Fish 11: Icefish (銀魚)

When icefish1 are freshly caught from the water, they are known as “savoriness of ice”. Braise them in chicken broth with dried-cured ham. Alternatively, stir-fry them for a more tender fish. For the dried item, soak them in water until soft. They make a good dish when stir-fried with diluted soy sauce.2


1Although the direct translation of the Chinese name is the somewhat ambiguous “silver fish”, the fact that Yuan Mei indicates this fish looks like ice tells use that it is most likely Salanx prognathus or Salanx chinensis, one of the species among a genus of Asian “ice fish”. These fish are quite interesting in that the adults retain much of the features present in a fish’s larval or juvenile stages. They are small, translucent, largely cartilaginous, and look amazingly like whitebait (and sometimes mistaken as such). They are also sometimes known as “noodle fish” since its form and texture resemble the small thick rice noodles. It goes to show that when you think you’ve seen all the wonders of nature, nature throws living rice noodles your way.

2I’m not sure what is jiangshui (醬水), or “watered sauce”. Could it soysauce and water or diluted soysauce, or just liquid extracted from a wet bean sauce? Either way it’ll likely taste like the former, hence the translation.


Birds 35: Steamed Duck (蒸鴨)

“Remove the bones from a raw fat duck. Stuff the duck’s body cavity with a mix consisting of one wine cup of glutinous rice, diced dried-cured ham, diced kohlrabi,[1] shitake, diced bamboo shoots, autumn sauce, wine, warm-pressed sesame oil,[2] and chopped green onions. Place the duck on a plate and ladle chicken broth on it. Steam the duck, separated from the water, and do so until it is thoroughly cooked. This recipe definitely comes from the household of Prefect Wei.”



There is supposedly steamed duck in this picture. I think it’s those two slices of pink flesh on the boat-shaped glass dish in the center. (Credit: Chris)


Not much to say about this other that the fact that this would have been quite an opulent dish back in the day. This would be be served in celebratory meals much like a roast turkey would be served in North American Thanskgiving and Christmas day.  Come to think of it, the stuffing described here could be used directly for turkey too.

Now, to fill-up some space here are some translation notes:

Translation notes:
[1]: In modern usage, datoucai (大頭菜) can be one of three vegetable items, all produced from the mustards of genus Brassica: Kohlrabi, the stem of the tatsai (Brassica juncea subsp. tatsai), or turnip. Of the three, the first two are stems while the latter is a root. It’s hard to figure out which of these are the vegetable selected so I’m going with the kolrabi since it’s the most common modern usage. Still, tatsai is native to China so it would be a strong contender.

[2]: Xiaomo Mayou (小磨麻油) is a warm pressed white sesame oil using hot water to separate out the oil instead of the typical hot roasting and hydraulic pressing. A more gentle sesame taste, than the typical sesame oil.

Birds 32: Squab (鴿子)

“Squab braised with good dry-cured ham is excellent. One can also prepare it without the ham.”


Tasty soy braised squab, prepared in a manner similar to this recipe. (Credit: Tsengawinlim)

Basically one can use any of the birds in genus Columba, which includes all species of doves and pigeons. The word squab is used to refer to pigeons bred for food or used for food, though it typically also implies a younger and tenderer bird.

Birds 4: Scraped Chicken Soup (雞粥)

Take a fat hen, skin and cut off both breasts, then use the knife and scrape the breast meat into a fine paste. One can also use a planing knife for this task. Only scrape and do not chop the meat since the desired fine texture cannot be achieved by chopping. Use the rest of the chicken to make the broth for cooking the scraped meat. When one is ready to serve the dish, pound together a mixture of finely ground rice, minced dried-cured ham, pine nuts, and add the pounded mixture to the cooking soup. Finish by adding green onions, ginger, and a drizzle of chicken fat.

The soup can be either skimmed of froth from its surface or left as is if preferred. It is well suited for serving to the elderly. In general, if the breast meat was chopped for preparation of this soup, then the froth it should be skimmed. However, if the meat was scraped then no skimming is required.


