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.

Birds 45: Braised Quail and Siskin

Quail[1] from Liuhe[2] are the best. There are even some that have already been prepared.

For siskin finch,[3] braise using Suzhou wine lees, honey, and wine until soft. Add the same seasonings used for braising sparrows to them.

Inspector Shen of Suzhou makes a braised siskin with bones that melt in the mouth, but it’s method of preparation is unknown. His stir-fried fish slices are also exceptional. With such incredible culinary skills, they can truly be ranked number one in all of Suzhou.

煨鵪鶉,黃雀
鵪鶉用六合來者最佳。有現成制好者。黃雀用蘇州糟加蜜,酒煨爛,下作料與煨麻雀同。蘇州沈觀察煨黃雀,並骨如泥,不知作何制法。炒魚片亦精。其廚饌之精,合吳門推為第一。

Notes:
[1]: The common quail (Coturnix coturnix)
[2]: Luhe District in Nanjing
[3]: The Eurasian siskin (Spinus spinus), a species of finch.

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.

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.