The flesh of the redfin culter1 is the finest texture of all fish. It’s best when steamed with shad that has been cured in rice lees. It’s also very good lightly marinated during winter for two day in wine and its lees.
I once got a live culter just caught from the Yangzi and steamed it with wine, it was delicious beyond words.2 Culter goes best with wine lees but in should not be over-marinating since doing so turns its meat dry and hard.
1 Baiyu (白魚) literally translates as “White fish”, which is a rather unfortunate and ambiguous name, given that the fish that are called such in Chinese are almost too numerous to count. But looking at the Herbal Medicine Classics of China, “white fish” is likely from “鲌” (《滇南本草》 from 140 years earlier than Compendium of Materia Medic, which was eventually also known as “鱎魚”《綱目》) all of them referring to scientific names used to indicate the Redfin culter. It certainly doesn’t help that this culter is known by numerous latin names, among them Erythroculter ilishaeformis and Culter alburnus. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Life, itsaccepted scientific name is actuallyChanodichthys erythropterus.
2 Yuan Mei’s actual words on the flavours of the fish were meibukeyan (美不可言), or “so beautiful I could not describe/express it”, which is a lot to say considering someone with his skill in words.
“It is hard to find palm civet in fresh form. To prepare dry-cured civet, steam it with sweet wine lees until done, and served it cut into slices with a sharp knife. Be sure to soak dry-cured civet in rice water for a full day to remove excess salt from the meat. Civet is more tender and oilier than a dry-cured ham.”
If people consider it beautiful or majestic, you can bet there will be many out there crying foul if you try to eat it. If it’s fuzzy and adorable, that outcry will be worse. But add “threatened species” and “Chinese” to this and what you get is a hoard of angry people screaming things tinged with covert racism.
Well, thankfully the Masked Palm Civet is not endangered or even threatened. But it is still cute. This means that if you mention eating it to anyone well-colonized or otherwise outside the culture, it will certainly bring about sneers and jeers of disapproval.
Sure, if an animal or plant is harvested until it is threatened or endangered it has to stop. But what right does anyone have to say that I cannot eat dogs, turtles, and civet cat and then morally judge me for being okay with it? Just because one had restricted themselves to only eating certain animals and pride themselves in doing so does not mean that everyone else have to follow. This is the same sort of crap that the Inuit have to deal with when they go on subsistence whale hunts or when the Newfoundlanders go on seal hunts. It’s a lot of international cross-cultural finger wagging and people crying foul, then everybody goes back to gorging on their bottom trawled seafood and endangeredtuna, all while complaining about those shark’s fin eating Chinese.
As for what fresh or dry-cured civet tastes like, I have no idea. Duck? Chicken? Dry-cured ham? Tell me if you have tried it.
But silently, lest you wish to brave the angry hoards.
“Lightly marinade the pork with salt, then add rice wine lees to it.”
This recipe for “rice wine lees pork”, or zaorou, is probably the shortest and most ambiguous recipe from the Suiyuan Shidan so far. Yuan Mei only indicated that the pork needs to first be marinated in salt and wine lees.(糟), which probably took around a full days time. After that, I can only guess that one steams, braise, or fries the marinated pork. Personally, I take the brevity of this recipe as evidence that preparing zaorou was something everybody knew how to do back then.