Boil the rice eel1 until it is half done, then slice it into thin shreds and remove its bones. Braise in wine and autumn sauce. Add a small amount of starch powder along with day-lily flowers,2 winter melon and long green onions to finish the geng3. The cooks in Nanjing like to grill rice eels until they are charred, which leaves one completely incredulous.
1Monopterus albus, also known by the less than savoury name, the swamp eel.
2Hemerocallis fulva, the Orange Day-Lily, is often sold dried and reconstituted before cooking. The fresh version, if it can be found should be preferred for this dish.
3Geng (羹) is a clear soup thickened with starch. Thick Chinese soups are technically all geng.
Boil a soft-shelled turtle in water, remove its bones, and tear the meat into pieces. Braise it in chicken broth, autumn sauce, and wine, reducing the liquid from two bowls until there is one bowl. Serve the soup, blending it with green onions, Szechuan pepper, and ground ginger. The household of Wu Zhuyu prepares this dish extremely well. Use a small amount of starch such that the prepared soup is sufficiently thick.
*Happy Canadian Thanksgiving all!
Chop a soft-shelled turtle into four pieces and stir-fry thoroughly in a hot wok. For every jin of the turtle, braise it with four liang of wine, three qian of star anise, and one and a half qian of salt until half done. Add two liang of rendered lard and chop the turtle into small dice before braising, adding garlic and bamboo shoot tips. Before plating add green onion and Szechuan pepper. One can add autumn sauce before plating, but never add salt. This is a recipe from the household of Tang Jinghan of Suzhou. Large soft-shelled turtle are tough and small ones smell fishy. Its best to buy one that is medium in size.
* This can be also called Ragoût de Tortue au sel de Guérande. Sounds more “refined”, for whatever reason.
Take a soft-shelled turtle weighing half a jin1 and chop it into four pieces. Add three liang of rendered lard to a heated wok and pan-fry the turtle so that the pieces are golden brown on both sides. Braise with water, autumn sauce, and wine, first with a hot flame then a gentle flame. Add garlic when the turtle is eighty percent done. Before plating add green onion, ginger, and sugar. When choosing soft-shelled turtles for this dish prefer smaller ones to larger ones. Only those small turtles colloquially known as “boy’s foot turtle” are sufficiently tender.
1 Around 300g in Yuan Mei’s time, or a bit more than half a pound
* The actual size of the turtle used in this recipe is probably quite a bit larger than the one shown in the picture. One with the required weight would probably be large enough to fit in the palm of an adult hand.
Remove the bones from a soft-shelled turtle1 and stir-fry it over high heat using sesame oil. Add one cup of autumn sauce and one cup of chicken broth. This recipe most definitely comes from the household of Prefect Wei.
1 One of the most commonly raised and consumed soft-shell turtles is: Pelodiscus sinensis
2 The term shengchao (生炒), can be roughly translated as “raw stir-frying”, may seems like a strange phrase since most people assume that one stir-fries an ingredient directly from its raw form. However, in Chinese cooking it is quite common to par-cook an ingredient by boiling or deep-frying before stir-frying to speed up and ensure even cooking. The par-cooking also limits the amount of juices that exudes from the stir-fried item, which allows for easier maintenance of high wok temperatures and formation of “wok-hei” flavours. I personally find the flavours of raw stir-fried meat dishes to be a bit rougher than their par-cooked cousins, which tends to be “cleaner”. That said either one can be just as delicious.
It is best to avoid cooking eel with its bones removed. The item is naturally fishy in smell, but one should not over manipulate or attempt to control it, lest we risk losing its natural character. Like Reeve’s shad, it should not be cooked without its scales.
To prepare it plain braised, take a river eel, wash away its slime, and chop it into inch long segments. Put them in an earthenware jar and braise with wine and water until soft. Add autumn sauce when it is ready to serve. One can also make a soup with it using newly preserved mustards prepared during winter, along with large amounts of green onion and ginger to rid the eel of its fishiness.
I also remember well that a certain official’s1 household braised it in thickening starch and mountain yam for a good dish. It can also be seasoned and directly place on a plate to steam without any added water. Official Jia Zhihua makes the best steamed eel. Add four units of soy sauce and six units of wine,2 making sure to use just enough broth to cover the body of the eel. The steaming time must be well judged and controlled, since over-steaming would cause the eel’s skin to wrinkle and its flesh to lose flavour.
鰻魚最忌出骨。因此物性本腥重，不可過於擺佈，失其天真，猶鰣魚之不可去鱗也。清煨者，以河鰻一條，洗去滑涎，斬寸為段，入磁罐中，用酒水煨 爛，下秋油起鍋，加冬醃新芥菜作湯，重用蔥、薑之類以殺其腥。常熟顧比部家用縴粉、山藥乾煨，亦妙。或加作料直置盤中蒸之，不用水。家致華分司蒸鰻最佳。 秋油、酒四六兌，務使湯浮於本身。起籠時尤要恰好，遲則皮皺味失。
1Bibu (比部) is an imperial government official. As for which individual he was speaking about it unclear.
2Cui (兌), which translate to “a unit” or “a weight”, is used here as an actual volume or weight to specify a certain ratio of wine and soy sauce to be added. The exact unit is uncertain, thought the lack of specificity may indicate it’s not overly important as long as the fish is covered with the wine and soy sauce mixture.
3Tangman (湯鰻) means “souped eel”, but it’s probably better translated as “eel with/in broth”.
To make home-styled pan-fried fish, one needs patience. Wash a fresh fish until clean, chop it into pieces, and marinade it with salt. Flatten each piece and pan-fry both sides until golden brown, then add a good quantity of wine and autumn sauce and simmer slowly with a low flame. When it is close to done, finish by reducing the cooking liquid, ensuring that all the flavours from the seasoning have entered the fish.1
This recipe is only for preparing fish that is no longer alive.2 For live fish, it is best to cook it rapidly.3
1This is pretty much red-braised fish. This preparation would make the flesh of the fish a bit firmer than the usual methods of Chinese fish preparations, but it would also cover over any off smells from a less-fresh fish. Reading this recipe reminds me of three cup chicken.
2Fish are usually dead when being prepared in recipes, the statement here is for differentiating whether the fish is still alive at the moment just before preparation, or if it’s already dead-on-arrival.
3Yuan Mei’s comments in the the end allow us a bit of insight into the preferred preparations for fish. First, saying that this recipe is for cooking fresh dead fish while the previous fish recipes used only live fish points to an important difference in techniques used cooking “live fish” well and “dead fish” well. Second, saying that this recipe, which uses “dead fish”, is home-style may also imply that in most households it is uncommon to prepare fish dishes from live fish, be it due to convenience or for economy. Indeed, while the best tasting fish dishes use fish that is still alive and slaughtered just before cooking, the process is tedious and expensive. In most restaurant and in some home kitchens in Asia, slaughtering fish at home is still common, though a waning practice. Still, it all goes to show how much difference there is between Qing Dynasty Chinese and modern western (and even modern Chinese) ideas of preparing fish.