Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 1: Eel in Broth (湯鰻)

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.

湯鰻3
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。

Note:
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”.

Fish 16: Home-styled Pan-fried Fish (家常煎魚)

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

家常煎魚
家常煎魚,須要耐性。將鮮魚洗淨,切塊鹽醃,壓扁,入油中兩面煎黃,多加酒、秋油,文火慢慢滾之,然後收場作鹵,使作料之味全入魚中。第此法指魚之不活者而言。如活者,又以速起鍋為妙。

Notes:
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.

Fish 4: Groupers

Groupers1 have few bones and are best when sliced and stir-fried. For stir-frying, the more thinly sliced the grouper’s flesh the better. Lightly season the fish with autumn sauce, then mix it with starch-powder and egg-white before putting it into the wok to stir-fry, adding the appropriate seasonings while stir-frying. The oil that should be used here is vegetable oil.

季魚
季魚少骨,炒片最佳。炒者以片薄為貴。用秋油細郁後,用縴粉、蛋清摟之,入油鍋炒,加作料炒之。油用素油。

 
Notes:
1The grouper in this section is referred to as jiyu (季魚) or as “鲫魚”. It is one of many species of groupers from the genus Epinephelus. It is also known more commonly as shibanyu (石班魚) or sometimes just banyu (班魚). The latter name should not be confused with the fish described in River Delicacies 5: Snakehead Fish (班魚).

Fish 2: Crucian carp

One needs a certain level of expertise to buy crucian carp.1 Choose individuals that are flatter and have whiter skin since they have tender and flaky flesh that falls off the bones when cooked. Rounder and darker skin crucian carp have thick and hard bones. The innards2 of the fish must not be consumed.

It is best to prepare it steamed in the manner of the White Amur Bream. It is also good eaten pan-fried. The flesh can also be removed to make geng. The people of Tongzhou3 can braise crucian carp such that its bones and its tail becomes biscuit tender, a dish which they call “Suyu” that is well suited to be eaten by a young child.4 Still it cannot compare to the steamed version which presents the fish’s true flavour.5

The carp from the Dragon pond of Liuhe6 are large and tender, which is rather incredible. When steaming, used wine, not water, and use a small amount of sugar to enhance its delicate savoury flavour. Adjust the quantity of autumn sauce and wine used according to the size of the fish.

鯽魚
鯽魚先要善買。擇其扁身而帶白色者,其肉嫩而鬆;熟後一提,肉即卸骨而下。黑脊渾身者,倔強磋枒,魚中之喇子也,斷不可食。照邊魚蒸法最佳。其次煎吃亦妙。拆肉下可以作羹。通州人能煨之,骨尾俱酥,號﹁酥魚﹂,利小兒食。然總不如蒸食之得真味也。六合龍池出者,愈大愈嫩,亦奇。蒸時用酒不用水,稍稍用糖以起其鮮。以魚之小大,酌量秋油、酒之多寡。

Notes:

1 Crucian carp (Carassius auratus) is exactly the same species as the modern goldfish but they had not been bred for prettiness. They are found wild in the waterways of China.

2 This is my translation of the term “lazi” (喇子), but I’m actually not sure what it actually is. My guess is maybe Yuan Mei is talking about the saliva, gills, or the contents of the fish’s gut. Or its innards perhaps?

3 Tongzhou (通州) is the name of several historical provinces and districts in China. Considering the recipe’s described techniques, it is likely Tongzhou_District,_Nantong

4 Looking at this description of “Suyu”, it could actually be an early variant of congshao jiyu (蔥燒鯽魚), whose preparation involves curing the fish with vinegar and braising the fish until its the bones and fins are tender enough to eat.

5 Saying Suyu can’t compare to the steamed natural version is quite like Yuan Mei, who previously complained in an earlier section (River Delicacies 1: Two Ways of Preparing Grenadier Anchovy) that fish prepared to the biscuit tender manner is terrible.

6 Dragon Pond in Liuhe District (六合區, 龍池) is an actual pond, still existent in the district of Liuhe. (coordinates: 32.3249065,118.8163633) Whether the fish there is still good is highly doubt-able.

Fish 1: White Amur Bream

Take a live bream1, add wine and autumn sauce, then steam. Cook until the flesh is translucent like jade. If it is cooked to an opaque white, the texture of the flesh would have become tough and its flavour changed for the worse. While steaming, cover everything well with a lid and do not let any condensing water drip onto the fish. When it is ready to be served, add shitake and bamboo shoot tips.

Bream can also be prepared by pan-frying with wine. For this, use only wine and not water. This is known as ‘Imitation Shad’.2

邊魚
邊魚活者,加酒、秋油蒸之。玉色為度。一作呆白色,則肉老而味變矣。並須蓋好,不可受鍋蓋上之水氣。臨起加香蕈、筍尖。或用酒煎亦佳。用酒不用水,號「假鰣魚」。

Notes:
1 Bian yu (Parabramis pekinensis) is more often written as “鳊魚” with only the Cantonese writing it in Yuan Mei’s form as “邊魚”. Both have the same pronunciation and appear to be the same fish from visual identification. In fact, the Cantonese steam it in a very similar manner (清蒸邊魚) to Yuan Mei’s description.
2 The last phrase simply says “It is known as ‘imitation shad'”. This could either mean the bream pan-fried with wine is call that, or that the white amur bream is in general called such. It seems more likely to be the former due to the sentence structure, but still: caveat lector.

Birds 41: Dry Steamed Duck (乾蒸鴨)

“This is the dry steamed duck made at the household of Hangzhou merchant He Xingju. Wash a fat duck and chop into eight chunks. Immerse the duck completely with sweet wine and autumn sauce in a porcelain jar and seal it well. Place everything directly in a dry pot to let “steam” over a low flame with not adding water. When it is ready to be served, the ducks meat should be as soft as mud. The dish takes the two incense sticks of time to cook.”

乾蒸鴨
杭州商人何星舉家乾蒸鴨。將肥鴨一隻洗淨斬八塊,加甜酒、秋油,淹滿鴨面,放磁罐中封好,置乾鍋中蒸之;用文炭火,不用水,臨上時,其精肉皆爛如泥。以線香二枝為度。

“Dry-steaming” is quite similar to the cooking technique “men” (), which means that the food is covered, heated, and then allowed to cook through using the residual heat. From the recipe, we see that the temperature is probably quite a bit higher, almost like low temperature baking. (See Pork 12: Dry steamed pork).

The Western equivalent of this dish would be probably be a confit de canard or cassoulet de canard (without the beans).

Birds 38: Duck Breast (鴨脯)

Use the breast from a fat duck and chop it into large square pieces. Simmer it in half a jin of wine, one cup of autumn sauce, bamboo shoots, shitake, and chopped green onions. Reduce the cooking liquid and serve.”

鴨脯
用肥鴨,斬大方塊,用酒半斤、秋油一杯、筍、香蕈、蔥花悶之,收鹵起鍋。

duck_breast2c_smoked_and_panfried
Tea smoked duck breast with fried potatoes. Not much similarity to the recipe here, except for the duck breast and the fact that tea smoking is a very Chinese cooking technique. (Credit: FotoosVanRobin)

Another braised duck recipe, except in this one the duck has been glazed by the reduced cooking liquid.