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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“Take sliced pork ribs with meat that is half lean and half fatty. Pull out the rib bones from the meat and stuff the cavities with stalks of green onion. Grill the ribs while constantly brushing with vinegar and soy sauce. Do not let the ribs be grilled too dry.”
Typical of the most recipes in the Suiyuan Shidan, this one for grilled ribs is missing a step or two. I mean, have you ever tried to pull the bones out of a raw rack of ribs? Let me tell you, it’s impossible. Even if you could miraculously do so, grilling the ribs starting from its raw form would give you something incredibly tough at best.
For this recipe to work, the pork ribs must first be stewed or steamed until mostly tender. From there, the rib bones can be twisted, pulled out, then the meat stuffed with stalk of green onions and grilled, as specified in the recipe. I would serve this with ample quantities of rice wine, or if you prefer a giant glass of Unibroue‘s un-hopped masterpiece: Blanche de Chambly.
“Roasting a whole pig requires above all, patience. The interior of the pig should be roasted first so the pork’s fat is infused into the skin, making it tender, crisp, and full of flavour. However, if one should start by roasting the skin first, the fat between it and the meat will melt away and drip into the flames, producing roast pork with skin that is charred and tough with poor flavour.
This same technique applies when roasting suckling pigs.”
I have to be honest, out of all the roasted meat items, or siumei (燒味) in Cantonese , roast pork (燒肉) is one of my least favourite. If we do a head-to-head comparison, roast suckling pig has far crisper skin and tender meat, roast duck is more flavourful, and charsiu is like eating candy. At the end, roast pork really does not have much of a leg-up over other items in the suimei universe. Except maybe that weird coloured cuttlefish.
Note, this does not mean I don’t eat roast pork. It’s just that when I do, I do it more as an intellectual exercise than for leisurely enjoyment, like reading “The Grapes of Wrath” rather than a “Travels with Charley”. When the ingredients consists of just a whole pig with some salt and oil, any fault in technique and preparation is laid bare to the diner. Eating roast pork, you can’t help but appreciate the art and technique of making it, and also see the skill of the chef.
This actually makes roast pork a great benchmark dish for testing out a new siumei restaurant. Any place that can make a roast pork with crisp skin and flavourful juicy meat commands respect and deserves repeated patronage. It’s just that when you go back, order something else other than roast pork.
I for one prefer a dish of roast duck and pork rice, or “chaya fan” (叉鴨飯).
“Take a suckling pig weighing six to seven jin, pull out any hairs, and scrub it clean of blood and filth. Skewer the pig and roast it on top of a charcoal fire. All sides of the pig must be evenly roasted until its skin is dark golden brown in colour. Slowly and continuously bast the skin with butter while roasting.
Roasted suckling pig with delicately crisp skin is considered the best, those with crunchy skin are of lesser quality, while those with hard tough skin are ranked the worst.
The Manchurian have a method of making sucking pig by steaming it with wine and autumn sauce. In my family, it is my brother Longwen that has mastered this method of preparation.”
When roasted by a master Cantonese chef, roasted suckling pig is one of those foods that are simply sublime. That crisp golden brown skin, glistening as if pebbled with tiny diamonds… The tender succulent meat… Really, there’s not much to say about it other than the fact that it is absolutely delicious.
In fact, it has been used more than once by my family as a standard for pure deliciousness. Once after a trip to Paris, my dad was raving about a baguette he had at their stupidly expensive hotel in the Latin Quarter. The way he described it was: “The crust was amazingly crisp. Like biting into the skin of a roast suckling pig.”