Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 7: Soft-Shelled Turtle with Grey Salt (青鹽甲魚)

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.


Fish 16: Home-styled Pan-fried Fish (家常煎魚)

To make home-styled pan-fried fish, one needs patience. Wash a fresh fish until clean, chop it into pieces, and marinade it with salt. Flatten each piece and pan-fry both sides until golden brown, then add a good quantity of wine and autumn sauce and simmer slowly with a low flame. When it is close to done, finish by reducing the cooking liquid, ensuring that all the flavours from the seasoning have entered the fish.1

This recipe is only for preparing fish that is no longer alive.2 For live fish, it is best to cook it rapidly.3


1This is pretty much red-braised fish. This preparation would make the flesh of the fish a bit firmer than the usual methods of Chinese fish preparations, but it would also cover over any off smells from a less-fresh fish. Reading this recipe reminds me of three cup chicken.

2Fish are usually dead when being prepared in recipes, the statement here is for differentiating whether the fish is still alive at the moment just before preparation, or if it’s already dead-on-arrival.

3Yuan Mei’s comments in the the end allow us a bit of insight into the preferred preparations for fish. First, saying that this recipe is for cooking fresh dead fish while the previous fish recipes used only live fish points to an important difference in techniques used cooking “live fish” well and “dead fish” well. Second, saying that this recipe, which uses “dead fish”, is home-style may also imply that in most households it is uncommon to prepare fish dishes from live fish, be it due to convenience or for economy. Indeed, while the best tasting fish dishes use fish that is still alive and slaughtered just before cooking, the process is tedious and expensive. In most restaurant and in some home kitchens in Asia, slaughtering fish at home is still common, though a waning practice. Still, it all goes to show how much difference there is between Qing Dynasty Chinese and modern western (and even modern Chinese) ideas of preparing fish.

Fish 15: Fish Jerky (魚脯)

Remove the head and tail of a live black carp. Chop it into small square pieces, marinate it thoroughly with salt, and dry it in the wind. Pan-fry in a wok, add seasoning and reduce any juices from cooking. Next, stir-fry some sesame, toss with the fish, and serve. This is a Suzhou recipe.1


1 Two very different dishes can come from this recipe, all depending on how well dried the fish is. It is only lightly dried then it would feel more like a typical fish dish akin to the some of the likely dried chicken and pork dishes. However, if the fish was thoroughly dried, than this would be more a snack eaten for fun. Given that the fish is described as being more jerky-like (脯, lit. dried meat ), the latter is more likely the case. In fact, I bet the resulting food from this recipe would have been similar to the dried anchovies stir-fried in sweet and savoury seasonings served throughout East and South-East Asia. Ikan bilis represent!

Fish 13: Xiang in Wine-lees (糟鯗)

In the winter, salt a large common carp and then dry it. Cover it with wine lees, place in a earthenware jar, and seal the jar’s opening.1 Serve it in the summer. Do not use distilled liquors to prepare this dish, since it would have the harsh stinging of the liquor.2


1Somewhat similar to fish kasuzuke, though I’m not sure if the Japanese do this with dried fish as with this recipe.

2Buwu lawei (不無辣味) means “not lacking a spicy taste”, so I’ve gotten rid of the double negative. I’ve also translated the “spicy” part with “stinging” since that’s a more accurate description of the taste of distilled liquors.

Fish 7: Fish Balls (魚圓)

Use either a live redfin culter or black carp, split the fish in half, and nail it to a board. Use a knife and scrap off the meat, leaving the bones and spine on the board. Chop the meat until fine, mix with lard and bean starch,1 then stir the mixture with one’s hand. Add a little salt water, but do not use light soy sauce. Add green onion and ginger juice, and form the mixture into balls. When this is done, place them in boiling water to cook. Scoop them out when done, and let them rest in a bath of cold water.2 When they are ready to be served, boil them with chicken broth and laver.3


1 I’m still wondering if “豆粉” (doufen) is bean starch or bean vermicelli, since both can be used in fish balls. The ambiguity stems from the fact that 粉 (fen) can either be used to mean starch, or one of the many Chinese pasta products made from starch. I’m going with the former since it’s a more common ingredient when making fish balls.

2 This is a very accurate and detailed description of the fish-ball-making process. Definitely one of the better recipes noted-down by Yuan Mei.

