Things to Avoid 14: Sloppiness (戒苟且)

戒單::戒苟且
凡事不宜苟且,而於飲食尤甚。廚者,皆小人下材,一日不加賞罰,則一日必生怠玩。火齊未到而姑且下嚥,則明日之菜必更加生。真味已失而含忍不言,則下次之羹必加草率。且又不止空賞空罰而已也。其佳者,必指示其所以能佳之由;其劣者,必尋求其所以致劣之故。鹹淡必適其中,不可絲毫加減;久暫必得其當,不可任意登盤。廚者偷安。吃者隨便,皆飲食之大弊。審問慎思明辨,為學之方也;隨時指點,教學相長,作師之道也。於是味何獨不然?

List of Things to Avoid::Sloppiness
Sloppiness should not be tolerated for any task, including matters of gastronomy. Cooks are uncultured people of lowly up-bringing, thus if one does not properly reward or punish them, they will begin taking short-cuts and become negligent of their culinary duties.[1] Should you willingly ingest the barely cooked vegetables you were served today, you can be sure it will be served raw to you tomorrow. If you hold your tongue when you are served ruined food, then the dishes served next time will be thrown together even more carelessly.[2] Continued tolerance of such behaviors in a cook would eventually render any future attempts at rewards and punishments useless.

Dishes that were well executed should be identified and praised. Conversely, dishes that were done poorly should be investigated and interrogated upon. The standards of flavours in a dish must be stringently upheld and deviations must not be allowed. Likewise, the length and intensity of the heat for preparing a dish must never be left to the whims of the cook but be explicitly prescribed. Cooks that take short-cuts and diners that do not care; such are the factors that are detrimental to food and cuisine.[3]

Interrogation, introspection, and understanding; these are the principles of building knowledge. Timely advice to a student and lessons that sufficiently challenging; such are principle of being a teacher.[4] Should this not also be true for cuisine?

Random notes:

[1]: The literati did not have a very high opinion of their cooks back then, a clear case of class discrimination. That being said, modern Chinese cooks had refined their shortcut taking skill to such an extent, that in the process of ruining their own cuisines, their more hideous creations eventually morphed into some of the most well known Western Chinese dishes (many examples in American Chinese cuisine and Canadian Chinese cuisine).

[2]: This is why the quality of “ethnic” foods in a town quickly go down the drain when there are not enough people of that ethnicity/culture to demand the same standards and quality. For instance, Montreal has a lot of Chinese restaurants because the local populations have demands for it. However, there are insufficient Chinese people in Montreal to demand better and many times more clientele who are willing to shovel down the fried crap sweet goopy sauce that they are served. A new Chinese restaurant in Montreal that began with serving food that examplify the clean constrasting flavour and textures found in Chinese cuisine quickly degrades to pouring out buckets of that sweet greasy mess, which many North Americans would call “Chinese food”. This process is frighteningly rapid. There was a Sichuanese restaurant that used to be on Rene Levesque across from the SNC Lavalin building that my then fiance and I loved to eat at. So much so, that we decided to book them for our wedding. Eight months later, we were served a meal that was so terrifyingly bad that it was forever etched into my mind. It would have been only slightly worse if they had just served us soy sauce and syrup mixed with grease.

[3]: Contemporary General Tso Chicken is the unholy love-child of these two factors. We need a brave chef to retransform this dish back into something edible.

[4]: I like this philosophy: The diners and critics are the teachers for the chef, providing guidance and introducing challenges to them such that they can grow and develop.

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Essential Knowledge 18: Thresholds (疑似須知)

須知單::疑似須知
味要濃厚,不可油膩;味要清鮮,不可淡薄。此疑似之間,差之毫厘,失以千里。濃厚者,取精多而糟粕去之謂也;若徒貪肥膩,不如專食豬油矣。清鮮者,真味出而俗塵無之謂也;若徒貪淡薄,則不如飲水矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Thresholds[1]
A dish that should be thick and rich, should not be so rich that it becomes greasy. A dish that is supposed to be umami and light, must not be so light as to taste insipid. When trying to find the thresholds for these criterion, missing by the breath of a hair can result in the complete failure of a dish. To bring out the essense of a rich dish, one should only clarify the dish to the point of removing just the sediment. If one enjoys a dish simply for its rich oiliness, one might as well eat lard. To bring out the true flavours of a light dish, one should refine the dish only to the extent that distracting flavours are removed. If one demands utterly light flavours, drinking water may be the better choice.

Random notes:
[1]: Originally this was called “distinctions”, as in, distinguishing the boundaries where good flavours become bad. But I think “threshold” works better.

