Real life takes over…again

Who in the world would willingly move apartments three times in a year? Me, I guess. Hopefully this is the last time for a long while.

Regardless, translation is on a stand-still due to the craziness of the on-going move and the fact that the ISP technician will not show up for another week.

So bear with me as I relocate myself from one TTC accessible intersection in Toronto to another. Once I can breath, I’ll post the soon-to-be-finished translation. Only 2 more sections in the “Things to Avoid” Chapter until we get the the recipes part of the Suiyuan Shidan. Exciting!


Things to Avoid 12: Cliché (戒落套)


List of Things to Avoid::Cliché
Tang poetry is esteemed to be the pinnacle of classical poetry, yet it is seldom referred or quoted by famous Tang-style poets.[1] Why? Due its popular widespread use, the material has become hopelessly cliché.[2] If this can be true with poetry, it can also be so for gastronomy.

In today’s Court Cuisine, one too often hears of ostentatious references to “sixteen dishes, eight vessels[3], and four side-dishes”, the “Manchurian-Han banquet”, the “eight small delicacies”[4], or the “ten great dishes”. These hackneyed categories stem from the vulgar habits of bad chefs. Displays this trite are useful only for welcoming new relations through one’s gates or when the boss comes to visit. They serve as perfunctory acts of duty; mere decorations to be set alongside tables and chairs draped in embroideries, fine ornamental screens, and embelished incense platforms.[5] Of course, all this is to be accompanied by one’s endless bowing as required by custom.

If one is having a celebratory banquet at one’s abode, where the grand meal will be interwoven with prose, poetry, and fine wine, how could one feel comfortable hosting it in manner as trite as those mentioned above? When feasting with close friends and kin, the food need to be assembled together in joyous disarray of dishes and bowls such that an intimate air of refinement is brought to the meal.

Birthday and wedding banquets at my abode tend to become rather large affairs that gather enough guests to easily fill five or six tables. On these occasions, outside cooks need to be hired, which inevitably leads the food to become the aforementioned sad and ostentatious displays. However, if the hired cooks are in fact skilled and experienced, capable of preparing the dishes to my specifications, then the resulting food is quite something else altogether.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: In Chinese it says something like “experts of the Wuyan-Bayun style”, but I’ve decided to translate it as “Tang-style poets” and not transliterate it as “Wuyan-Bayun”. I think it makes it easier to read and the sentence more logical. Wuyan-Bayun literally translates to “five sylabels, eight rhyme poetry” and is an East Asian poetic form consisting of eight lines with five sylable each. originating and popular in the Tang dynasty. It is also known as the Imperial Examination poetic form (試帖詩) due to it’s use in the Chinese imperial examinations over several dynastic periods.

[2]: This is like Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which has been played so often as background in elevators worldwide that it has lost all impact. We aren’t even accounting for the fact that it’s probably the most commonly butchered piece by kids learning piano. I for one can no longer listen to it without feeling both irritated and slightly nauseated.

[3]: I’ve translated 簋 (gui) as “vessel”. The “Gui” are a type of ceremonial vessels used in Ancient China from the 11th Century BCE up until Zhou dynasty. An “Eight Gui” dinner is probably a rather pompous affair.

[4]: Although commonly (mis)translated as “snack”, xiaochi (小吃) in Chinese cuisine is more of a small quick-to-eat dish or meal-in-a-bowl, than a snack in the modern Western sense. Something like a hot-dog or poutines would be more akin to xiaochi in Chinese cuisine than a bag of crisps or cheesies. In the context of Imperial Court cuisine, “eight xiaochi” is not likely to be eight small snacks but more like 8 small delicacies, hence the translation.

[5]: In modern Chinese society, these things are brought out during days of worship, like the Taiwanese “大拜拜” (da-bai-bai) day where ancestors and deities are venerated. When I hear “da-bai-bai”, my head immediately fills with images of these tables with embroideries, food piled high on tables, gigantic incense burners fumigating temple courtyards, and throngs of people extruding themselves through the temple gates. These are loud, extravagant, and ritual-filled events. It suffices to say that they are INTENSE.

[6]: Here, Yuan Mei excuses himself from any clichéd banquets he may have hosted. The problem lies with those bad chefs he had to hire, not him. Uh huh…sure.

Translating the Name

There are many ways of translating 隨園食單 to its “English equivalent”. In fact, there are enough permutations that it is helpful to have table to keep track of things. Even better, by using this table you can roll your own translation.

Choose a word from each column from left to right and see what you get.

隨園 食單
Suiyuan Shidan
Sui Garden Cookbook
Contentment Recipes List
Leisure Cookery manual

If you don’t like the sound of “Sui Garden Cookery List” just flip it around to make it: “Cookery list of Sui Garden”. Do so recursively and get “List of Cookery of the Garden of Sui”. It’s bucket-loads of fun!

Things to Avoid 11: Rendering Fat (戒走油)


List of Things to Avoid::Rendering Fat
Although ingredients such as fish, pork, chicken, and duck can be rather fatty, it is imperative that most of this fat be retained within the meat itself and not be allowed to render out into the cooking stock to prevent its flavour from being diluted.[1] If this fat becomes rendered,[2] what flavour the meat contained would have been leached into the stock. There are three bad cuilinary practices that result in fat being rendered from meat: first, the cooking heat was too high and extra water had to be added to restore the amount of cooking liquid in the food. Second, the cooking heat was turned-off only to be resumed again later after a long pause. And finally, an impatient cook who continually checks the doneness of cooking food, resulting in the pan’s lid being opened numerous times throughout the process, which inevitably leads to the rendering of fat from the meat.[3]

Random notes:
[1]:If you managed to cook the fat out of a chuck of meat, it has probably become tough and dry, not to mention the meat would taste rather bland. It would be like eating meat after it’s been used to make stock. That and you have to deal with a pool of fat on the surface of the dish. I found the content of this and the following sentence a bit repetitive in Chinese, and as such I modified it to talk more about preventing dissipation of flavour caused by rendering while the next sentence talks about the transfer of flavour caused by rendering.

