Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 7: Soft-Shelled Turtle with Grey Salt (青鹽甲魚)

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.

青鹽甲魚
斬四塊,起油鍋炮透。每甲魚一斤,用酒四兩、大茴香三錢、鹽一錢半,煨至半好,下脂油二兩,切小骰塊再煨,加蒜頭、筍尖,起時用蔥、椒,或用秋油,則不用鹽。此蘇州唐靜涵家法。甲魚大則老,小則腥,須買其中樣者。

*  This can be also called Ragoût de Tortue au sel de Guérande. Sounds more “refined”, for whatever reason.

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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 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.

Birds 35: Steamed Duck (蒸鴨)

“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,[1] shitake, diced bamboo shoots, autumn sauce, wine, warm-pressed sesame oil,[2] 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.”

蒸鴨

生肥鴨去骨,內用糯米一酒杯,火腿丁、大頭菜丁、香蕈、筍丁、秋油、酒、小磨麻油、蔥花,俱灌鴨肚內,外用雞湯放盤中,隔水蒸透。此真定魏太守家法也。

jisaku_kaiseki_ryori_01
There is supposedly steamed duck in this picture. I think it’s those two slices of pink flesh on the boat-shaped glass dish in the center. (Credit: Chris)

 

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:

Translation notes:
[1]: 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.

[2]: 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.

Birds 25: Shredded Chicken (雞絲)

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.

雞絲
拆雞為絲,秋油、芥末、醋拌之。此杭州菜也。加筍加芹俱可。用筍絲、秋油、酒炒之亦可。拌者用熟雞,炒者用生雞。

bc3ban_thang
Shredded chicken goes great with anything and in anything. Salads, stir-fries, Vietnamese noodle soups…it’s a long list. (Credit: Nguyễn Thanh Quang)

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.

Birds 16: Chicken Stir-Fried with Chestnuts (栗子炒雞)

“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.”

栗子炒雞
雞斬塊,用菜油二兩炮,加酒一飯碗,秋油一小杯,水一飯碗,煨七分熟;先將栗子煮熟,同筍下之,再煨三分,起鍋下糖一撮。

chestnuts_in_wadgetts_copse_-_geograph-org-uk_-_591731
Chestnuts in shell. (Credit: Hugh Chevallier)

Chicken with chestnuts is often seen in Chinese cooking. This recipe would fit right in on most families’ dinner tables.

Again we seen sugar being used to garnish a dish. I guess it was a “thing” back then.

Birds 12: Chicken Braised with Mushrooms (蘑菇煨雞)

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.

Garnish with three qian of rock sugar.

蘑菇煨雞
口蘑菇四兩,開水泡去砂,用冷水漂,牙刷擦,再用清水漂四次,用菜油二兩炮透,加酒噴。將雞斬塊放鍋內滾,去沫,下甜酒、清醬,煨八分功程,下蘑菇,再煨二分功程,加筍、蔥、椒起鍋,不用水,加冰糖三錢。

agaricus_bisporus_mushroom
Bite-sized globular white button mushrooms (Credit: Dennis Myts)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.