Essential Knowledge 12: Table service (上菜須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Table service
The technique for table service: salty items should be served before bland items; Thick and rich items should be served before thin and light items; Dry dishes should be served before soupy dishes. There are numerous flavours in the world [1], so one should not be limited to serving only one. When one sees their guests becoming full, one should serve dishes with spicy and hot flavours to stimulate their appetites. When one’s guest have drank too much wine and are fatigued by the alcohol, one should serve sweet and sour foods to reawaken their stomachs.

Random notes:

[1]: Literally it says: “There are 5 flavours under the heavens.”


Essential Knowledge 11: Tableware (器具須知)

古語云︰「美食不如美器。」斯語是也。然宣、成、嘉、萬,窯器太貴,頗愁損傷,不如竟用御窯,已覺雅麗。惟是宜碗者碗,宜盤者盤,宜大者大,宜 小者小,參錯其間,方覺生色。若板板於十碗八盤之說,便嫌笨俗。大抵物貴者器宜大,物賤者器宜小。煎炒宜盤,湯羹宜碗,煎炒宜鐵鍋,煨煮宜砂罐。

List of Essential Knowledge::Tableware
The ancients said: “Good food cannot match good tableware.”, indicating the importance in choosing one’s bowls and dishes. However tableware from the reign of Xuan de, Cheng hua, Jia jing, Wan li [1] are so precious that it leaves one anxious and nervous of breaking them during use. One would rather use contemporary tableware fired from the imperial kilns, which are at once refined and beautiful. Note that foods more suited for bowls should be served in bowls, food suited for plates served in plates, large food items served in larger tableware, and smaller foods served in smaller tableware. Thus even when there are gross shortcomings in a banquet, the table’s setting would still feel coordinated and delightful [2]. If one blindly insists on adhering to the traditional “Ten bowls and eight dishes” in a banquet instead of considering how best to serve the food, others might suspect one of being dull-witted. Expensive food items should typically be served in larger tableware, while more common foods can be served on small tableware. Pan-fried or stir-fried foods are best served on plates, and soups and stews served in bowls. Pan-fried or stir-fried foods are best prepared in iron woks, while stewed foods are best prepared in clay pots.

Random notes:

[1]: In dynastic times years were dictated as the “Something-th year of Some-emperor” and the reign of an emperor used to denote a historic period. Yi de, Cheng hua, Jia jing, are Wan li were emperors during the Ming dynasty. The tableware from these Ming dynasty periods were already highly valued in Yuan Mei’s time during the Qing dynasty.

[2]: The text “參錯其間,方覺生色” literally means something like “errors and discordance in a (dining) space, the feeling of order and grace.” I’ve taken this mean that even in a bad disordered banquet, the table will still look great with the plates and bowls.

Essential Knowledge 10: Transformations (變換須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Transformations[1]
An ingredient has its own unique character, and cannot be mixed without confusing its flavour. As said by Confucius: “A student must be taught according to their aptitude and not in a haphazard manner”. Such is the way to elevate oneself to become a true gentlemen. These days we see flamboyant cooks, boiling chickens, ducks, pigs, and geese together in soup, producing dishes with tastes as indistinguishable and [2] flavourful as chewing on wax. I fear the souls of the chickens, pigs, geese, and ducks seeing such injustices done, will be pressing charges in the afterlife courts. A competant cook would prepare the right cooking vessels and utensils, such that each ingredient can offer its best and each dish can show off its flavour to the fullest. This way when connoisseurs taste the food, they will be inexplicably and thoroughly delighted by the flavours.

Random notes:

[1]: In general, this section was quite hard to translate and chock full of phases such as “因才樂育”, “不拘一律”, “遂令千手雷同”, “嗜者舌本應接不暇”, which for various reasons I found difficult to untangle. This is the best I can do now, but I’m not too happy with it and I will likely be revising this translation in the future. As well, I not such how to translate “變換” in context to what the section is about, “transformations” is what I’m going with for now, but I’m not sure it fits the content.

[2]: Literally “遂令千手雷同” translates to something like “commanding a thousand hand thunder-clapper”, which indicates that one does something monotonous, similar, and repetitious under orders of some sort. I initially translated this to the cook “blindly following trends in cuisine”, but it felt more correct to translate it to “indistinguishable tastes” in respect to talking about the bland waxy taste of the dish. I have no idea if this is right.

Essential Knowledge 9: Speed (遲速須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Speed
When inviting guests over, one normally set the event 3 days in advance such that there is enough time to put together a well concerted and varied menu. But if there are unplanned guests and food needs to be quickly served, or guest arrive unannounced outside the door or drops in by boat, how do we resolve such a predicament? [1] In these cases, one needs to have a set of quick-to-prepare dishes, such as stir-fried chicken slices, pork strips, and dried shrimp with tofu, or the likes of pickled fish [2] and tea-smoked ham [3]. These versatile dishes can be quickly prepared on short notice, and one should know at least several of them [4].

