Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 3: Fried Eel (炸鰻)

Choose a large eel, remove its head and tail, and chop it into inch-long1 segments. First, fry them in sesame oil until thoroughly cooked and place them on the side. Take the tender tips of fresh chrysanthemum greens2 and stir-fry them until done, using the oil previously used to cook the eel. Next, place the eel on top of the greens, season, and braise them for one incense stick of time.3 The quantity of chrysanthemum greens used should be about half that of the eel.4


1I know, I know, the Chinese cun (寸) is not related to any of the Western inches. But it reads better.

2Tongcai (蒿菜), which is also known as tonghao (茼蒿) or the “edible chrysanthemum” in English, has a unique flavour that can be strangely addictive once you get used to it.

3Basically, the chrysanthemum greens are to be cooked until brown and mushy. There seems to be this dichotomy in Chinese vegetable cooking: it’s either done quickly over high heat, no more than a few minutes, or it’s deliberately cooked until brown and falling apart.

4By the time you finish reading this, you would have realized this dish is not any sort of fried food in the Western sense (and that appetizing header image is a total lie). Actually, it would be more accurate to call this “eel braised with chrysanthemum greens”. The initial frying is most likely there to form a seared layer on the eel and prevent it from disintegrating during the incense stick’s worth of cooking time. The reason for the name would have be a mystery except for diners in the know.

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.

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”.

Essential Knowledge 6: Lone ingredients (独用須知)

味太濃重者,只宜獨用,不可搭配。如李贊皇、張江陵一流,須專用之,方盡其才。食物中,鰻也,鱉也,蟹也,鮑魚也,牛羊也,皆宜獨食,不可加搭配。何也? 此數物者味甚厚,力量甚大,而流弊亦甚多,用五味調和,全力治之,方能取其長而去其弊。何暇捨其本題,別生枝節哉?金陵人好以海參配甲魚,魚翅配蟹粉,我 見輒攢眉。覺甲魚、蟹粉之味,海參、魚翅分之而不足;海參、魚翅之弊,甲魚、蟹粉染之而有餘。

All you need is Picard and a few extras to make a good STNG episode. Supporting roles not required.

List of Essential Knowledge::Lone ingredients
Ingredients with strong flavours are best when used on their own without accompaniment, much in the way the likes of Li Jiang [1] and Zhang Ju Zheng [2] must be allowed to work on their own to make the best use of their talents. For instance eel, soft-shell turtle, crab, abalone, beef, and lamb are ingredients best used in dishes on their own without using other main ingredients. Why? The above ingredients have thick and rich flavours that are powerful. As such, their flaws are readily apparent and thus required the seasoning and harmonization provided by the five flavours [3] to control them. This allows these assertive ingredients to show off their strength while hiding their deficiencies. So who in this world would willingly abandon these principles and even go the extra step to push thing beyond good taste? Well, give it to the people in Jin Ling [4] who enjoy combining sea cucumbers with turtle and shark’s fin with crab roe. When I see this accompaniment of ingredients I cannot help but frown in displeasure. I feel that in these combinations, the flavour of turtle and crab roe is dissipated and diluted by the sea cucumber and shark’s fin, while the less savoury flavours of sea cucumber and shark’s fin harm the turtle and crab roe and contaminate their tastes without end.

Random notes:

[1]: Li Jiang (李絳) an imperial chancellor who did some amazing stuff and rose to power. Read wikipedia.

[2]: Zhang Ju Zheng (张居正) an imperial officer who did some amazing stuff and rose in power. Read wikipedia.

[3]: Basically he means you need to season correctly to make the most of these powerful tasting foods. The Chinese “Five flavours” are pungent (辛), salty (咸), sour (酸), bitter (苦), and sweet (甘), which corresponds to the five elements for metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. This categorization everything with the five elements something to do with Daoist derived alchemist philosophies/medicines, which I think are fun in that strange and arcane way, but has little to do with scientific realities. If there are only five flavours, where does umami (鮮) go and what about fat (油) flavours?

[4]: Former Nanjing, a city of people with bad tastes according to Yuan Mei.

Essential Knowledge 3: Cleaning (洗刷須知)


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.

Essential Knowledge 1 : Basic Nature (先天須知)


List of Essential knowledge::Basic Nature
All things have their basic nature, just like each person has their own qualities. If a person is by nature dim-witted, it would be pointless even if they were taught by Confucius or Mencius. Similarly, if the starting ingredients are of low quality, even the extraordinary culinary skills of Yi-ya [1] would produce an mediocre dish. As a brief overview on the qualities of ingredients:

  • Good pork should have thin skin and lack any strong or foul smells [2].
  • Good chicken should be tender and neither too old (tough) or too young (under-developed).
  • Quality carp [3] should have flat bodies with white bellies. Carp with darker backs will prove less edible.
  • Eel taken from the lakes and streams are exquisite, while those who have lived in the large rivers tend to be scrawny and full of spines and bone.
  • Grain-fed ducks should be round and fat such that their flesh is pale.
  • Cultivated bamboo shoots with less segments taste fresher and sweeter [4].

The difference between a quality of a good ham and a bad one is miles apart. As for the xiang [5] of Taizhou, one cannot even begin to measure the difference between a good and bad. The same sort of reasoning applies to other food-stuffs. For the quality of of a banquet’s dishes, 60% of the credit goes to the cook, but 40% goes to the person who selected the ingredients.

Random notes:

[1]: A famous chef of great cooking prowess from the Spring and Autumn period of China’s tumultuous history. Infamous for allegedly cooking his infant son in soup after his king expressed interest in tasting meat from human babies. Go state-sponsored cannibalism!

[2]: Literally fishy/raw meat smells (腥) and foul urine-like smells (臊)

[3]: The Crucian carp

[4]: How does one translate “甘鮮”? Sweet and umami? Sweet and fresh? Sweet and delectable?

[5]: A dried salted fish usually made from Yellow croaker