[2]: The intramuscular fat in meat makes it tasty and juicy. THE reason to eat Kobe beef or most highly marbled meats rare or very lightly cooked.

[3]: Large temperature fluctuations cause rendering of fats, I guess.

Things to Avoid 10: Imposition (戒強讓)


List of Things to Avoid::Imposition
A banquet host extends his courtesy and generosity towards his guests by providing them with good food. But once the food is laid out on the table, the guests should be allowed to choose whatever food they fancy, regardless of whether it is refined, oily, cut in chunks, or chopped into bits. A person of reason attends to the preferences of his guests, therefore, why would he wish to impose his own?[1]

It is all too common to see an annoying host endlessly piling food up on their guest’s dishes and bowls until they overflow.[2] It is not as if these guests are missing their hands or eyes, nor are they young children or new brides graciously holding back out of modesty, so why would a host emulate something done by crass old dames from the countryside? In doing so, they play a poor host by deliberately ignoring the wishes of their guests! Recently, I have seen even more despicable manners, where a host would go so far as violating his guests’ person by insistently shoving chopsticks-full of food into their mouths![3]

In Chang-an there was a man who loved entertaining guests but tended to serve rather mediocre food at his banquets. During an occasion, one of his guests asked: “Are we good friends?” to which the man replied “Of course!”. The guest then knelt down, begging: “If we are indeed good friends, then I have a request to make and will not stand until you agree to it.” Astonished the man asked: “What is it?”, to which the guest replied: “In the future when you host banquets, I beg you to not invite me.” There were roars of laughter all around as they all sat down.

Random notes:
[1]: I admit I’m guilty of this. Things I’ve uttered include: “Drink this soup while it’s still hot!”, “Don’t order that! This is better!”, “You MUST try this chicken! NOW.”, etc.

[2]: These is quite common in Chinese get-togethers. While it is one way in which a Chinese person shows another their good will or endearment, those of us not of fully immersed in Chinese culture growing up (yours truly included) may find this a touch annoying, even in limited doses.

[3]: Let’s hope this never ever gets resurrected.

Things to Avoid 9: Chafing Dishes (戒火鍋)


List of Things to Avoid::Chafing Dishes
Chafing dishes are often used when hosting banquets in winter [1], which is a rather irritating practice considering how noisy they are. This is not to overlook the more serious problem of their use; it ignores the fact that cooking a dish with optimal flavour requires the precise control of heat and the duration of its application.[2]

Recently people have started using alcohol-based chafing dishes instead of charcoal, believing it to an improvement. This is not the case. Regardless of its type, the use of chafing dishes will lead to over-boiled food that hasd changed its flavour for the worse. Some people may contest: “But what if the food gets cold?” I would say they them: “If the boiled thing that had just been scooped out of the pot does not whet a guest’s appetite, then let them eat it cold so they know how bad it really tastes.”[3]

Random notes:
[1]: The term 火鍋 (huoguo) here likely does not refer to the hot-pot/fondue of present times. Judging from the context of this section it more likely refers to a heated vessel, similar to a chafing dish used to keep food warm in colder venues. In modern hot-pots, you don’t really let your ingredients boil, at least not the more tender ones. Rather, you swish it in the stock and fish it out when it is perfectly done. This is purely speculation but perhaps the original huoguo was indeed a pot of boiled food served on a chafing dish at the table, more akin to sukiyaki. But due to this method’s tendency to overcook food, it has lead to the development of “dip-and-swish” cooking techniques in modern Chinese hot-pot or Japanese shabu-shabu. I think Yuan Mei would have approved the our version of houguo, assuming he would tolerate the noise of boiling stock at the table.

[2]: Let’s not forget that Yuan Mei has an entire section devoted to the topic of heat control (火候).

[3]: I personally think he was trying to say something like: “If the boiled food is so unpalatable that your guest would not touch it while hot, there’s no difference it letting them eat it cold.” However, I think the translation is more accurately registered with the sentence in Chinese. Is it? I’ll have to think about it.

Things to Avoid 8: Indulging in Drink (戒縱酒)


List of Things to Avoid:: Indulging in Drink
Only one who is alert can tell the difference between right and wrong. Likewise, only one who is mindful can discern the differences between good and bad flavours. Yi Yin [1] had observed: “The profound nuances of flavour cannot be rightly expressed in words.” If a drunkard cannot even speak, how can there be any hope that he can express, much less discern the flavours of anything?

Once in a while, I see people playing drinking games during banquets, their minds clouded and absent from having had too much alcohol. In such inebriated states, those great dishes they were eating might as well have been sawdust.[2] The heads of those preoccupied with drinking are somewhere else entirely, with their faculties for judging food thrown out the door. If one really must indulge in drink, first have a proper meal where the dishes can be tasted, then only afterwards bring out the alcohol. In this way, you get the best of both worlds.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: Yi Yin, head chef and political adviser to the first Emperor of Shang.

[2]: I remember reading a New Yorker cartoon that shows a Roman host in his mansion, surrounded by his drunken rowdy guests, turning to his servant to say: “You may now switch to the cheap wine”. In a Chinese banquet version of the comic, the host would say “You may now switch to sawdust”

[3]: Yuan Mei prefers that you get smashed AFTER you have had your meal.