Vegetable Dishes 18: Celery

Celery is a su vegetarian item.1 The plumper they are, the better they taste. Choose the white stalks to stir-fry, add bamboo shoots, and cook until done. People now like to stir-fry it with pork, confusing its flavour and rendering it largely unremarkable.2 When not fully cooked, celery is quite crisp but flavourless. When mixed raw with pheasant, it is quite dish to laud over.3

芹
芹,素物也,愈肥愈妙。取白根炒之,加筍,以熟為度。今人有以炒肉者,清濁不倫。不熟者,雖脆無味。或生拌野雞,又當別論。

Notes:
1Su 素 is basically the opposite of hun 葷, where there are no animal-based ingredients and only vegetables not of the allium family, which excludes garlic, onions, shallots, garlic chives, and the like.

2I would disagree here, the flavour of celery is strong enough to cut through any meat you can throw at it. I would argue that celery more often will take over any dish you add it to than not.

3The classic Chinese homestyle dish celery with chicken is more or less similar to this.

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Vegetable Dishes 17: Garlic Chives

Garlic chives are a strong flavoured hun food.1 Reserve the white portions of garlic chives and stir-fry with dried shrimp for a great dish. They are also good stir-fried with fresh shrimp, clams, or pork.2

韭
韭,葷物也。專取韭白,加蝦米炒之便佳。或用鮮蝦亦可,蜆亦可,肉亦可。

Notes:
1In the Suiyuan Shidan, the term hun (葷) is used as an umbrella term in a few places not only for Chinese Buddhist vegetarian ideas of what are or are not forbidden foods, but also to note various assertive stenches or flavours. The former category consists of all animal based food as well as all plants form the garlic family, which are believed to disrupt one’s Buddhist practice. The latter, although less common in modern usage, nevertheless feels appropriate considering how delightfully sinful these strong flavours and smell are.

2Disappointingly little is said here about this very tasty and easy-to-grow vegetable, but perhaps it’s omitted because it’s considered common knowledge?

Vegetable Dishes 8: Frozen Tofu

Freeze tofu for one night, cut into square pieces, and boil them to rid them of their bean-like smell. Add them to a mixture of chicken broth and extracts, ham extract, and pork extract and braise. When serving, remove the chicken and ham and the like, leaving only the shitake and the winter bamboo shoots.

When tofu has been braised for a long time its texture becomes spongy, with its surface becoming honey-combed like frozen tofu.1 For stir-frying use soft tofu, while braising should be done with firmer tofu.2 The household of Officer Jia Zhihua cooks tofu with mushrooms, even during the summer they follow the same recipe for frozen tofu, since it is very good. Do not use strong flavoured hun meat broths3 for this dish since doing so would destroy to delicate light flavours of this dish.

凍豆腐
將豆腐凍一夜,切方塊,滾去豆味,加雞湯汁、火腿汁、肉汁煨之。上桌時,撤去雞、火腿之類,單留香蕈、冬筍。豆腐煨久則鬆,面起蜂窩,如凍腐矣。故炒腐宜嫩,煨者宜老。家致華分司用蘑菇煮豆腐,雖夏月亦照凍腐之法,甚佳。切不可加葷湯,致失清味。

Notes:
1I think Yuan Mei is trying to say normal tofu looking like frozen tofu after prolonged boiling.

2This feels slightly off on a tangent, and may not apply exclusively to frozen tofu. In fact, the rest of the paragraph goes on a tangent.

3Though the term hun 葷 (pronounced hoon) is commonly used to refer to any meat from any animal, this is clearly not the meaning here. When Yuan Mei say’s “葷湯”, or “hun soup”, he is not saying “animal broth” since there is already chicken and ham used to make this dish. Most likely he is referring to the stronger and richer tasting pork, and possibly beef broth, thus I translating it as such. It seems that every “vegetable” dish here is full of animal ingredients. This is still true for most Chinese vegetable dishes where lard and broth (or MSG) are “musts”.

Fish 12: Taixiang (台鯗)

There are many differences between good and bad Taixiang.1 That which comes from Songmen of Taizhou is the best, with its soft but savoury and rich tasting flesh. When the raw item is pulled to shreds by hand, it can be served directly as a side dish without cooking.

When braising with fresh pork, first wait until the pork has softened before adding the Taixiang, otherwise the Taixiang would have long melted away and no longer visible.2 When this dish is chilled, it becomes “xiang” aspic. This is a Shaoxing recipe.

台鯗
台鯗好醜不一。出台州松門者為佳,肉軟而鮮肥。生時拆之,便可當作小菜,不必煮食也;用鮮肉同煨,須肉爛時放鯗;否則鯗消化不見矣,凍之即為鯗凍。紹興人法也。

Notes:
1Taixiang is a type of salted dried fish, typically made of Large or Small Yellow Croaker, and much loved for its salty umami taste and pungent flavour.
2This feels almost like an a postscript of the Section on Pork Braised with Taixiang.

Pork 41: Yanggong Meatballs (楊公圓)

“The meatballs made in Yangming prefecture are as large as tea cups and are unsurpassed in delicateness and flavour. Served in a clear umami soup, these meatballs melt in the mouth. They are likely made from a mixture of half lean and half fatty pork with tendons and ligaments removed, minced finely and held together with starch.”

持牲單::楊公圓
楊明府作肉圓,大如茶杯,細膩絕倫。湯尤鮮潔,入口如酥。大概去筋去節,斬之極細,肥瘦各半,用芡合勻。

  

I’m a fan of almost all of the Cantonese dim sum fare, but one dish that I refuse to order is the beef meatballs. That flabby, starchy-springy texture is really less than appealing. If there is a point to eating these “meat”-ball, I surely don’t see it. Seriously, the ratio of starch to meat is so high you can tell just by looking at them. (Credit: Tamchinglaihing)

This recipe brings up the topic of using of starch to hold together minced/ground meat. While this is nothing out of the ordinary, very few actually manage to do so successfully.

