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”.

Scaleless Aquatic Creatures (水族無鱗單)

Aquatic creatures that lack scales are significantly fishier in smell than their counterpart. Thus, they require much greater attention in their preparation. Their shortcomings can be overcome through the judicious use of ginger and cinnamon. The following is the list of “Aquatic Creatures without scales”.


1The character 魚 (yu2, “fish”) when used in the Chinese can refer to more than fish but to a wide range of non-fish aquatic creatures, many of which are scaleless. Though there are more than a few of these, the most prominent scale-lacing non-fish “fish” in Chinese cuisine is arguably the soft-shelled turtle, which is also commonly known as “armoured fish” (甲魚) .

Fish 7: Fish Balls (魚圓)

Use either a live redfin culter or black carp, split the fish in half, and nail it to a board. Use a knife and scrap off the meat, leaving the bones and spine on the board. Chop the meat until fine, mix with lard and bean starch,1 then stir the mixture with one’s hand. Add a little salt water, but do not use light soy sauce. Add green onion and ginger juice, and form the mixture into balls. When this is done, place them in boiling water to cook. Scoop them out when done, and let them rest in a bath of cold water.2 When they are ready to be served, boil them with chicken broth and laver.3


1 I’m still wondering if “豆粉” (doufen) is bean starch or bean vermicelli, since both can be used in fish balls. The ambiguity stems from the fact that 粉 (fen) can either be used to mean starch, or one of the many Chinese pasta products made from starch. I’m going with the former since it’s a more common ingredient when making fish balls.

2 This is a very accurate and detailed description of the fish-ball-making process. Definitely one of the better recipes noted-down by Yuan Mei.

3 The laver described here is a type of red algae likely from Genus Porphyra

Birds 43: Xu Duck (徐鴨)

“Get the largest fresh duck available. Make a solution from twelve liang of baihua liquor, one liang and two qian of unrefined grey salt,[1] and a soup bowl of boiled water, removing any residue and froth after dissolving everything, then apply this to the duck. Next replace the solution[2] and add seven rice bowls of cold water, four thick slices of fresh ginger weighing approximately one liang, and place everything together inside a large lidded earthenware bowl. Seal the opening of the lidded bowl well using a sheet of thick paper[3] and place everything on top of a large charcoal braizer to cook thoroughly.[4] Use large chunks of charcoal[5] of three yuan, each weighing around two wen, for cooking and cover the braizer and bowl with a tented cover so the heated air does not escape.[6] Cook starting from around the time one has breakfast until the evening. If the cooking is rushed, then the dish will be underdone and it flavours would be poorly developed. After the charcoal has burned through, do not move the duck to a serving bowl and do not open the sealed bowl too soon. After splitting the duck open, wash it with clean water, then dry it with a clean unstarched cloth before putting it into a lidded earthenware bowl.[7]”

頂大鮮鴨一隻,用百花酒十二兩、青鹽一兩二錢、滾水一湯碗,沖化去渣沫,再兌冷水七飯碗,鮮薑四厚片,約重一兩,同入大瓦蓋內,將皮紙封固口,用大火籠燒透。大炭吉三元(約二文一個);外用套包一個,將火籠罩定,不可令其走氣。約早點時燉起,至晚方好。速則恐其不透,味便不佳矣。其炭吉燒透 後,不宜更換瓦,亦不宜預先開看。鴨破開時,將清水洗後,用潔淨無漿布拭乾入。

“Xu duck” has two interpretations. The word “xu” (徐) literally means slow, which may describe the cooking speed here, but it could also be a person’s family name, which would mean it’s Xu’s Duck. Due to the incomplete info I’m leaving this as it is.


[1]: The term “grey salt” was translated from “qingyan” (青鹽), which translate literally to green/blue salt. This is a greyish greenish raw salt more or less like the coarse grained sel gris of Guerande.

[2]: The text here uses the word dui(兌), which may mean either “replace” or “add”. In the first, the salt and liquor solution would simply be used for marinating and washing the duck then simply throw away and replaced with water. In the second case, it would have been used as just the cooking liquid with more water added on top. To me the former one makes more sense, since green salt is commonly used for cleaning food and less for eating itself.

[3]: In Chinese, pi (皮) paper, or “leather paper” refers to a thick heavy paper similar to like that used in making large brownpaper bags.

[4]: This cooking method is similar to that seen in: “Pork 13: Pork in lidded bowl”.

[5]: The term “charcoal lumps” are translated from the Chinese word “tanji” (炭吉). This same term was mentioned in Scroll nine of the late Qing dynasty work Xiawai Junxie (霞外攟屑::九), which indicated it has an alternate writing form (炭擊). Tanji is a very high quality whole wood charcoal is made from very dense and fine grained hardwoods and fired to very high temperatures. This charcoal produced is so hard and dense that it rings like a chime when tapped with a hammer. It is known in Japanese as white charcoal (白炭) or “enduring” charcoal (長炭).

