Vegetable Dishes 19: Bean sprouts

I am rather fond of the soft, crisp textures of bean sprouts. When stir-fried, they must be cooked until completely done in order for the flavours from the seasonings to combine harmoniously with them.

Bean sprouts can be used with bird’s nest, with their soft textured and white colour matching each other well. Still, there are many who ridicule this recipe, since it pairs an incredibly cheap ingredient with an exceedingly expensive one. Clearly they do not understand that those such as Chao and Yu went on to respectively accompany Emperors Yao and Shun.1

豆芽
豆芽柔脆,余頗愛之。炒須熟爛,作料之味才能融洽。可配燕窩,以柔配柔,以白配白故也。然以極賤而陪極貴,人多嗤之。不知惟巢、由正可陪堯、舜耳。

Notes:
1I cannot find anything on Chao and Yu and their exact relation to the two early Emperors, Yao and Shun. But from this example, they are probably from a lowly or a commoner background.

P.S. Been a bit negligent in posting over the last while. Been trying to catch up with everything in life since the sprint to the book launch. Will be doing something thinking about how to continue the Suiyuan Shidan post. Some exciting stuff will be coming to this blog. Stay tuned!

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Seafoods 1: Bird’s Nest (燕窩)

海鮮單::燕窩
燕窩貴物,原不輕用。如用之,每碗必須二兩,先用天泉滾水泡之,將銀針挑去黑絲。用嫩雞湯、好火腿湯、新蘑菇三樣湯滾之,看燕窩變成玉色為度。此物至清,不可以油膩雜之;此物至文,不可以武物串之。今人用肉絲、雞絲雜之,是吃雞絲、肉絲,非吃燕窩也。且徒務其名,往往以三錢生燕窩蓋碗面,如白髮數莖,使客一撩不見,空剩粗物滿碗,真乞兒賣富,反露貧相。不得已,則蘑菇絲、筍尖絲、鯽魚肚、野雞嫩片尚可用也。余到粵東,楊明府冬瓜燕窩甚佳,以柔配柔,以清入清,重用雞汁、蘑菇汁而已。燕窩皆作玉色,不純白也。或打作團,或敲成面,俱屬穿鑿。

List of Seafoods::Bird’s Nest
Bird’s Nest is an a precious ingredient and should not be used trivially. If one wishes to serve bird’s nest, each bowl must contain at least 2 liang [1] of the ingredient, prepared by first soaking it in boiled rain-water and any dark strands or debris removed with a needle. It must then be boiled in stock made by combining the broths made from tender chickens, good ham, and new mushrooms until the bird’s nest takes-on the tone and clarity of jade. Note that bird’s nest is extremely delicate [2] in flavour and must not be prepared with anything oily. Its soft and elegant texture also necessitates that is never combined with foods that are firm or aggressive in taste. People today like to serve bird’s nest with shredded pork and chicken. In doing this they are only tasting shredded chicken and pork, not bird’s nest.

Mo’ money mo’ problems? Easily solved. Just eat it away. Three pieces of bird’s nest of the quality in the image, each only about size of two small fingers, will set you back around $150 Canadian dollars. Easily. (Photo Credit:Reforma.imufomot)

In a futile effort to feint wealth, some host would scatter 3 qian [3] of raw birds nest as a thin facade on top of a bowl of soup. One could have picked them out like wisps of grey hair. [4] These shreds of birds’ nest immediately disappear when a guest stirs their bowl, revealing it full of only base ingredients. Like the ruse of a beggar child pretending to be rich, they only reveal how poor they actually were.

If for whatever reason one must add anything else to the bird’s nest soup, use shredded mushrooms [5], shredded bamboo shoot tips, fish maw, or slices of pheasant breast. During my visit to Yangmingfu, Guandong I had an incredibly good winter melon and birds’s nest soup. It was richly flavoured with only chicken and mushroom extracts, with the soft textures and delicate flavours of the two main ingredients matching each other superbly.

