River Delicacies 4: Yellow Croaker (黃魚)

江鮮單::黃魚
黃魚切小塊,醬酒郁一個時辰,瀝乾。入鍋爆炒兩面黃,加金華豆豉一茶杯,甜酒一碗,秋油一小杯,同滾。候鹵乾色紅,加糖,加瓜薑收起,有沉浸濃郁之妙。又一法,將黃魚拆碎,入雞場作羹,微用甜醬水、芡粉收起之,亦佳。大抵黃魚亦係濃厚之物,不可以清治之也。

What is a sea dwelling Yellow croaker doing in the River Delicacies chapter? Regional trade and confusing names, perhaps. (Credit: efishalbum.com)

List of River Delicacies::Yellow Croaker[1]
Cut the yellow croaker into small chunks. Marinade with soy sauce and wine for a day and let allow it drip dry. Fry the pieces until the sides are golden brown, then add a small cup of Jinhua douchi [2], a bowl of sweet wine, a small cup of autumn sauce, and boil together. When the sauce has reduced, add sugar, soy-sauce pickled cucumber and ginger [3], and continue to reduce slightly before plating. The flavours of this dish are deep, rich, and delicious.

Another method of preparation of yellow croaker is to first removed bones of the fish, shred the meat,[4] and then combine it with chicken broth to make a thick soup. Lightly season it with sweet soy sauce and thicken with starch before serving this delicious soup. Note that yellow croaker is a thick textured and flavoured fish and should not be cooked using methods reserved for light or delicate ingredients. [5]

Random notes:
[1]: Figuring out what type of fish was “Huang yu” (黃魚, lit. Yellow fish) took quite some time. The challenge came down to the fact that while there are many references to “yellow” fish in Chinese, there are no freshwater river fish known by the name. However, many clues point to the saltwater Yellow croaker (Larimichthy crocea) as being the most likely candidate for “Huang yu”. First, although Yellow croaker is a saltwater fish, it congregates in the brackish waters of the Yangtze delta and estuary in certain seasons. It is also fished year-round in the sea surrounding the delta and is, commonly now as before, shipped up the river to be sold in both its fresh and dried forms. Second, considering how the previous chapter’s title Haixian can mean “Delicacies from the sea” as much as “Delicacies from over-seas”, I am also willing to allow this chapter’s title Hexian to veer off to mean “Delicacies shipped in by river” although it should specifically mean “Delicacies from the river”. The yellow croaker fits in the former category. Third, the first recipe is remarkably similar to Hongshao yellow croaker (紅燒黄魚, lit. red-cooked yellow croaker) and its variant Douchi hongshao yellow croaker (豆豉紅燒黄花鱼) while the second recipe basically describes Yellow croaker soup (黄魚羹), both of which are well-loved preparations for the fish even now. I did consider Trachinotus blochii (金鯧, lit. golden pomfret) as a possible fish due to its common preparation with douchi is used with it, but it is really a light textured fish and contrary to the last sentence of the section’s text. But what finally settled this for me was actually a line in the Suixiju Gastronomic Manual (隨息居飲食譜) by a close contemporary of Yuan Mei, the Qing Dynasty Doctor Wang Shixiong (王士雄). In this document, he explicitely stated “Shishou fish is know as Huang fish, and also as Jiang fish” (石首魚一名黃魚,亦名江魚). What this line effectively links is the Sciaenidae or croaker fish family (石首魚科) with the term Huang yu (黃魚), making Huang yu a species of croaker and most likely the Yellow croaker. But even more interesting is the fact that the Huang yu is also known colloquially as Jiang yu (江魚) or the “(Yangtze) River fish”, which may explain why Yuan Mei placed it in this chapter of river delicacies despite the fact that it is not a freshwater river fish. All of these points indicate that the “Huang yu” referred by Yuan Mei is undoubtably Larimichthy crocea, more commonly known as the Yellow Croaker.

[2]: Douchi is a fermented black soybean that can be used directly to season food. It is only an intermediate product used make a very high quality soy sauce in Taiwan known as Yinyou (蔭油, lit. Shaded sauce).

[3]: I previously translated gua-jiang (瓜薑) as just “ginger”, thinking it was just another ginger variety. Turns out, it’s a rather common ingredient pair made of soy-sauce pickled cucumber and ginger.

[4]: The term here is chai (拆) means to tear and disassemble like taking meat off chicken to make chicken sandwich. I’m not sure if this is the best way to translate it.

[5]: For example, shad.

