Cockles can be prepared in three ways. Splash with boiling water and when they are half done1 and remove one shell and marinade them in wine and autumn sauce until they are “drunk”. Or they can be cooked in chicken broth by remove one shell and putting them into the broth. Finally, they can also be shucked and made into geng. It is best to cook them quickly since overcooking will leave them dry and tough. Cockles are produced in Fenghua Prefecture and should be preferred over giant clams and venus clams.
1There is no mention of any heat applied to cook the cockles, but what’s likely happening here is that the cockles are being cooked over a low flame with a few splashes of hot water, a technique known as “men” (悶).
2The character gan (蚶) is used to describe shellfish of the family Arca, which encompasses a whole bunch of clam-like shellfish with ridged shells commonly known as cockles. Some of them, like the popular blood cockle have so much to haemoglobin in their blood that their raw meat is bright red. The etymology of the word is also very interesting. On the left of the character is the radical “chong” (虫), which in modern Chinese would translate as “worm/insect” but the more archaic usage would more accurately translated as modern English term “critter”. The right is “gan” (甘) which mean sweet and pleasant tasting. As such, the character is saying that this is a delicious tasting critter, which it is.
3One usually use the word gai (蓋) for lids, like a pot lid. But in this case, Yuan Mei is referring to the shell of the cockles
Boil the rice eel1 until it is half done, then slice it into thin shreds and remove its bones. Braise in wine and autumn sauce. Add a small amount of starch powder along with day-lily flowers,2 winter melon and long green onions to finish the geng3. The cooks in Nanjing like to grill rice eels until they are charred, which leaves one completely incredulous.
1Monopterus albus, also known by the less than savoury name, the swamp eel.
2Hemerocallis fulva, the Orange Day-Lily, is often sold dried and reconstituted before cooking. The fresh version, if it can be found should be preferred for this dish.
3Geng (羹) is a clear soup thickened with starch. Thick Chinese soups are technically all geng.
Boil a soft-shelled turtle in water, remove its bones, and tear the meat into pieces. Braise it in chicken broth, autumn sauce, and wine, reducing the liquid from two bowls until there is one bowl. Serve the soup, blending it with green onions, Szechuan pepper, and ground ginger. The household of Wu Zhuyu prepares this dish extremely well. Use a small amount of starch such that the prepared soup is sufficiently thick.
*Happy Canadian Thanksgiving all!
Chop a soft-shelled turtle into four pieces and stir-fry thoroughly in a hot wok. For every jin of the turtle, braise it with four liang of wine, three qian of star anise, and one and a half qian of salt until half done. Add two liang of rendered lard and chop the turtle into small dice before braising, adding garlic and bamboo shoot tips. Before plating add green onion and Szechuan pepper. One can add autumn sauce before plating, but never add salt. This is a recipe from the household of Tang Jinghan of Suzhou. Large soft-shelled turtle are tough and small ones smell fishy. Its best to buy one that is medium in size.
* This can be also called Ragoût de Tortue au sel de Guérande. Sounds more “refined”, for whatever reason.
Take a soft-shelled turtle weighing half a jin1 and chop it into four pieces. Add three liang of rendered lard to a heated wok and pan-fry the turtle so that the pieces are golden brown on both sides. Braise with water, autumn sauce, and wine, first with a hot flame then a gentle flame. Add garlic when the turtle is eighty percent done. Before plating add green onion, ginger, and sugar. When choosing soft-shelled turtles for this dish prefer smaller ones to larger ones. Only those small turtles colloquially known as “boy’s foot turtle” are sufficiently tender.
1 Around 300g in Yuan Mei’s time, or a bit more than half a pound
* The actual size of the turtle used in this recipe is probably quite a bit larger than the one shown in the picture. One with the required weight would probably be large enough to fit in the palm of an adult hand.
Braise the eel in wine and water until soft, adding sweet sauce instead of the usual autumn sauce.1 Reduce the broth, add fennel seeds and star anise, then plate it. There are three common errors when cooking this eel dish. First, the skin had become marked by wrinkles and folds, thus rendering it no longer tender. Second, its flesh falls apart in one’s bowl, making it impossible to pick up with chopsticks. Finally, when salted fermented beans2 are added too early when cooking, the eel’s flesh will no longer be tender. The household of Officer Zhu from Yangzhou is most skilled in making this dish. In general, red-cooked eel is best when its cooking juices are reduced, which allows the flavours to be fully absorbed into the flesh of the eel.
1Does Tianjiang (甜醬) refer to Tianmian Jiang (甜麵醬), or more like a sweeten soy sauce similar to Taiwanese thickened soy sauce (醬油膏)? While either could work taste-wise in the dish, I’m more inclined towards the latter since this would make the dish less muddy, which may be what Yuan Mei prefers.
2Yanchi (鹽豉) is likely the same as the fermented black bean (豆豉). It is referenced in the Han Dynasty texts.
*Header image (not the best quality) shows the Changji red braised eel (昌吉紅燒炖鰻) restaurant in Taipei. The eel is of course excellent, but the rest of the food is also very good, highly recommended if you’re there!
It is best to avoid cooking eel with its bones removed. The item is naturally fishy in smell, but one should not over manipulate or attempt to control it, lest we risk losing its natural character. Like Reeve’s shad, it should not be cooked without its scales.
To prepare it plain braised, take a river eel, wash away its slime, and chop it into inch long segments. Put them in an earthenware jar and braise with wine and water until soft. Add autumn sauce when it is ready to serve. One can also make a soup with it using newly preserved mustards prepared during winter, along with large amounts of green onion and ginger to rid the eel of its fishiness.
I also remember well that a certain official’s1 household braised it in thickening starch and mountain yam for a good dish. It can also be seasoned and directly place on a plate to steam without any added water. Official Jia Zhihua makes the best steamed eel. Add four units of soy sauce and six units of wine,2 making sure to use just enough broth to cover the body of the eel. The steaming time must be well judged and controlled, since over-steaming would cause the eel’s skin to wrinkle and its flesh to lose flavour.
鰻魚最忌出骨。因此物性本腥重，不可過於擺佈，失其天真，猶鰣魚之不可去鱗也。清煨者，以河鰻一條，洗去滑涎，斬寸為段，入磁罐中，用酒水煨 爛，下秋油起鍋，加冬醃新芥菜作湯，重用蔥、薑之類以殺其腥。常熟顧比部家用縴粉、山藥乾煨，亦妙。或加作料直置盤中蒸之，不用水。家致華分司蒸鰻最佳。 秋油、酒四六兌，務使湯浮於本身。起籠時尤要恰好，遲則皮皺味失。
1Bibu (比部) is an imperial government official. As for which individual he was speaking about it unclear.
2Cui (兌), which translate to “a unit” or “a weight”, is used here as an actual volume or weight to specify a certain ratio of wine and soy sauce to be added. The exact unit is uncertain, thought the lack of specificity may indicate it’s not overly important as long as the fish is covered with the wine and soy sauce mixture.
3Tangman (湯鰻) means “souped eel”, but it’s probably better translated as “eel with/in broth”.