3 The laver described here is a type of red algae likely from Genus Porphyra

Fish 6: Fish Floss (魚鬆)

Steam black carp1 or grass carp2 until done and pull the meat off the bones. Fry the meat in a wok until golden brown, then add fine salt, green onion, Szechuan pepper, and soy-pickled ginger. When stored in a sealed jar during winter, this can keep for a whole month.3


Fish floss is the piscine variant of the more commonly found pork floss. Although not much to look at on its own, fish soong is one of those little condiments that light up an otherwise mundane bowl of congee or rice at mealtimes. It’s actually very easy to make, but rather time consuming since one has to stay in front of the stove to continuously stir and lightly mash the fish until it is fluffy  and dry.

If you are interested in trying it out, below is our family recipe:

Chen Family Fish Floss (陳氏魚鬆)


  • 1 kg        Fish fillet (any fresh seasonal medium to large local fish. I’ve tried this on salmon, trout, pickerel, swordfish,… and they all worked fine)
  • 1 Tsp      Salt (or to taste. Soy sauce is fine but I find it overwhelms the flavour of the fish)
  • 4 Tbsp   Sugar (or to taste)
  • 2 Tsp      Ginger and green onion juice (puree ginger and green onion and squeeze)
  • 1 Tsp      Sesame seeds


  1. Place fish fillet into a pan at medium heat and let it cook until the flesh starts to flake.
  2. Flake the fillet thoroughly
  3. Add salt, sugar, the juices, and stir them into the flaked fish
  4. Keep stirring and flipping the flakes of fish in the pan to dry out the water. Take out any bones you see during the process.
  5. Repeat step 4.
  6. When the fish is quite fluffy and dry with a light brown toasted colour, add the sesame seeds and stir for another 3 minutes.
  7. Let cool and seal in a airtight jar
  8. Serve on top of any starch you like (rice, bread, pancakes, whatever) or eat it on its own if you so desire.

1Mylopharyngodon piceus

2I’ve translated junyu(鯶魚) as being grass carp, but if it is written as “軍魚” then the fish would be Spinibarbus caldwelli

3This fish soong is more similar to the commonly found dried meat product, rousong.

Birds 46: Yunlin Goose

In Nizan’s1 Yuan Dynasty work, the “Yunlin Compendium”, he recorded a recipe for preparing geese. Take a whole goose, clean it, rub the inside of the body cavity with three qian of salt, and stuff it with a large bundle of green onions2 such that the cavity is solidly filled. Cover the outside of the whole goose with a mixture of honey and wine. In the pot, add a large bowl of wine and a large bowl of water for steaming, and build a rack made of chopsticks to keep the goose elevated from the water. Use two bundles of mountain grass3 as fuel for the stove, allowing it to slowly and completely burn away. Wait for the pot to cool down completely, then open the lid, flip the goose over to its other side, replace the lid, and seal it well for steaming. Use another bundle of grass and allow it to burn completely. The fuel should be allowed to burn on its own without any disturbance by the cook. The lid should be well sealed with cotton paper. If the sealing paper dries and cracks during cooking, simply moisten it with water.

When it is ready to serve, the goose will be soft as mud and its broth absolutely delectable. If duck is prepared using the technique it will be just as delicious. Each bundle of the mountain grass used a fuel should weight one jin and eight liang. While one is rubbing the goose with salt, add in some green onions and finely ground Szechuan peppercorns mixed with wine. The “Yunlin Compendium” contained numerous recipes, but after numerous trials this was the only good one, the rest of the recipes were simply false elaborations.



1A renowned poet and painter and the famous goose dish that bears his pen name (Yunlin), made even more famous in the culinary world by the fact that Yuan Mei endorses it so here. The full name of Nizan’s work is (雲林堂飲食制度集)

2Literally says, “stuff with a broom of green onion”.

3The term shanmao(山茅), translates literally to “mountain tall-grass” We know from the term “茅” that it is a tall wild grass that grows on hill sides with large woody sheaths and long blades. Looking up the term shanmao, it could refer to any grass including: Sabai grass (Eulaliopsis binata), Cymbopogon distans, Scleria levis, or Cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica), and likely many others. Yuan Mei does refer the fuel here also as maochai (茅柴, literally “grass fuel“), which may point to cogon grass since it is also know by that name. But again he could also just be saying maochai to indicate “a grass used for fuel” instead of “a grass known as maochai”. At the end, I’m not sure what the grass is so I’m just going to call this all “mountain grass”.