Essential Knowledge 17: Choice Portions (選用須知)

須知單::選用須知
選用之法:小炒肉用後臀,做肉圓用前夾心,煨肉用硬短勒。炒魚片用青魚、季魚,做魚鬆用鯶魚、鯉魚。蒸雞用雌雞,煨雞用騸雞,取雞汁用老雞;雞用雌才嫩,鴨用雄才肥;蒪菜用頭,芹韭用根︰皆一定之理。餘可類推。

List of Essential Knowledge::Choice Portions
The methods of choosing the right portions of ingredients are as follows: use pork tenderloin for quick stir-fries, use the inner muscle of the ham for meatballs [1], and use pork belly for slow braises. Black carp and grouper are good fish for stir-frying, while grass carp and the common carp are good for making fish floss [2]. Steamed chicken should be made using hens, braised chicken should be made using capons, and chicken broth should be made using mature chickens. For chickens, hens are more tender, while for ducks, drakes are more plump. For Brasenia [3], one uses the tips, while for celery and garlic chives, one uses the lower stems. There are definite reasons for choosing in these manners, with all ingredients having their own reasons.

Random notes:

[1]: Though I’m not completely sure, I do remember hearing that one uses the inside muscle of the ham for making gong wan (貢丸). The term “夾心” means “sandwiched in the middle”, which fits this. However, I’m not sure what the “front sandwiched in the middle” is (前夾心). Update: Actually if “夾心” is same as “胛心”, this would be the meat from the pork shoulder.

[2]: Fish floss is the fish analogue for pork floss, also known as rousong (肉鬆).

[3]: An aquatic plant, 蒪菜 is also known as 莼菜 Brasenia schreberi

Essential Knowledge 15: Cleanliness (潔淨須知)

須知單::潔淨須知
切蔥之刀,不可以切筍;搗椒之臼,不可以搗粉。聞菜有抹布氣者,由其布之不潔也;聞菜有砧板氣者,由其板之不淨也。「工欲善其事,必先利其 器。」良廚先多磨刀,多換布,多刮板,多洗手,然後治菜。至於口吸之煙灰,頭上之汗汁,灶上之蠅蟻,鍋上之煙煤,一玷入菜中,雖絕好烹庖,如西子蒙不潔,人皆掩鼻而過之矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Cleanliness
Just as a knife used to cut green onions cannot be used to cut bamboo shoots, a mortar used to pound peppercorns cannot be used to pound flour. A dish that has the smell of a cooking towel means that the towel used was not clean, just as a dish that smells of a chopping board means that the board used was not clean. It is said: “To do good work, one needs good tools”. [1] As such, cooks must be deligent in sharpening their knives, changing their cooking towels, scraping their chopping boards, and washing their hands before preparing food. Even a well done dish would be inedible if the ashes from tobacco, a cook’s dripping sweat, flies and ants crawling on the stove, or the soot on the wok are mixed into a dish. Note, even if was Xishi [2] covered in filth, people would still cover their nose and avoid her. [3]

Random notes:

[1]: From Analects of Confucius (論語::魏靈公)
[2]: Xishi (西施), the fabled Chinese beauty
[3]: The phrase was attributed to Mencius (孟子)

Essential Knowledge 14: Quantity (多寡須知)

須知單::多寡須知
用貴物宜多,用賤物宜少。煎炒之物多,則火力不透,肉亦不鬆。故用肉不得過半斤,用雞、魚不得過六兩。或問︰「食之不足如何?」曰︰「俟食畢後另炒可也。」以多為貴者,白煮肉,非二十斤以外,則淡而無味。粥亦然,非斗米則汁漿不厚,且須扣水,水多物少,則味亦薄矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Quantity
It is better to use more of an expensive ingredient in a dish and less of the inexpensive ones [1]. If too much of an ingredient is pan-fried or stir-fried at a time, there would be insufficient heat to cook [2] them through, meats done this way are especially tough. As such, a cooked meat dish should not have more than 300g of pork or more more than 222g of chicken and fish [3]. If one asks: “What if there isn’t enough to eat?”, I say: “If you’re not full after you’ve done, just cook-up some more”. However some foods, such as white-cooked pork, needs to be prepared in large quantities above 12kg in order to taste good, otherwise the resulting food will be light and flavour-less [4]. Congee also follows this principle.  A pot of congee made with less than 10 liters [5] of rice will not be thick enough. Thus water needs to be reduced in cooking lesser quantities of congee. Too much water with too little rice would result in a congee that is both thin in texture and flavour.

