“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”
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.
“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.”
Another braised duck recipe, except in this one the duck has been glazed by the reduced cooking liquid.
“Remove the bones from a raw fat duck. Stuff the duck’s body cavity with a mix consisting of one wine cup of glutinous rice, diced dried-cured ham, diced kohlrabi, shitake, diced bamboo shoots, autumn sauce, wine, warm-pressed sesame oil, and chopped green onions. Place the duck on a plate and ladle chicken broth on it. Steam the duck, separated from the water, and do so until it is thoroughly cooked. This recipe definitely comes from the household of Prefect Wei.”
Not much to say about this other that the fact that this would have been quite an opulent dish back in the day. This would be be served in celebratory meals much like a roast turkey would be served in North American Thanskgiving and Christmas day. Come to think of it, the stuffing described here could be used directly for turkey too.
Now, to fill-up some space here are some translation notes:
: In modern usage, datoucai (大頭菜) can be one of three vegetable items, all produced from the mustards of genus Brassica: Kohlrabi, the stem of the tatsai (Brassica juncea subsp. tatsai), or turnip. Of the three, the first two are stems while the latter is a root. It’s hard to figure out which of these are the vegetable selected so I’m going with the kolrabi since it’s the most common modern usage. Still, tatsai is native to China so it would be a strong contender.
: Xiaomo Mayou (小磨麻油) is a warm pressed white sesame oil using hot water to separate out the oil instead of the typical hot roasting and hydraulic pressing. A more gentle sesame taste, than the typical sesame oil.
“Pull the meat of chicken into shreds and toss it with autumn sauce, ground mustard, and vinegar. This is a Hangzhou dish. One can also add bamboo shoots and celery to the dish. Another method is to stir-fry the shredded chicken with shredded bamboo shoots, autumn sauce, and wine. Use cooked chicken for the former “tossed” method and raw chicken for the latter stir-fried method.”
Here Yuan Mei presents two quite typical home-styled recipes. My preference is for the first one, which is almost like a meat salad dish with a mustard vinaigrette, it’s similar to something I actually make quite often at home.
As for stir-frying, I prefer shredded pork to chicken since it has more of a firm texture that one can bite into. For whatever reason, I feel it’s more “correct” to use something with firmer textures with techniques such as stir-frying that have more assertive flavors.
“Chop the chicken into pieces, and fry lightly in two liang of vegetable oil. To the chicken, add one rice bowl of wine, one small cup of autumn sauce, one rice bowl of water, and braise until seventy percent done. Cook the chestnuts beforehand until tender and add them along with bamboo shoots to the chicken and continue braising until the chicken is fully done. Plate and garnish with a large pinch of sugar.”
“Take four liang of white button mushrooms, soak them in boiling water to rid them of sand, then swirl them in a bath of cold water. Clean the mushrooms well with a toothbrush, then bath them in four changes of clean water. Stir-fry the mushrooms over high heat in two liang of vegetable oil until done, then dress them with several sprays of wine.
Chop the chicken into square pieces and boil them in a pot. Skim off the floating foam, add sweet wine and light soy sauce, then braise the chicken for eighty percent of the total required time. Add the mushrooms to the chicken and braise everything for the remaining twenty percent of time. Add bamboo shoots, green onions, Szechuan pepper and serve. Do not add water when preparing the dish.
In the course of translating this thick manual on Qing dynasty gastronomy, invariably you learn some things. Sometimes this learning comes in one gigantic chunk of well integrated knowledge leading to an “Aha!” moment. But more often the information comes in discrete disconnected pieces that present themselves in a “Hmmm…that’s interesting…” way. Sorta like unexpectedly biting into a nub of squeaky curd-cheese as you finish the last fries in your poutine.
In the case of this recipe there are a lot of hidden squeaky curd-cheese nubs:
I thought the white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) was a very recent introduction from the West, but I guess it was already there in Mid-Qing Dynasty. The Chinese name for them is interestingly called “mouth mushrooms” (口蘑菇), possibly due to the fact the younger specimens are perfectly round and bite-sized.
They had tooth brushes in Qing dynasty? Somehow I thought people didn’t brush their teeth back then and again toothbrushes were a Western hygiene thing. As I have suspected all along, I have been thoroughly colonized.
Finishing a dish with sugar is not unusual in Chinese cuisine. What is odd here is that rock sugar is used as a topping to garnish the finished dish, and in relative large quantities no less (around 12g). This leads one to wonder if this step was purely for the sake of cuisine (crunching bits of sugar is sorta fun) or was it in fact a display of one’s wealth. Given the cost of sugar back then I’m inclined to believe it’s more the latter. My grandmother used to tell us that during 1920’s Taiwan, some families would show off their well-to-do-ness by serving meat dishes with crystalline MSG. And for all the same exact reasons.
Did Yuan Mei get an editor or have somebody read his manuscript? There is a less complete repeat of this recipe later in the chapter.
“Take some chicken breasts, cut them into small dice, and stir-fry them in boiling hot oil. Add autumn sauce and wine to the chicken and remove from the pan. Toss the chicken with diced water chestnuts, dice bamboo shoot tips, and diced shitake, with the ones producing a dark broth being the best.”
Lightly par-fry chicken, season, add some veggies, and it’s done. All in all, a rather typical Chinese chicken dish.
The only weird part here is the note in the last sentence saying that dark broth is the best. This is weird since the dish has mainly light coloured ingredients so a dark broth will not work. One can only assume that Yuan Mei was referring to the shitake, which when soaked from its dry form or cooked in soup lends a clear darkish tan broth.