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”.
Pan-fry a large silver carp until done, add tofu, spray on soy sauce, water, green onion, wine, and then let everything come to a boil. When the colour of the soup has turn slightly red in hue1, it is ready to be served. The flavours from the fish’s head is incredibly good. This is a Hangzhou dish. The amount of soy sauce to be used here is proportional to the size of the fish
1 I’m not sure what turns this soup slightly red/pink. Perhaps the heme from the fish’s flesh leaks out during the cooking process and somehow does not get denatured by the cooking heat?
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.
When done well, the resulting dish is sublime.
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
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.
2I’ve translated junyu(鯶魚) as being grass carp, but if it is written as “軍魚” then the fish would be Spinibarbus caldwelli
3This fish soong is more similar to the commonly found dried meat product, rousong.
“In Nizan’s 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 onions 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 grass 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.”
“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*