Random notes:

[1]: It literally says: “How can one take the waters of the eastern sea to put out the raging fires at the western pond?” A predicament where one must resolve a situation since resources are not immediately available.

[2]: A wine-dregs and salt pickled fish quite popular in Shandong province

[3]: A dry-cured ham smoked from Yunnan province

[4]: Quick versatile dishes? Most Italian pasta dishes.

Essential Knowledge 8: Colour and Fragrance (色臭須知)


List of Essential Knowledge::Colour and Fragrance
As neighbours to the mouth, both the eyes and the nose also act as guides in engaging the mouth [1]. When a dish is seen and smelled, its colour and fragrance is compounded. If the dish looks crisp and clear as the autumn clouds, its colour as voluptuous as amber, and its alluring fragrance wafts into the nose, one does not need to feel a piece of the food against one’s teeth or taste it with one’s tongue to know how great it actually is [2]. It should be noted however, that in wanting colour in a dish, one should not resort to using caramel colouring, and in wanting fragrance, one should not resort to using flavourants [3]. Once such “make-up” is applied, a dish’s true flavours would be obscured and irreparably damaged.

Bouillon cubes
Flavouring “make-up” cubes. Made from the condensed shame of second-rate chefs.

Random notes:

[1]: The Chinese text is more interesting, indicating that the eyes and noise are neighbours (鄰) but also match-makers (媒) for the mouth. This parallels Chinese societies, where neighbours often act as introductors or match-makers for local young men and women.

[2]: I find this to be rather observant on his part since this Scientific American article says: “…food and drink are identified predominantly by the senses of smell and sight, not taste”.

[3]: This is industrialized food in one sentence; using caramel colouring and fragrance compounds as substitutes to quality and technique. It’s the swill in your frozen food isle, the “grill marks” on your Chicken at your local McBurger’s, and that giant box of Knorr’s cubes found in the kitchen of those chic French restaurants.

Essential Knowledge 7 : Heat control (火候須知)

熟物之法,最重火候。有須武火者,煎炒是也;火弱則物疲矣。有須文火者,煨煮是也;火猛則物枯矣。有先用武火而後用文火者,收湯之物是也;性急則皮焦而裡 不熟矣。有愈煮愈嫩者,腰子、雞蛋之類是也。有略煮即不嫩者,鮮魚、蚶蛤之類是也。肉起遲則紅色變黑,魚起遲則活肉變死。屢開鍋蓋,則多沫而少香。火熄再 燒,則走油而味失。道人以丹成九轉為仙,儒家以無過、不及為中。司廚者,能知火候而謹伺之,則幾於道矣。魚臨食時,色白如玉,凝而不散者,活肉也;色白如 粉,不相膠粘者,死肉也。明明鮮魚,而使之不鮮,可恨已極

As a chef, one must have excellent control of Huo Hou

List of Essential Knowledge::Heat control
In the art of cooking, the most important skill is one’s ability in controlling heat [1]. Some ingredients require a strong flame, such as those being pan-fried or stir-fried. If a weak flame is used on such ingredients, they will become wilted and lifeless. Some ingredients require a gentle flame, such as those for stewing. Using an aggressive flame will make such ingredients tough and dry. Others ingredients require one to begin cooking with a strong flame but finish with a gentle flame, such as those dishes with ingredients requiring sauce reductions. If one is impatient during the reduction process and uses heat that is too strong, the ingredient’s surface will be charred while the inside remains raw. Certain ingredients become tender with prolonged cooking, such as kidneys and (chicken) eggs, however some ingredients such as fresh fish and clams, will not become tender if it is even exposed to a slightly stronger flame. When one does not remove meat from the heat in a timely manner after its completion, its colour will not be an appetizing red but rather a charred black. Likewise, a fish not removed from the heat in a timely manner will not be tender and “alive”, but rather dry and “dead”. If you frequently open the pot’s lid while the food is cooking it will tend have foamy sauces and be less fragrant. As well, if you attempt to relight a spent flame while cooking, the ingredients will be rendered of its oil [2] and become flavourless.

The Daoists attain perfection of sainthood by channeling their internal forces through “nine revolutions” [3] and the Confucianists attain perfection by not faulting and striving to overcome failure [4]. Likewise, if a cook knows how to control the cooking flame and attends to it diligently and attentively, they too are close to attaining perfection. When eating fish, if the flesh is as translucent white as jade and holds together without flaking apart, this is tender and “live” flesh. But if the flesh is white, opaque like powder, and falls apart, this is “dead” flesh. To have a fresh fish and then cook it until it is stale and flavourless is something truly despicable.

