, such as white-cooked pork, needs to be prepared in large quantities above 12kg in order to taste good, otherwise the resulting food will be light and flavour-less [4]. Congee also follows this principle.  A pot of congee made with less than 10 liters [5] of rice will not be thick enough. Thus water needs to be reduced in cooking lesser quantities of congee. Too much water with too little rice would result in a congee that is both thin in texture and flavour.

Random notes:

[1]: Don’t you hate it when there are more peanuts and onions in your Kung Pao Chicken than chicken?
[2]: Says “cook” here but from a later sentence, we can see he is really talking about stir-frying
[3]: In Qing Dynasty measurements 1斤 = 590g,1兩 = 36.9g
[4]: Also true with stewed items. I small pot of LuRou never gets the rich complexity when cooked in small quantities
[5]: In Qing Dynasty measurements 1斗 = 10000ml

Essential Knowledge 13: Seasons (時節須知)

夏日長而熱,宰殺太早,則肉敗矣;冬日短而寒,烹飪稍遲,則物生矣。冬宜食牛羊,移之於夏,非其時也。夏宜食乾臘,移之於冬,非其時也。輔佐之 物,夏宜用芥末,冬宜用胡椒。當三伏天而得冬醃菜,賤物也,而竟成至寶矣。當秋涼時而得行鞭筍,亦賤物也,而視若珍饈矣。有先時而見好者,三月食鰣魚是 也。有後時而見好者,四月食芋艿是也。其他亦可類推。有過時而不可吃者,蘿蔔過時則心空,山筍過時則味苦,刀鱭過時則骨硬。所謂四時之序,成功者退,精華 已竭,搴裳去之也。

List of Essential Knowledge::Seasons

Summer days are long and hot, which causes meat to spoil if the animal is slaughter too soon. Winter days are short and cold, which slows the cooking process and may cause food to be undercooked. Beef and lamb (mutton) are best eaten in the winter time and are not good for consumption during summer. Cured hams and preserved meats are good for eating during summer but are not as well suited for winter. As for condiments, mustard [1] is suited for summer and black pepper for winter. If one can find preserved winter vegetables in the peak of summer, even a once lowly item becomes a treasured ingredient. When one finds tough old bamboo shoots [2] during autumn, even such a typically worthless item becomes a precious commodities. Some ingredients are at their best when eaten early during their season, such as shad [3] in March. Some ingredients are best late in their season, such as taro in April. All ingredients are similar in this manner. However, some ingredients can no longer be used when they are too old. For instance, when mature, daikon roots become hollow and dry, bamboo shoots become bitter, and anchovies [4] become bony and hard. Such is the nature of life, where a thing grows and prospers only to fade away [5], sapped of its strength and vitality [6].

Random notes:

[1]: For me, when people say 芥末 nowadays, they more often refers to ground wasabi and less to ground mustard seeds. But in this case it means the latter.
[2]: I don’t know what type of bamboo shoot 鞭筍 actually is. A Google image search of the word phrase shows older shoots that are likely fiberous and tough. I’ll go with that.
[3]: Reeve’s shad Tenualosa reevesii
[4]: Japanese Grenadier Anchovy Coilia nasus
[5]: The phrase “四時之序,成功者去” is found in 戰國策::秦策三::蔡澤見逐於趙, which translates to something like: “Like the sequence of seasons, one flourishes then fades”
[6]: Is Yuan Mei talking about himself, fading from the peak in his earlier life at a higher post?