Using starch is like using salt, one must use the minimal amount possible or risk ruining a dish. Personally, I favour a technique from Liang Shiqiu‘s (梁實秋) food memoir “Yashe discusses cuisine” (雅舍談吃), where starch was actually not used in the ground meat mixture itself. It is only after the meatball has been shaped does one rub onto its surface a small amount of starch lightly coated on one’s palms. Meatballs made using this method hold their form, are light and tender, but most importantly, still tastes like meat.

The point here is that one should never overuse “structural ingredients” just to make a food hold its form. Starch used in tiny quantities is almost imperceptible and works wonders. But when it is used in even slightly larger quantities, one might as well be eating paste. A rather dense sturdy paste, that is. If possible, it’s better to avoid using starch altogether. The same goes for using eggs or breadcrumbs in Western meatballs and meatloaf.

On somewhat related note, anyone who add starch, eggs, or breadcrumbs into their hamburger patties deserves to be publicly flogged. Just eat a Harvey’s burger and you’ll agree with me on the first bite.

Pork 40: Three Pork Dishes from Duanzhou (端州三種肉)

“The first is Luosuo pork. The second is plain boiled pork tossed with sesame seeds and salt. The last is sliced and braised pork tossed with light soy sauce. These three dishes are great for home cooking.

Chef Nie and Chef Yang of Duanzhou excel at making these three dishes. So much so, that I asked Yang-er to go to the chefs in order to learn the dishes’ preparation.”

持牲單::端州三種肉
一羅蓑肉;一鍋燒白肉,不加作料,以芝麻、鹽拌之;切片煨好,以清醬拌之。三種俱宜於家常。端州聶、李二廚所作。特令楊二學之。

The Star Lakes of the Seven Star Crags at Duanzhou. (Credit: Antoine Mouquet)

Back when I was a kid, my grandmother often prepared a dish of plain pork boiled in broth, sliced and served with a dipping sauce of minced garlic and soy sauce. Neither my sister or I particularly enjoyed this relatively bland dish, so once we asked my grandmother why she kept making it and why we had to keep eating it. Her response, in Taiwanese, was sharp and quick: “In the old days, as long as you get to eat meat it was good” (古早人有肉吃就好了).

This phrase kept on coming back to me as I translated this and the previous section. Although it was technically a scolding directed towards two ungrateful children that didn’t appreciate or realize what good fortune they had, the statement can also be read another way. Namely, that in the old days, meat was scare enough that regardless of how it was cooked, it always tasted good. The grandma of an American friend said something similar, in that as long as there was chicken in the pot nothing else mattered.

In this regard, I wondered whether these three dishes that Yuan Mei enjoyed in Duanzhou were really that good. No doubt the simplicity of the three recipes mean that their successful preparation required the skills of an excellent chef, and that when well done they can be good in the way that white cut chicken is good. However, it is really so good that Yuan Mei was willing to send his own chef, Yang-er, more than a thousand kilometers away to a district in Guangzhou to learn how to prepare them? It’s like someone these days sending his chef to from Toronto to Singapore just to learn how to prepare chicken rice. The effort is commendable, I guess.

Still, considering the fact that he is a gastronome that has eaten his way through numerous banquets, I suppose we have to give him some credit. Perhaps it’s the special methods used in preparing them that made these three dishes exceptional: those dexterous and fantastical techniques that died with chefs Nie and Yang, which we will never know about. Or perhaps, the pigs were raise in such a way with the right feed and level of the exercise that made their meat irresistible even when cooked simply. Or maybe the pigs were indulged with beer and wine, had Mozart played to them over loud-speakers, and were lovingly massaged every afternoon like their modern Japanese bovine counterparts.

Or maybe in the bad old days, as long as you did not ruin the meat, it always tasted fantastic.

Pork 39: Luosuo Pork (羅蓑肉)

“Prepare this dish as one would minced chicken. Reserve the piece of skin on the pork and chop the lean meat taken from under it into a coarse mince. Season the minced pork and cook. This dish is a speciality of Chef Nie of Hangzhou.”

持牲單::羅蓑肉
以作雞鬆法作之。存蓋面之皮。將皮下精肉斬成碎團,加作料烹熟。聶虛能之。

Shrimp “song” (虾鬆), on top of lettuce and wrapped in a lun-bing wrapper, one of those strange newfangled creations of modern Taiwanese cuisine. (Credit: Droxiang)

To make sense of what this dish is about, one has to refer to the recipe for minced chicken, or “jisong”, found later in the Suiyuan Shidan. Basically, this is one dish in a entire class of “song” (鬆) dishes that consists of finely chopped ingredients that you eat on top of rice, wrapped in pancakes, or cradled in iceberg lettuce. People who eat Peking duck should be quite familiar with “yasong” (鴨鬆), or minced duck, since it is the second dish served from the duck after the first course of the duck skin. In this regard, luosuo pork should really be called “rousong” (肉鬆). However it’s not called such, because that name has already been used by a completely different meat item, sometimes translated to English as “pork floss”.

Following Yuan Mei’s minced chicken recipe, the meat for luosuo pork should be first minced or finely cubed and then lightly fried. Next it would be mixed with other ingredients and seasonings, placed in a bowl, covered with the reserved piece of skin, and steamed until done. The one part I don’t get about this dish is why one would prefer to cover the bowl with a piece of skin rather than a normal lid. Maybe it give the meat special flavours, a more pleasant texture, or it somehow regulates the cooking moisture in the way that some chefs use parchment paper as a lid when braising meat.

Other than this the dish seems straightforwards, if not unremarkable.