Bird’s nest should always jade coloured and translucent, but never opaque white. Those who make bird’s nest into balls and pound it into powder are doing nothing but forced and exaggerated interpretations of the ingredient.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: About 75 g

[2]: I had been struggling with how to translate 清 (qing). In the past I used “light”, “clear”, and “mild”, or a combination of them but none have felt completely correct. However I think I now have found a satisfactory English translation for this; one that gives the essence of this culinary term both the right meaning and feel: “delicate”. A few years ago, I had a clear cucumber soup that exemplified qing. The broth was clear, devoid of fat and not overburdened by umami. The mature cucumber gave the soup a slightly sour edge. The delicate elegance of the soup somehow calmed the clamor of the restaurant despite one being perfectly aware of it, like a petal floating in a rippleless puddle. Similar to how great French chefs of past elevated the lowly Coq-au-Vin, the chef that crafted this soup managed to take a rather unremarkable, homely peasant dish and transform it into a transcendental work of art. Drinking it was possibly as close as one could get to imbibing a physical bowl of Zen.

[3]: About 13g

[4]: May have come from the phrase “白髮數莖”? http://baike.baidu.com/view/5125244.htm

[5]: At first I thought 蘑菇 (mogu), a loose term translating to “mushroom”, would mean shitake, but that does not make sense since the dark skin of shitake would clash with the birds nest. Sure enough Yuan Mei referred to shitake as 香蕈 (xiangxun) in other parts of the manual. This leaves one thinking what mushroom he was talking about here. My guess is a common white colour mushroom such as Coprinus comatus (Shaggy mane young/known as chicken drumstick mushroom) or Pleurotus eryngii (a thick fleshed oyster mushroom/”king oyster”杏鮑菇). Note, I may be wrong.

[6]: If your culinary experiment over-strech the “capabilities” of your ingrediants, don’t try to serve to your guests.

Things to Avoid 5: Exaggeration (戒穿鑿)

戒單::戒穿鑿
物有本性,不可穿鑿為之,自成小巧。即如燕窩佳矣,何必捶以為團?海參可矣,何必熬之為醬?西瓜被切,略遲不鮮,竟有製以為糕者。蘋果太熟,上口不脆,竟有蒸之以為脯者。他如《遵生八箋》之秋藤餅,李笠翁之玉蘭糕,都是矯揉造作,以杞柳為杯棬,全失大方。譬如庸德庸行,做到家便是聖人,何必索隱行怪乎?

List of Things to Avoid::Exaggeration[1]
Each ingredient has its own innate characteristics, which are best shown off using a specific set of culinary techniques. One must not be “force” an ingredient using techniques that exaggerate or overextend these characteristics. Bird’s nest is delectable the way it is, so why would one wish to pound and shape it into balls? [2] Sea cucumbers are fine in their original forms, so why would one wish to turn it into a sauce? One knows that sliced watermelon quickly loses its delicate freshness if left out too long, yet some would go so far as to process it into cakes and pastries. Similarly, overripe apples lose their crispness, yet there are those who would steam and dry them.

Then there are the pastries such as the Qiuteng Bing, described in Gao Lian’s “Zunsheng Bajian”, and the Yulan Gao described by Li Liweng, [3] all of them examples of ingredients forcefully bent and twisted out of their normal character. It would be as if one tried to make cups and bowls out of willow twigs; a rather sorry and futile exercise. If a person of earnest virtue and manner can attain sainthood on their own at home, why would they wish to hide this fact? [4]

Random notes:
[1]: There must be a better term than “exaggeration” or “over-extension” here. The idea is that an ingredient should not be “coerced” into dishes or forms that do not suit it’s nature. The analogy in people is like dressing a prudish accountant up like a rapper with sagging pants; it’s so out-of-place that it’s painful to look at. Suggestions welcome.