River Delicacies 3: Sturgeon (鱘魚)

江鮮單::鱘魚
尹文端公自誇治鱘鰉最佳,然煨之太熟,頗嫌重濁。惟在蘇州唐氏吃炒鰉魚片甚佳,其法:切片油炮,加酒、秋油滾三十次,下水再滾,起鍋加作料,重用瓜薑、蔥花。又一法:將魚白水煮十滾,去大骨,切小方塊;取明骨切小方塊,雞湯去沫,先煨明骨八分熟,下酒、秋油,再下魚肉,煨二分爛起鍋,加蔥、椒、韭,重用薑汁一大杯

Acipenser sinensis, the Chinese Sturgeon. It’s got these thick whisker-like spike sticking out from under its muzzle. A weird-looking, strong-tasting, prehistoric-era fish.(Credit: efishalbum.com)

List of River Delicacies::Sturgeon
Master Yin Wenduan boasts that he knew best how to prepare sturgeon [1], truth is, his method produces an over-stewed fish with a thick and muddy flavour.

I had a very good stir-fried slices of strugeon at Tang’s household in Suzhou. Its preparation is as follows: cut the strugeon’s meat into slices and fry in oil with wine and autumn sauce for thirty moments [2], then add water and let it return to boil. When done, plate the sturgeon slices and garnish heavily with ginger and finely chopped green onions.

Another method of preparation is to parboil the fish in water for ten moments, [3] remove the large bones and cut the meat into small cubes. Reserve the cartilage and also cut it into small cubes.[4] Add the cubed cartilage to chicken broth, then braise them while skimming the broth of any scum that forms. When the cartilage is mostly done [5], add wine, autumn sauce, the cubed meat, and keep braising until the meat is slightly soft.[6] Finish the dish with a generous cup of ginger juice [7] and garnish with green onions, sichuan peppercorns, and garlic chives.

Random notes:
[1]: The Chinese sturgeon endangered due to overharvesting, habitate loss, and pollution in the Yangzi/Changjiang river.

[2]: What was written in Chinese here is “30 boiling/boils” (滾三十次), which is a first for me in term of measures of time. So how long is “1 boiling”(1滾) in our standard measurement? The amount of time need to cook slices of shark takes around a minute, and if we assume sturgeon slices have the same texture and takes similar cooking of time, then each “boiling” take around 2 or so seconds. There is another possible interpretation of the term 滾三十次, which can also mean “roll 30 times”. This is due to the dual meaning of the word “滾” (think of this in terms of the English phrase “a rolling boil”). In this case, one could say the slices were simply tossed and turned over 30 times, which would be a matter of several seconds, which in turn mean that each “roll” would be less than a second (300 milliseconds?). Since both a “boiling” or “rolling” are only brief moments of time, I have decided to translate “30 boilings” as “30 moments”. Thank you for going along with my extremely hand wavy justification.

[3]: Parboil (chau shui) a fish sounds is a bit strange since method is usually reserved for heavier meats such as beef or pork. This may indicate that the texture and taste of sturgeon meat is actually more “meat-like” and less fish-like.

[4]: Eaten as much for the meat as for the cartilage.

[5]: Actually says 80% done (八分熟), a medium-well I guess?

[6]: Actually say 20% soft (二分爛), soft but not too soft basically.

[7]: Seeing how much ginger is used in both the recipes, this fish must be rather strong in flavour.

River Delicacies 2: Shad (鰣魚)

江鮮單::鰣魚
鰣魚用蜜酒蒸食,如治刀魚之法便佳。或竟用油煎,加清醬、酒釀亦佳。萬不可切成碎塊,加雞湯煮;或去其背,專取肚皮,則真味全失矣。

Reeves shad, popular in China. I've never tasted one, but it's probably not too bad. (Credit: FAO)
Reeves shad, popular in China. I’ve never tasted one, but it’s probably not too bad. (Credit: FAO)

List of River Delicacies::
As with the same preparation for grenadier anchovy, Shad[1] is excellent when steamed with sweet honey wine. This fish is also very good pan-fried with oil, and finished with light soy-sauce and wine lees. However, shad must not be cut into small chunks and cooked in chicken broth. As well, do not reserve only the belly of the Shad and throw away its back, in doing so one would lose the true flavours of this fish. [2]

Random notes:
[1]: The shad in question is none other than Reeve’s shad, Tenualosa reevesii. The shad lifecycle is a bit salmon like in that in spawns in freshwater but growns to adulthood in the sea, which I guess makes it qualifiably “river”