Random notes:

[1]: Don’t you hate it when there are more peanuts and onions in your Kung Pao Chicken than chicken?
[2]: Says “cook” here but from a later sentence, we can see he is really talking about stir-frying
[3]: In Qing Dynasty measurements 1斤 = 590g,1兩 = 36.9g
[4]: Also true with stewed items. I small pot of LuRou never gets the rich complexity when cooked in small quantities
[5]: In Qing Dynasty measurements 1斗 = 10000ml

Essential Knowledge 13: Seasons (時節須知)

須知單::時節須知
夏日長而熱,宰殺太早,則肉敗矣;冬日短而寒,烹飪稍遲,則物生矣。冬宜食牛羊,移之於夏,非其時也。夏宜食乾臘,移之於冬,非其時也。輔佐之 物,夏宜用芥末,冬宜用胡椒。當三伏天而得冬醃菜,賤物也,而竟成至寶矣。當秋涼時而得行鞭筍,亦賤物也,而視若珍饈矣。有先時而見好者,三月食鰣魚是 也。有後時而見好者,四月食芋艿是也。其他亦可類推。有過時而不可吃者,蘿蔔過時則心空,山筍過時則味苦,刀鱭過時則骨硬。所謂四時之序,成功者退,精華 已竭,搴裳去之也。


List of Essential Knowledge::Seasons

Summer days are long and hot, which causes meat to spoil if the animal is slaughter too soon. Winter days are short and cold, which slows the cooking process and may cause food to be undercooked. Beef and lamb (mutton) are best eaten in the winter time and are not good for consumption during summer. Cured hams and preserved meats are good for eating during summer but are not as well suited for winter. As for condiments, mustard [1] is suited for summer and black pepper for winter. If one can find preserved winter vegetables in the peak of summer, even a once lowly item becomes a treasured ingredient. When one finds tough old bamboo shoots [2] during autumn, even such a typically worthless item becomes a precious commodities. Some ingredients are at their best when eaten early during their season, such as shad [3] in March. Some ingredients are best late in their season, such as taro in April. All ingredients are similar in this manner. However, some ingredients can no longer be used when they are too old. For instance, when mature, daikon roots become hollow and dry, bamboo shoots become bitter, and anchovies [4] become bony and hard. Such is the nature of life, where a thing grows and prospers only to fade away [5], sapped of its strength and vitality [6].

Random notes:

[1]: For me, when people say 芥末 nowadays, they more often refers to ground wasabi and less to ground mustard seeds. But in this case it means the latter.
[2]: I don’t know what type of bamboo shoot 鞭筍 actually is. A Google image search of the word phrase shows older shoots that are likely fiberous and tough. I’ll go with that.
[3]: Reeve’s shad Tenualosa reevesii
[4]: Japanese Grenadier Anchovy Coilia nasus
[5]: The phrase “四時之序,成功者去” is found in 戰國策::秦策三::蔡澤見逐於趙, which translates to something like: “Like the sequence of seasons, one flourishes then fades”
[6]: Is Yuan Mei talking about himself, fading from the peak in his earlier life at a higher post?

Essential Knowledge 10: Transformations (變換須知)

須知單::變換須知
一物有一物之味,不可混而同之。猶如聖人設教,因才樂育,不拘一律。所謂君子成人之美也。今見俗廚,動以雞、鴨、豬、鵝,一湯同滾,遂令千手雷同,味同嚼蠟。吾恐雞、豬、鵝、鴨有靈,必到枉死城中告狀矣。善治菜者,須多設鍋、灶、盂、缽之類,使一物各獻一性,一碗各成一味。嗜者舌本應接不暇,自覺心花頓開。

List of Essential Knowledge::Transformations[1]
An ingredient has its own unique character, and cannot be mixed without confusing its flavour. As said by Confucius: “A student must be taught according to their aptitude and not in a haphazard manner”. Such is the way to elevate oneself to become a true gentlemen. These days we see flamboyant cooks, boiling chickens, ducks, pigs, and geese together in soup, producing dishes with tastes as indistinguishable and [2] flavourful as chewing on wax. I fear the souls of the chickens, pigs, geese, and ducks seeing such injustices done, will be pressing charges in the afterlife courts. A competant cook would prepare the right cooking vessels and utensils, such that each ingredient can offer its best and each dish can show off its flavour to the fullest. This way when connoisseurs taste the food, they will be inexplicably and thoroughly delighted by the flavours.

Random notes:

[1]: In general, this section was quite hard to translate and chock full of phases such as “因才樂育”, “不拘一律”, “遂令千手雷同”, “嗜者舌本應接不暇”, which for various reasons I found difficult to untangle. This is the best I can do now, but I’m not too happy with it and I will likely be revising this translation in the future. As well, I not such how to translate “變換” in context to what the section is about, “transformations” is what I’m going with for now, but I’m not sure it fits the content.

[2]: Literally “遂令千手雷同” translates to something like “commanding a thousand hand thunder-clapper”, which indicates that one does something monotonous, similar, and repetitious under orders of some sort. I initially translated this to the cook “blindly following trends in cuisine”, but it felt more correct to translate it to “indistinguishable tastes” in respect to talking about the bland waxy taste of the dish. I have no idea if this is right.