The texture of the meat in the soup is probably similar to thinned-down haleem. Come to think of it, haleem thinned with broth would make a great soup. (Credit: Miansari66).

The Chinese name of this dish reads ji-zhou (雞粥), where ji (雞) translates to chicken and zhou (粥) translate to congee. Thus the dish should be chicken congee right? Well, for me at least, not quite.

When one reads the recipe, one sees that this dish is more a well textured chicken soup or chicken purée than rice congee with chicken in it. In fact the Chinese name is most likely referring to the texture of the chicken in the soup being like the grains of rice in a congee; clearly visible but soft and mostly structureless in the mouth. Translating the dish as “Chicken congee” or “Chicken zhou” would not only distort this texture reference, but make one think this is some sort of chicken rice congee. Thus I’ve conceded using the descriptive name and call it “Scraped Chicken Soup”.

To be honest it’s a pretty terrible translation but I like it better than any other translations I can think of. Maybe someone out there in the “internets” has a better suggestion.

As for the technique, scraping is a commonly used in preparing fish balls, dumpling fillings, and other foods requiring fine textured meat. It is also used in making the decadent jin-tang (吊湯), an intensely flavoured broth made by clarifying a chicken broth using the scraped breast meat of another chicken. If well made, the broth is clear and almost colourless but shocks with the intensity of its chicken flavour.

The only other thing to note here is the term “細米粉” (xi mifen), which literally translates to “fine rice flour”. In modern parlance, “mifen” (米粉) usually refers to rice noodles, but when we look at the usage of the same term in other places in the Suiyuan shidan, it seems that Yuan Mei was talking about ground rice and not rice noodles. Thus I’m calling it such even though I not sure why one would add ground rice to this dish.

Assorted Livestock 12: Two Ways of Preparing Deer Tendon (鹿筋二法)

“Deer tendon does not soften easily. For the first three days of preparations, one must pound and boil the tendons several times, while continually wringing out any foul-smelling juices from within it. Next, braise the deer tendon in pork broth and then after that braise it in chicken broth. Add autumn sauce, wine, and starch to thicken and reduce the cooking liquid.

The tendon can be served as-is as a white-cooked dish without addition of anything else. They can also be braised together with ham, winter bamboo shoots, and shitake until they take on a reddish hue and then served in a bowl without reduction. To finish the white-cooked dish, sprinkle it with finely ground Szechuan pepper.”


A simple and tasty plate of wonton noodles with braised beef tendons. (Credit: Shizao)

While I buy beef tendon and eat it often enough, I have never had deer tendon. And unless I have to chance to go deer hunting one of these days, I highly doubt I will. Coming at more than $100CAD per kg in dried form, deer tendon is not exactly cheap especially considering that beef tendon is usually much less than a tenth of the price. Truth is, if their texture and flavours are anywhere similar to one other, I’m not sure why I would pay anything close to eat the former.

Regardless, this recipe is still rather informative since it shows one how to reconstitute and process dried deer tendon, at least in the way the people in Qing Dynasty did it. The technique is the same as most dried texture foods used in Chinese cuisine (like sharks fin or sea cucumber) but with more pounding and wringing. Basically, you are trying to purge the ingredients of all its original smells and tastes, fill it with the flavours of a good meat broth, and then use in your recipe.

The two methods of preparing deer tendon described here probably works well enough for fresh pork and beef tendon. That said they still probably cannot beat a plate of mala tendon (麻辣牛筋).

Pork 43: Honeyed Ham (蜜火腿)

“Take a good ham and chop it into large chunks with its skin on and braise it in sweet wine until it is very soft and tender. This is an excellent dish.

Note though, the differences between a good and bad ham are as great as the distances between the heavens and the ocean’s abyss. There are numerous well known hams from Jinhua, Lanxi and Yiwu that simply do not live up to their reputations. These bad hams are frankly no better than dried salted pork.

Wangsan’s store in Zhongqingli Hangzhou sells a very good ham that cost four qian per jin. I have had this ham once at the abode of Yin Wenduan. Its fragrance was so intense that the neighbours could smell it during preparation and its flavours were uncommonly good. Sadly, I have never had such a extraordinary ham since.”