[2]: Yuan Mei also spoke of not doing so in Things to Avoid 7: Waste

River Delicacies 1: Two Ways of Preparing Grenadier Anchovy (刀魚二法)

江鮮單::刀魚二法
刀魚用蜜酒釀、清醬,放盤中,如鰣魚法,蒸之最佳。不必加水。如嫌刺多,則將極快刀刮取魚片,用鉗抽去其刺。用火腿湯、雞湯、筍湯煨之,鮮妙絕倫。金陵人畏其多刺,竟油炙極枯,然後煎之。諺曰︰「駝背夾直,其人不活」。此之謂也。或用快刀,將魚背斜切之,使碎骨盡斷,再下鍋煎黃,加作料,臨食時,竟不知有骨,蕪湖陶大太法也。

Coilia grayii, yet another species of Grenadier Anchovy. Unlike most mentioned recipes in the Suiyuan Shidan, Grenadier Anchovy prepared using the Nanjing fried-to-dessication method is actually available in canned form at your local Chinese grocers. Problem is Yuan Mei mentions it in this section only to laugh at how poor a way it is for preparing this fish. Indeed, the canned product looks about as appetizing as deep-fried toenails, hence the use of this lovely illustration instead. (Credit: efishalbum.com, for all your fish picture needs)

List of River Delicacies::Grenadier anchovy
Grenadier anchovy[1] is best when cooked in the manner of shad: seasoned with sweet wine lees and light soy sauce then placed on a plate and steamed. One does not need to add water in preparing the dish. If one dislikes having to deal with fish bones, use a sharp knife to fillet the fish, then pull out the bones with tweezers. Simmer these fillets in a mixture of ham, chicken, and bamboo shoot broth, and one gets a incredibly delicious soup.

People in Nanjing do not wish to deal fish bones, so instead they bake the anchovies in oil until they are dried and shriveled and then pan-fry them more afterwards.[2] There is an adage that goes: “Straighten a humpbacked person’s back and you’ll surely kill him”, which quite suitably describes this method for cooking Grenadier anchovy. Tao Datai from the city of Wuhu has another way of preparing this fish. A sharp knife is used to obliquely slice down the back of each grenadier anchovy to sever their bones. They are then pan-fried until golden brown and seasoned with the proper condiments when done. One would be hard-pressed to feel any bones when eating anchovies prepared so.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: A quick search of daoyu (刀魚, lit. knife fish) will reveal that the name used to refer to at least half a dozen types of fish. Many of them, like the popular Pacific saury (秋刀魚) or one of the many types of beltfish do not fit the bill here, not only because they are saltwater fish but also because they have bones that are far too thick and coarse to be “tamed” using the methods described here. As such, we have to assume that the fish described is actually the Coilia genus of anchovies that swim in the Yangtze River, either Coilia ectenes, also known as the Japanese grenadier anchovy, Coilia macrognathos, the Longjaw grenadier anchovy also known as the Yangtze dao fish 长江刀鱼, or Coilia mystus. All three anchovies are also known as Phoenix tail fish (鳳尾魚) or simply as daoyu (刀魚).

[2]: In this section, we have “2 ways for preparing grenadier anchovies” and not 3, because this is mention only to make fun of people from Nanjing. Although mocked by Yuan Mei here, this preparation is actually quite similar to that of a rather tasty dish known as “congshao jiyu” (蔥燒鯽魚, lit. scallion braised crucian-carp), whose preparation involves first soaking the fish in vinegar, followed by a long deep-frying, then stewing in a vinegar sauce. The result of this preparation is fish that can be eaten like a think piece of Scottish shortbread, with its head, bones, flesh and all crumbling and melting in one’s mouth; the ultimate lazy diner’s fish dish. This should be available at any good Shanghai cuisine restaurant though one may have to order ahead of time.

[3]: I wonder if “regular” anchovies are any good cooked this way.

Seafoods 9: Oysters (蠣黃)

海鮮單::蠣黃
蠣黃生石子上。殼與石子膠粘不分。剝肉作羹,與蚶、蛤相似。一名鬼眼。樂清、奉化兩縣土產,別地所無。

Boiled oysters drying on a wire frame. These can be cooked in dishes of braised pork or filled in zongzi, lending its incredible umami to any dish in which it partakes. (Credit: Tksteven)

List of Seafoods::Oysters
Oysters grow with their shells stuck fast to rocks, making them particularly difficult to dislodge. After being shucked, they can be cooked as a thick soup [1] in the same manner of cockles and clams. Known also as “ghost eyes”[2], oysters can only be found in the two prefectures of Liqing and Fenghua and nowhere else.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: Cooking oysters as a “geng” (thick soup) is one of my favorite ways of eating them.

