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 42: Wild Duck Meatballs (野鴨團)

“Chop the wild duck breast finely, add pork fat and a small amount of starch. Form the mixture into balls,and boil them in chicken broth. It is even better to use the original duck’s broth instead. The household of Kongqin from Daxing makes this exceptionally well.”


Meatballs made from duck breasts cooked in broth. Sounds quite good actually.

Birds 20: Braised Chicken (鹵雞)

Take a entire[1] chicken and stuff its body cavity with thirty stalks of green onion and two qian of fennel seeds. Use one jin of wine and half a small cup of autumn sauce and boil the chicken for one incense stick’s time. Next add one jin of water and two liang of rendered lard and braise everything together.[2] When the chicken is done, skim the fat off the cooking liquid. Be sure to use boiled water when braising. When the cooking liquid has been reduced down to a rice bowl full of thickened glaze, remove the chicken from the pot. The chicken can be served pulled apart by hand or sliced thinly with a knife and then dressed with the glaze.


Soy braised chicken (Credit: Dennis Wong)

Again, nothing to say about this recipe than a few points. I think from now on I’m going to say things in this footnote format if I don’t have anything more substantial to say.

  1. I’ve translated 囫圇 (hulun) as “entire”, as in no guts and feathers but with everything else remaining. The term also has this idea of coarseness from a whole unprocessed item.
  2. A hour to cook chicken is already pretty long. And why add more water? Where chicken that tough in Yuan Mei’s day? Either that or it may be a continuation of Yuan Mei liking everything cooked to falling apart.

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.

Birds 11: Chicken Meatballs (雞圓)

This recipe consists of minced chicken breast meat formed into balls as large as wine cups. They are savoury and tender like shrimp balls. The household of Yangzhou Magistrate Zangba prepares this dish extremely well. The meat is kneaded into balls with pork fat, radish, and starch. They must not be stuffed with fillings.


Chicken meatballs. In this case, cooked in soup. (Credit: masa from Japan)

This is basically chicken breast prepared using a standard technique for making shrimp cakes. What this should mean is that they were most likely fried and eaten straight like shrimp balls and cakes.

Still it’s also possible that after frying they were cooked in soup like lions-head meatballs (獅子頭). However with chicken breast meat this is probably not a good idea since it makes the meat floury and dry, like the way my brother-in-law cooks them.

Birds 5: Browned Chicken (焦雞)

Wash a fat hen clean and boil it whole in a pot. Add two liang of lard and four  fennel seeds to the chicken and cook until it is around eighty percent done. Next, take out the chicken and sear it in sesame oil until it is golden brown then put it back into the liquid to cook. Simmer until the cooking liquid has thickened, then add autumn sauce, wine, a whole stalk of green onion, and simmer to reduce the liquid to a glaze. When one is about to serve the chicken, chop it into slices, and ladle the glaze on the chicken. One can also toss the chicken in the glaze or serve it on the side as a dip. This is a recipe from the abode of Yang Zhongcheng, but the one from Brother Fangfu’s abode is also good.


Yuan Mei’s jiao chicken probably looks quite a bit like the modern soy sauce chicken.  (Credit: Dennis Wong)

Jiaoji chicken (焦) means literally “burnt”, “blackened”, or “charred” chicken. I think calling it “browned chicken” captures a good bit of Chinese name’s meaning and the technique used to make this dish. I considered calling it “blackened chicken”, though that name has already been claimed by another dish.

Browning the chicken before braising is pretty common in making soy sauce chicken with the practice being quite standard in making soy sauce duck. Yuan Mei’s method does the browning when the chicken is almost done, which is less common. It probably changes the texture of the skin in some way, though in what way, I’m not sure. A more bubbly skin to soak up more sauce perhaps?

Still, looking at the ingredients and the basic cooking technique, this feels pretty much like the same soy sauce chicken you can get in most Cantonese siu mei eateries. Four fennel seeds as spice seems a bit too little, but then again maybe Yuan Mei and company were not a huge fan of its flavour?

Pork 28: Hollow Meatballs (空心肉圓)

“Pound the pork until it becomes a thick paste. Take cold rendered lard, roll them into balls, then use them to fill each pounded pork meatball. Steam the filled meatballs such that the fat melts and flows away, leaving each meatball with a hollow core. The people of Zhenjiang are especially good at preparing this dish.”


Hollow chocolate: just slightly less pointless than hollow meatballs. (Credit: Evan-Amos)

What a gimmicky dish. If anything this was created for the sole purpose of impressing and eliciting praise from one’s guests.

While it’s possible that one could derive a modicum of enjoyment from eating hollow meatballs, I would liken it to eating chocolate foam: it’s mildly amusing the first time around, but its pretty much pointless every time after that.