Random notes:

[1]: Huo hou (火候) lacks a good direct translation. It describes the processing of controlling both (1) the intensity of the cooking heat and (2) the length of time the that the food stays in contact with the heat, with the latter being key in a traditional pit or charcoal stove. I previously wanted to say “flame control”, since Chinese cooking without a real flame is slightly impaired IMHO, even with new induction technologies, but “heat control” sounds more right.

[2]: Not sure how to phrase it, but the idea is that if you’re cooking on a twig or straw fired flame and it goes out while your meat is still being cooked, then consider it lost. Restarting the flame would produce low heat, causing the meat to stew and render its fat, thus producing something less than perfect.

[3]: Dan (丹) is this Daoist concept that can be either interpreted as being a pill-formed panacea-like medicine (仙丹) or as the fluid/elixir manifestion of qi-like forces (丹氣) in one’s body (See Dantian). The “nine-revolutions” (九轉) is a Daoist concept on the tiers of transformation needed to imbue body or substance with mystical powers. I think in the acheiving perfection context in this part of the text, saying something like “channeling of internal forces to attain sainthood” works much better than saying “brewing mystic medicines to achieve powers”. As such, I put down the former as translation.

[4]: The concepts of Wuguo (無過), not commiting errors, and Buji (不及), believing in inadaquacy, are important guides to conduct of a Junzi (“a perfect man” or what I translate as “true gentlemen”). The former concept is well summed up in the Chunqiu Zuozhuan (春秋左傳::宣公二年), which quotes “Who amoung us have not erred? To err and be able to correct oneself, there is nothing better than this.” (人誰無過,過而能改,善莫大焉) The latter is well understood through a quote from Confucius: “Study diligently as if you’re about fail and as if you’re about to be surpassed.” (子曰:學如不及,猶恐失之) Basically the ideas sum up as: “Do not do bad things and work very hard”.

Essential Knowledge 6: Lone ingredients (独用須知)

味太濃重者,只宜獨用,不可搭配。如李贊皇、張江陵一流,須專用之,方盡其才。食物中,鰻也,鱉也,蟹也,鮑魚也,牛羊也,皆宜獨食,不可加搭配。何也? 此數物者味甚厚,力量甚大,而流弊亦甚多,用五味調和,全力治之,方能取其長而去其弊。何暇捨其本題,別生枝節哉?金陵人好以海參配甲魚,魚翅配蟹粉,我 見輒攢眉。覺甲魚、蟹粉之味,海參、魚翅分之而不足;海參、魚翅之弊,甲魚、蟹粉染之而有餘。

All you need is Picard and a few extras to make a good STNG episode. Supporting roles not required.

List of Essential Knowledge::Lone ingredients
Ingredients with strong flavours are best when used on their own without accompaniment, much in the way the likes of Li Jiang [1] and Zhang Ju Zheng [2] must be allowed to work on their own to make the best use of their talents. For instance eel, soft-shell turtle, crab, abalone, beef, and lamb are ingredients best used in dishes on their own without using other main ingredients. Why? The above ingredients have thick and rich flavours that are powerful. As such, their flaws are readily apparent and thus required the seasoning and harmonization provided by the five flavours [3] to control them. This allows these assertive ingredients to show off their strength while hiding their deficiencies. So who in this world would willingly abandon these principles and even go the extra step to push thing beyond good taste? Well, give it to the people in Jin Ling [4] who enjoy combining sea cucumbers with turtle and shark’s fin with crab roe. When I see this accompaniment of ingredients I cannot help but frown in displeasure. I feel that in these combinations, the flavour of turtle and crab roe is dissipated and diluted by the sea cucumber and shark’s fin, while the less savoury flavours of sea cucumber and shark’s fin harm the turtle and crab roe and contaminate their tastes without end.

Random notes:

[1]: Li Jiang (李絳) an imperial chancellor who did some amazing stuff and rose to power. Read wikipedia.

[2]: Zhang Ju Zheng (张居正) an imperial officer who did some amazing stuff and rose in power. Read wikipedia.

[3]: Basically he means you need to season correctly to make the most of these powerful tasting foods. The Chinese “Five flavours” are pungent (辛), salty (咸), sour (酸), bitter (苦), and sweet (甘), which corresponds to the five elements for metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. This categorization everything with the five elements something to do with Daoist derived alchemist philosophies/medicines, which I think are fun in that strange and arcane way, but has little to do with scientific realities. If there are only five flavours, where does umami (鮮) go and what about fat (油) flavours?

[4]: Former Nanjing, a city of people with bad tastes according to Yuan Mei.