[2]: Watch the (original) Iron Chef episode on Bird’s Nest where Chen Kenichi battles Li Junlun. Some of the bird’s nest dishes looked pretty good, but most of them makes you go WTF.

[3]: Qiuteng Bing translates to something like “Wisteria biscuits” while Yulan Gao to “Magnolia cake”. Airs of pretense surround the names of these little pastries. Yuan Mei mocked the authors of these imaginative creations at the end of the Preface, calling them “mediocre scholars”. Oh Snap!

[4]: In Chinese folk tales, in order to attain sainthood, a person has to climb to the peak of a mystical mountain to apprentice themselves to a long white bearded saint, being tested in trials and undergoing years of physical and psychological struggle. Become a saint in the comfort of one’s home is infinitely tamer and less extraordinary. I think what Yuan Mei was trying to indicate here that one should not be ashamed of cooking an ingredient in the canonical way, because the technique is simple or common. If the cooking technique does wonders to the ingredient, who cares whether it’s simple or common? Making a great steak is simple, requiring only 2 ingredients (good beef and salt, 3 if you add pepper/spices) and a hot grill. Pretension, bad technique, trying to do something out of the ordinary too often destroys the dish. Case in point, there is a place on Peel street in Montreal called “Entrecôte St Jean” which grills their steak salt-less and then covers it in a greasy mustard sauce before serving. For a restaurant that does ONLY steak, it is remarkably meh. I attribute their success largely to the nice French Bistro décor and the tasteless clientele that frequents the place (4 stars on yelp? What?). The term “庸德庸行” probably comes from Zhongyong (中庸: Scroll 13).

Things to Avoid 3: Meals for the Ears (戒耳餐)

戒單::戒耳餐
何謂耳餐?耳餐者,務名之謂也。貪貴物之名,誇敬客之意,是以耳餐,非口餐也。不知豆腐得味,遠勝燕窩。海菜不佳,不如蔬筍。余嘗謂雞、豬、魚、鴨,豪傑之士也,各有本味,自成一家。海參、燕窩,庸陋之人也,全無性情,寄人籬下。嘗見某太守宴客,大碗如缸,白煮燕窩四兩,絲毫無味,人爭誇之。余笑曰︰「我輩來吃燕窩,非來販燕窩也。」可販不可吃,雖多奚為?若徒誇體面,不如碗中竟放明珠百粒,則價值萬金矣。其如吃不得何?

List of Things to Avoid::Meals for the Ears
What are “meals for the ears”? A meal for ears exists only for the purpose of bolstering name and reputation. By bantering the names of expensive and coveted ingredients to flaunt one’s wealth to one’s respected guests, such meals tease one’s ears but confer no satisfaction to one’s tongue. Don’t they know that the flavours of well-seasoned tofu excels that of bird’s nest and that badly prepared seafood is no better than spoiled food?[1] In the past I have often referred to chicken, pork, fish, and duck as the “talented nobility” of food ingredients since they each have their own unique, distinguishing flavours and by their own merits, hold a dish together and ensure its success. Ingredients such as sea cucumber and bird’s nest, on the other hand, are more akin to those vulgar and despicable individuals of society who are devoid of spirit and character and mostly reliant on the support and merits of others to succeed.[2]

I attended a certain prefecture banquet, where we were served bowls as big as tureens each filled with four taels [3] of bird’s nest cooked in plain water. It had not a shred of flavour, yet the guests were clamoring to praise it. To this I joked: “I came here to enjoy bird’s nest, not collect it for resale!” Tell me, what exactly is to purpose of serving pricy food at a banquet in such large portions if it tastes terrible?[4] If the sole expressed purpose of this exercise was to flaunt one’s wealth and position, one might as well fill the banquet bowls with hundreds of gleaming pearls worth tens of thousands in gold taels. It would be just as inedible and pointless.

