Take slices of black carp or a grouper, season with autumn sauce, then add starch powder and egg white. Start a wok and stir-fry them over high heat. Plate them using a small dish and add green onions, Szechuan pepper, and soy-pickled ginger. Each dish should not contain more than six liang of fish, since heat cannot be evenly and thoroughly applied when there is too much ingredients.
This recipe is quite similar to the preparation of our contemporary stir-fried fish slices (炒魚片), which shows how old this method of fish preparation likely is. Although some recipes contain more ingredients than this, regardless the core technique for stir-frying the fish is the same.
While stir-frying fish slices (likely stir-frying itself) sounds easy to do, all too often the fish slices gets cooked into jerky by the novice cook or stirred until it disintegrates into something more like fish floss. Successful preparation of this dish takes some skill and a few tricks. First the fish’s flesh needs to be sliced with its grain so the pieces does not easily fall apart. Next, the fish must be first quickly pan fried in a wok to set their shape before being quickly and gently flipped until the fish is barely cooked. The cooking typically takes less than a minute or so. Any other ingredients that goes into the dish must be precooked to not mess up this timing.
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
Notes: 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
Steam black carp1 or grass carp2 until done and pull the meat off the bones. Fry the meat in a wok until golden brown, then add fine salt, green onion, Szechuan pepper, and soy-pickled ginger. When stored in a sealed jar during winter, this can keep for a whole month.3
Fish floss is the piscine variant of the more commonly found pork floss. Although not much to look at on its own, fish soong is one of those little condiments that light up an otherwise mundane bowl of congee or rice at mealtimes. It’s actually very easy to make, but rather time consuming since one has to stay in front of the stove to continuously stir and lightly mash the fish until it is fluffy and dry.
If you are interested in trying it out, below is our family recipe:
Chen Family Fish Floss (陳氏魚鬆)
1 kg Fish fillet (any fresh seasonal medium to large local fish. I’ve tried this on salmon, trout, pickerel, swordfish,… and they all worked fine)
1 Tsp Salt (or to taste. Soy sauce is fine but I find it overwhelms the flavour of the fish)
4 Tbsp Sugar (or to taste)
2 Tsp Ginger and green onion juice (puree ginger and green onion and squeeze)
1 Tsp Sesame seeds
Place fish fillet into a pan at medium heat and let it cook until the flesh starts to flake.
Flake the fillet thoroughly
Add salt, sugar, the juices, and stir them into the flaked fish
Keep stirring and flipping the flakes of fish in the pan to dry out the water. Take out any bones you see during the process.
Repeat step 4.
When the fish is quite fluffy and dry with a light brown toasted colour, add the sesame seeds and stir for another 3 minutes.
Let cool and seal in a airtight jar
Serve on top of any starch you like (rice, bread, pancakes, whatever) or eat it on its own if you so desire.
“In Nizan’s1 Yuan Dynasty work, the “Yunlin Compendium”, he recorded a recipe for preparing geese. Take a whole goose, clean it, rub the inside of the body cavity with three qian of salt, and stuff it with a large bundle of green onions2 such that the cavity is solidly filled. Cover the outside of the whole goose with a mixture of honey and wine. In the pot, add a large bowl of wine and a large bowl of water for steaming, and build a rack made of chopsticks to keep the goose elevated from the water. Use two bundles of mountain grass3 as fuel for the stove, allowing it to slowly and completely burn away. Wait for the pot to cool down completely, then open the lid, flip the goose over to its other side, replace the lid, and seal it well for steaming. Use another bundle of grass and allow it to burn completely. The fuel should be allowed to burn on its own without any disturbance by the cook. The lid should be well sealed with cotton paper. If the sealing paper dries and cracks during cooking, simply moisten it with water.
When it is ready to serve, the goose will be soft as mud and its broth absolutely delectable. If duck is prepared using the technique it will be just as delicious. Each bundle of the mountain grass used a fuel should weight one jin and eight liang. While one is rubbing the goose with salt, add in some green onions and finely ground Szechuan peppercorns mixed with wine. The “Yunlin Compendium” contained numerous recipes, but after numerous trials this was the only good one, the rest of the recipes were simply false elaborations.”
1A renowned poet and painter and the famous goose dish that bears his pen name (Yunlin), made even more famous in the culinary world by the fact that Yuan Mei endorses it so here. The full name of Nizan’s work is (雲林堂飲食制度集)
2Literally says, “stuff with a broom of green onion”.
3The term shanmao(山茅), translates literally to “mountain tall-grass” We know from the term “茅” that it is a tall wild grass that grows on hill sides with large woody sheaths and long blades. Looking up the term shanmao, it could refer to any grass including: Sabai grass (Eulaliopsis binata), Cymbopogon distans, Scleria levis, or Cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica), and likely many others. Yuan Mei does refer the fuel here also as maochai (茅柴, literally “grass fuel“), which may point to cogon grass since it is also know by that name. But again he could also just be saying maochai to indicate “a grass used for fuel” instead of “a grass known as maochai”. At the end, I’m not sure what the grass is so I’m just going to call this all “mountain grass”.
“Stuff green onion into the duck body cavity, cover the duck well and braise it at high heat. Xu’s store at Shuixi gate does this dish very well. This is a dish that cannot be made at home. There are yellow and black variations of this braised duck, of the two the yellow one is better.”
Certain sites online says that this duck recipe is actually the predecessor of the modern “Peking duck”, with the yellow version mentioned being salt water duck (滷水鴨) and the darker version being soy-braised and roasted. Sadly the connection between the previous duck dish and the famous roasted one in Beijing is rather hand-wavy.
Nevertheless the recipe does provide one hint that this might be a roasted duck. In Chinese cuisine, when something can’t be made at home it is usually because the home kitchen does not have the specialized equipment or facilities. Then as now, these are usually ovens and grills, so maybe… *waves arms vigorously*
“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.”
Another braised duck recipe, except in this one the duck has been glazed by the reduced cooking liquid.
“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.”
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?