[6]: The sentence was translated from the phrase “外用套包一個,將火籠罩定”, which implies that the cooking setup is covered using a stiff tent or umbrella like structure. What this structure actually looked like is a mystery. Still, if this tent/umbrella setup is well insulated, then it would basically function like an oven.

[7]: This entire recipe is confusing all the way through, but the confusion culminates in a crescendo in the last two sentences. Don’t change the bowl (不宜更換瓦)…but okay, to what? Finally, take the duck out and wipe it dry and put it back into the bowl used to cook it (鴨破開時,將清水洗後,用潔淨無漿布拭乾入)? Or a clean serving bowl? The fact that this recipe is quite detailed, probably means that Yuan Mei liked it enough to note things down, but on the whole it is one of the more poorly written ones in the Suiyuan Shidan. One could try to rearrange the sentences to make the recipe make sense, but I’ll leave that to the people reading this to do as they see fit.

Birds 36: Duck in Disarray (鴨糊塗)

Take a fat duck and boil it in water until eighty percent done. When cool, remove its bones and tear the meat in natural and disorderly pieces, neither ‘squared nor round’. Place the meat back into its cooking liquid than add three qian of salt and half a jin of wine. Also add coarsely crushed mountain yam into the pot to thicken the dish. When the meat is braised tender, add finely chopped ginger, shitake, and chopped green onion. If one wants an especially thick soup, add powdered starch. The dish is also very good if one substitutes the mountain yam with taro instead.


Whitefaced duck (with one confused fulvous duck among them)
A duck that is confused. Or lost. Or perhaps just lonely? (Credit: Derek Keats)

The rather comical name of this dish probably comes from the fact that the duck is intentionally torn into random pieces and the yam is bashed into chunks. This is definitely a dish attributable to the culinary endeavors of a clumsy or confused person. To be honest, the name of dish can also be accurately translated as “Canard a la Clutz”, however I decided to side on the formal since it felt a bit more correct, for whatever the reason.

On a separate note, I’m not too sure about the appeal of this dish, but I suspect the scholars and high officials like to contrast their usually impeccably prepared meals with something that has the air of being haphazardly and coarsely cobbled together in a “peasant-like” way. After all that ultra-rich family in the largely biographical work Dream of the Red Chamber did this too, once eating grilled meats around the fire with their bare hands (which was used to hint at their eventual demise as beggars). So perhaps Yuan Mei and company, ate this dish while pretending they live the simple country peasant life, much in the way Marie Antoinette enjoyed playing make-believe at her fake peasant village?

Maybe the latter can be someone’s Master thesis?

Birds 21: Jiang’s Chicken (蔣雞)

Take a young chicken and season it with four qian of salt, a spoon of soy sauce, half a tea cup of aged wine, and three large slices of ginger. Place it in a claypot, steam it separated from water until soft, and then remove its bones. Do not add any water to the chicken when cooking. This is a recipe from the household of Census Officer Jiang.


Chinese census forms, censored. (Credit: edouardlicn)

An interesting recipe in the sense that the chicken is deboned after being cooked, with the bird still whole after all its bones had been removed. Otherwise, this is more or less like another braised chicken dish.

Birds 13: Chicken Stir-fried with Pear (梨炒雞)

Take chicken breasts from a young bird and slice them. Heat up three liang of rendered lard and stir-fry the chicken giving it three to four tosses. Add a large spoon of sesame oil, and a small spoon each of powdered starch, fine salt, ginger juice, and Szechuan pepper. Finally, add finely sliced snow pear and small pieces of shitake, then stir-fry everything for three or four tosses before plating in a five inch dish.


Unripened snow pear (Credit: Darkotico)

Nothing really to say about this other than a few translation notes:

  1. I don’t think there are any difference in anatomy between chicken breast described using the words xiong (胸) and pu (脯). Still I wonder if there are subtle difference in meaning that are being conveyed through the two terms. For example, the terms for sesame oil, could be mayou (麻油) or xiangyou (香油). The first simply indicates that it’s oil taken from the seeds of the sesame/hemp plant, while the second indicates that the oil is fragrant.
  2. Yuan Mei used the word ci (次) to describe the duration of cooking here, which literally means “times”, as in: “How many times were you forced watch Totoro and Frozen this week?”. When Yuan Mei says “stir-fry three or four times“, I’m taking that he means you stir and toss it that many times while cooking
  3. I translated 茶匙 as a “small spoon” instead of its literal meaning “tea spoon”, since most English readers would assume its the standard teaspoon measure otherwise. This small spoon was most likely a small scoop (勺) used for cleaning teapots in kung fu tea “ceremonies” and are probably around half a standard teaspoon.
  4. The pear used is the snow pear (Pyrus nivalis) with its crisp flesh that is similar to very fresh bamboo shoots. Actually, it could be quite an interesting substitute for bamboo shoots in most stir-fry recipes, assuming you don’t overcook it.
  5. If everything was supposed to be place on a five inch dish then it must have been quite a mound of chicken.