Random notes:
[1]: In its plainest meaning 蔬筍 (lit. vegetables and shoots) refer the the vegetables eaten by barbarian/wild people (宋 王明清 《挥麈后录》卷二:“ 康节 云:‘野人岂识堂食之味,但林下蔬笋,则尝喫耳。’”) or sour, putrid, rank smells (宋 苏轼 《赠诗僧道通》诗:“语带烟霞从古少,气含蔬笋到公无。”自注:“谓无酸馅气也。”参见“ 酸馅气 ”。) In this context, I’m guessing it likely means something “bad tasting” commonly consumed by so-called “barbarians”.

[2]: 寄人籬下 is similar to the idea of riding on coat-tails, where a person relies on the effort, strength, or merit of someone else to gain some sort of standing. The best example of this in Chinese cuisine is shark fin which is at best flavourless and requires an excellent broth made from hams, chickens, and numerous unsung heroes to be palatable. One finds quite a few shark fins in academia.

[3]: This must have been some extravagant affair considering that the stuff is usually served in small dessert bowls. Even at this day and age where bird’s nest is more accessible and easily (over) harvested, 150g of bird’s nest per person is still quite a large quantity. As of early 2014, 150g of mid-quality bird’s nest is around US$225. Top grade is easily double the price.

[4]: “Ear meals” are a mainstay of gastronomy, be it in Eastern or Western cuisine. Fois gras is fantastic, but if a restaurant serves it thin (< 5mm) just to be able to name it in their dish, it’s an ear meal. White truffle oil in your pasta? Ear meal. “Kobe beef” hamburgers? Ear meal.[5]

[5]: Fois gras should be served thicker than 1cm. If there are no truffle shavings there are no truffles. Kobe beef in the form of hamburgers is pointless.

Things to Avoid 1: Dousing with oil (戒外加油)

戒單::戒外加油
俗廚製菜,動熬豬油一鍋,臨上菜時,勺取而分澆之,以為肥膩。甚至燕窩至清之物,亦復受此玷污。而俗人不知,長吞大嚼,以為得油水入腹。故知前生是餓鬼投來。

List of Things to Avoid::Dousing with oil
When preparing a dish, a vulgar cook will typically have a simmering pot of lard readied to douse on the finished dish before serving, just to impart some richness to it.[1] Even something as light and delicate as bird’s-nest would not be spared this polluting offense. Then there are those vulgar ignorant people, with their long greedy tongues and teeth, who would gladly gulp down these dishes doused with liquid grease. Perhaps they were reincarnated from a bunch of hungry ghosts.

Random notes:
[1]: I’m not sure if this is always bad. For example, when a fish has been steamed to perfection and garnished with shredded green onions, it’s quite nice to top it with a bit of sizzling hot sesame oil mixed with cooking oil to finish it. No doubt, Yuan Mei would consider such an act (and proponents of it) vulgar.

Essential Knowledge 5 : Accompaniment (配搭須知)

須知單::配搭須知
諺曰︰「相女配夫」。《記》曰︰「儗人必於其倫。」烹調之法,何以異焉?凡一物烹成,必需輔佐。要使清者配清,濃者配濃,柔者配柔,剛者配剛,方有和合之 妙。其中可葷可素者,蘑菇、鮮筍、冬瓜是也。可葷不可素者,蔥韭、茴香、新蒜是也。可素不可葷者,芹菜、百合、刀豆是也。常見人置蟹粉於燕窩之中,放百合 於雞、豬之肉,毋乃唐堯與蘇峻對坐,不太悖乎?亦有交互見功者,炒葷菜,用素油,炒素菜,用葷油是也。