The blood-red fat-speckled hams of Spain. Truly incredible stuff. (Credit: Evaglesias)

With North Americans having learned how to eat dry-cured hams over the past two decades, today’s supermarket shelves and deli counters are rarely short of it. Still, most of these dried hams leave a lot to be desired. Even in Toronto, which claims to be a “world class city” with products from all around the planet available at our finger tips, one never seems to be able to get anything beyond just lame, uninspiring, “salted meat”.

Sure, better things are found at those yuppy or hipster ham bars, but seriously, are you going to go there and pay out of your nose for some average thing that you can get for a few euro in Salamanca?

Yuan Mei is right, good ham is hard to come by.

Pork 42: Napa Cabbage Hearts Braised with Ham (黃芽菜煨火腿)

“Take a good ham and peel off its skin, remove the fat and reserve the meat. First braise the skin in chicken broth until tender, then add the meat of the ham and braise it until tender. Cut the napa cabbage hearts with the stem into 2 inch long pieces. Add the cabbage along with honey and fresh rice wine to the ham, then braise for half a day.

The flavours of this dish are sweet and umami. While the meat and vegetables are very soft, the stem and leaves of the cabbage nevertheless hold their form. The flavours of the broth are incredible. This recipe comes from the Head Taoist at Chaotian Temple “


The tender yellow heart of the napa cabbage is considered a delicacy by quite a few Chinese gastronomes. (Credit:

Napa cabbage is usually known in Chinese as the “great white vegetable” (大白菜), though it is also sometimes referred to as the “yellow shoot vegetable” (黃芽菜). The former name refers to its general form of the vegetable in that it can grow quite large and much of each leaf is bright milky white in colour. The latter name refers to the preferred internal “heart” of the Napa cabbage, which is revealed after most of the tougher and green-tinged leaves of the head of cabbage has been pulled off.

When one is trying to cook something special with napa cabbage, one typically uses only its bright-yellow endive-shaped heart. The heart is not only incredibly tender but quite sweet in taste and an absolute joy to eat. When prepared for more formal dishes, the heart is cooked whole or sliced along it’s vertical axis with its stem intact at its base in order to keep the leaves of the cabbage heart together and hold its form.

Braising is the preferred method for cooking napa cabbage in Chinese cuisine. Unlike the European cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata), which start to stink badly if over-cooked, napa cabbage ( Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis) becomes sweeter and more delicious when braised for longer times. Still the half a day of braising for the cabbage in Yuan Mei’s recipe seems a little excessive since a good or 40 minutes of it would be more than enough to completely soften the napa hearts. I suppose it is partly a matter of taste since I know some of my aunts and uncles, and others from the previous generation, always preferred napa cabbage when cooked melt-in-the-mouth soft. Half a day of cooking would certainly render any vegetable into mud.

A more typical preparation of napa cabbage is Kaiyang napa cabbage (開陽白菜). The dish us usually made with the whole cabbage rather than just its heart. This is your home-style fare where the cabbage is braised in water or broth for around 10 minutes with umami providing ingredients such as shitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, dried flounder, and yes, dried ham too.

Of all the braised napa heart dishes, one of the most famous has to be the mundane sounding “napa cabbage in boiled water” (開水白菜). When served, this non-typical Szechuan dish looks exactly like what its name describes, basically, napa hearts in a tureen of clear water. However, the surprise comes when the soup is tasted. The “boiled water” is actually an exquisitely prepared consommé that is clear as water but rich and umami as a good Chinese superior broth (高湯). Despite its simple appearance, this dish is in fact one of the most flamboyantly wasteful and extravagant in all the Chinese cuisines. By the time you have sweated and prepared a tureen of this soup, you are left with a mountain of depleted remains from several chickens, ham, and egg whites used to create the broth, along with a large mound of outer napa cabbage leaves left over from extracting the heart.

If you ever decide to make this dish for your guest, make sure they are not raise on bouillon cubes and can appreciate the effort it takes to make it. Nixon was supposedly very impressed when served napa cabbage prepared thus in his famous visit to China. Whether he was gastronomically or “diplomatically” impressed is another topic altogether.