[2]: I wonder why it also has this strange name. Perhaps it’s because boiled oyster plump up into an eyeball shape and looks weird enough to be ghost-like? To be honest, I don’t even know why this section is called “li huang” (蠣黃), which translates to “Oyster yellow”. I get the oyster part, but where does the yellow come from?

[3]: In Chinese cuisine, Oysters are found in both fresh and dried form. The former is common around coastal regions while the latter is available in most parts of China and in Chinese dried food stores (海味乾貨) all around the world. I don’t know why Yuan Mei states that oysters can only be found in the two prefectures when fact is it can grow anywhere. Perhaps Liqing and Fenghua were the only places in Qing dynasty that cultivated oysters?

Seafoods 7: Cuttlefish roe (烏魚蛋)

海鮮單::烏魚蛋
烏魚蛋最鮮,最難服事。須河水滾透,撤沙去臊,再加雞湯、蘑菇煨爛。龔雲若司馬家制之最精。

Illustration of matured and deposited cuttlefish egg sacs. The edible cuttlefish roe is a milky white egg bearing organ directly removed from the animal. Google for better images. (Credit: Adolphe Millot, 1857-1921)

List of Seafoods::Cuttlefish roe
Cuttlefish roe [1] is very tasty but also rather difficult to prepare. One needs to throughly boil it using river water to remove any sand and rid it of its stench. After that it must be simmered with chicken broth and mushrooms until tender. Marshall[2] Gong Yunruo’s household prepares this dish very well.

Random notes:
[1]: At first I thought the roe being referred to in this section was Mullet roe (烏魚子). In Yuan Mei’s time, the cuttlefish may have been known as “wuyu” (烏魚, lit. dark-fish) but it is now more commonly known as “moyu” (墨魚, lit. ink-fish). Thank goodness for Google search in helping me catch this error. That being said Taiwanese cured mullet roe (wuyuzi, 烏魚子), known in English by its Japanese name “Karasumi“, is absolutely incredible. Om nom nom nom.

[2]: Sima (司馬) is an ancient military position in charge of marshalling horses for war with the characters meaning “in-charge of horses”. It’s interesting that the English military/law-enforment positions Marshal (Frankish mare (“horse”) + skalkoz (“servant”)) and Constable (Latin comes (“count”) + stabuli (“stable”)) also have similar roots. As well, like Marshal, Sima is also used as a surname.

Seafoods 6: Whitebait (海蝘)

海鮮單::海蝘
海蝘,寧波小魚也,味同蝦米,以之蒸蛋甚佳。作小菜亦可。

Fresh sardine whitebait from the coasts of Italy. Chinese whitebait is almost always sold in dried form. Both are incredibly delicious. (Credit: Elisa Prato)

List of Seafoods::Whitebait[1]
Whitebait are small dried fish from Ningpo.[2] Their flavours are similar to dried shrimp and are very good in steamed egg.[3] When prepared well they also make excellent side dishes.[4]

Random notes:
[1]: Known as haiyan (海蝘) or “sea geckos”, which matches the visual description of these tiny translucent silvery speckled fish. Nowdays they are called haiting (海蜓), which translates as “sea dragonfly”. In any case, both sound way better than the unappetizing term “whitebait”. Truth be told, I was tempted to go with the Italian term for this food, “bianchetti”, since any thing with an Italian name seems to sounds sophisticated, exotic, and possibly delicious to the Western ear. Well, give it to the English to ruin yet another food by name.

[2]: Ningbo, a coastal city of Zhejiang. Renown for seafood in China and throughout Chinese history.

[3]: Only if they are small (~2-3mm in body width), the large kinds (>4mm) are better stir-fried to make side dishes or snacks for drinks.

[4]: I really like to eat these things, especially the tiny ones. All you have to do is stir-fry them dry and eat them with rice as a topping. Simply incredible. Problem is, eating fish fry and fishing them possibly one of the most destructive things on can do to a fish population and their local ecology. I mean, what better way is there to wipe-out a species by eating all its childern before they reach reproductive age? Given the state of our environment now, I can’t find it in me to go eat this anymore even though a part of me craves it. I bet this is how vegans feel sometime.