List of Essential Knowledge::Accompaniment
It is said in a proverb: “For each type of woman there is a matching man.” In Li-Ji (禮記) it is said: “One should compare a person against those most similar to him.” Are the methods of cuisine any different? The success of a dish depends on its ingredients’ mutual support and accompaniment. One should accompany light tasting ingredients with other light tasting ingredients, rich ingredients with other rich ingredients, soft ingredients with the soft, and firm ingredients with the firm, this way they are well matched and in harmony. Note that some ingredients can be used as accompaniment in either meat or vegetarian dishes, such as mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots, and winter melon. Ingredients the accompany meat dish well but not vegetarian dishes, include green onions, garlic chives, fennel seed, and garlic. Ingredients that accompany vegetarian dishes well but not meat dishes, include celery, lily bulbs, and sword beans. I often see crab roe being added into bird’s nest soup and lily bulbs being cooked with chicken and pork. This is similar to someone sitting two bitter rivals such as Tang Yao [1] and Su Jun [2] facing each other; a completely ridiculous decision. That said, there are ingredients that coordinate well despite being on opposite sides. For instance, one can quite effectively use vegetable oil to stir-fry meats and use animal fats to stir-fry vegetable items.


Random notes:

[1]: Tang yao (唐尧) was one of the mythic emperors sages from even before Xia dynasty (2100-1600 BC) little is know definitively about his life but wisdom is often attributed to him by Chinese scholars and Chinese emperors often claim descent from him.

[2]: Su Jun (蘇峻) was a warlord/general in the Jin Dynasty who fought bloody wars, rebelled and tried to overthrow his imperial goverment (succeeding for a short while), and died a bloody death.

Essential Knowledge 3: Cleaning (洗刷須知)

須知單::洗刷须知
洗刷之法,燕窩去毛,海參去泥,魚翅去沙,鹿筋去臊。肉有筋瓣,剔之則酥;鴨有腎臊,削之則淨;魚膽破,而全盤皆苦;鰻涎存,而滿碗多腥;韭刪葉而白存,菜棄邊而心出。《內則》曰︰「魚去乙,鱉去醜。」此之謂也。諺云︰「若要魚好吃,洗得白筋出。」亦此之謂也。

List of Essential knowledge::Cleaning
The requirements of cleaning and washing specific ingredients are as follows; one must remove all feathers from bird’s nest, remove all mud from within sea cucumbers, remove all sand from shark’s fin, and wash the foul smells from deer tendon. If the meat contain sinews, one needs to remove them such that the meat can remain tender after cooking. Duck kidneys have a foul odour [1], therefore be sure to remove them and rinse the cavity well. Be careful to not break the fish’s gall bladder when gutting and cleaning the fish since doing so will render the entire dish bitter. If one does not wash away the saliva of an eel during its preparation, the resulting dish will have an unpleasant fishy odour. One must remove the old leaves when cleaning garlic chive, leaving only the tender white stems. When preparing leaf vegetables, one should remove the coarser outside leaves and use only the heart. In Nei-Ze (禮記::內則) it is said: “One should remove the orbital bone around a fish’s eyes and remove the orifices [2] of the soft shell turtle.”, admonishing us to diligently clean the ingredients for a dish [3]. The common proverb: “If you want a fish to taste good, you will have to clean it extremely well.” [4], also highlights the truth behind these facts.


Random notes:

[1]: One can also read the text as “Ducks have a foul urine-like kidney odour, make sure to clean it (and it’s insides) well to remove the smell.” So, either the duck’s kidneys smells bad, or the duck has bad kidney smells. Your pick.

[2]: I have no idea what “醜” are. It says here they are “perforated openings of the turtle”. What does that even mean? Nostrils? Cloaca? Mouth? Ears? I’m going saying “orifices” here for the sake of generality.

[3]: The full text is in here. Basically, the whole sentence tells what to do with animals in cleaning and preparations. Did you know you should remove the head of a badger and the intestines of a wolf when preparing them? I didn’t.

[4]: The Chinese text says “To make fish taste good, wash it until the white tendons/nerves come out”. Basically what’s being said here is that you have to wash the fish very well, right? At first I thought this was indeed the case and the white tendon part was simply exaggeration for humour. That is, until I read this. It appears that there ARE long white strands of nerves tissues that you have to remove from each side of the spine near the gills to really rid a fish such as carp of its strong fishy smells.