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 their 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”.

Birds 43: Xu Duck (徐鴨)

“Get the largest fresh duck available. Make a solution from twelve liang of baihua liquor, one liang and two qian of unrefined grey salt,[1] and a soup bowl of boiled water, removing any residue and froth after dissolving everything, then apply this to the duck. Next replace the solution[2] and add seven rice bowls of cold water, four thick slices of fresh ginger weighing approximately one liang, and place everything together inside a large lidded earthenware bowl. Seal the opening of the lidded bowl well using a sheet of thick paper[3] and place everything on top of a large charcoal braizer to cook thoroughly.[4] Use large chunks of charcoal[5] of three yuan, each weighing around two wen, for cooking and cover the braizer and bowl with a tented cover so the heated air does not escape.[6] Cook starting from around the time one has breakfast until the evening. If the cooking is rushed, then the dish will be underdone and it flavours would be poorly developed. After the charcoal has burned through, do not move the duck to a serving bowl and do not open the sealed bowl too soon. After splitting the duck open, wash it with clean water, then dry it with a clean unstarched cloth before putting it into a lidded earthenware bowl.[7]”

頂大鮮鴨一隻,用百花酒十二兩、青鹽一兩二錢、滾水一湯碗,沖化去渣沫,再兌冷水七飯碗,鮮薑四厚片,約重一兩,同入大瓦蓋內,將皮紙封固口,用大火籠燒透。大炭吉三元(約二文一個);外用套包一個,將火籠罩定,不可令其走氣。約早點時燉起,至晚方好。速則恐其不透,味便不佳矣。其炭吉燒透 後,不宜更換瓦,亦不宜預先開看。鴨破開時,將清水洗後,用潔淨無漿布拭乾入。

“Xu duck” has two interpretations. The word “xu” (徐) literally means slow, which may describe the cooking speed here, but it could also be a person’s family name, which would mean it’s Xu’s Duck. Due to the incomplete info I’m leaving this as it is.


[1]: The term “grey salt” was translated from “qingyan” (青鹽), which translate literally to green/blue salt. This is a greyish greenish raw salt more or less like the coarse grained sel gris of Guerande.

[2]: The text here uses the word dui(兌), which may mean either “replace” or “add”. In the first, the salt and liquor solution would simply be used for marinating and washing the duck then simply throw away and replaced with water. In the second case, it would have been used as just the cooking liquid with more water added on top. To me the former one makes more sense, since green salt is commonly used for cleaning food and less for eating itself.

[3]: In Chinese, pi (皮) paper, or “leather paper” refers to a thick heavy paper similar to like that used in making large brownpaper bags.

[4]: This cooking method is similar to that seen in: “Pork 13: Pork in lidded bowl”.

[5]: The term “charcoal lumps” are translated from the Chinese word “tanji” (炭吉). This same term was mentioned in Scroll nine of the late Qing dynasty work Xiawai Junxie (霞外攟屑::九), which indicated it has an alternate writing form (炭擊). Tanji is a very high quality whole wood charcoal is made from very dense and fine grained hardwoods and fired to very high temperatures. This charcoal produced is so hard and dense that it rings like a chime when tapped with a hammer. It is known in Japanese as white charcoal (白炭) or “enduring” charcoal (長炭).

[6]: The sentence was translated from the phrase “外用套包一個,將火籠罩定”, which implies that the cooking setup is covered using a stiff tent or umbrella like structure. What this structure actually looked like is a mystery. Still, if this tent/umbrella setup is well insulated, then it would basically function like an oven.

[7]: This entire recipe is confusing all the way through, but the confusion culminates in a crescendo in the last two sentences. Don’t change the bowl (不宜更換瓦)…but okay, to what? Finally, take the duck out and wipe it dry and put it back into the bowl used to cook it (鴨破開時,將清水洗後,用潔淨無漿布拭乾入)? Or a clean serving bowl? The fact that this recipe is quite detailed, probably means that Yuan Mei liked it enough to note things down, but on the whole it is one of the more poorly written ones in the Suiyuan Shidan. One could try to rearrange the sentences to make the recipe make sense, but I’ll leave that to the people reading this to do as they see fit.