Seafoods 2: Three Ways of Preparing Sea Cucumbers (海參三法)


List of Seafoods::Three Ways of Preparing Sea Cucumbers
As an ingredient, sea cucumbers have little to no taste, are full of sand, and are remarkably fishy in smell. For these reasons, it is also the most difficult ingredient to prepare well.

This is a classic preparation of sea cucumber, braising with shitake. Looking at this makes me so so hungry. (Photo Credit: avixyz)

Due to its heavy and thick texture, sea cucumbers should never be cooked in mild and delicate soups. For the small spiked sea cucumber [1], one must first soak it in water [2] and remove all the mud and sand embedded in the item. It must then be boiled three times in meat broth and then simmered in chicken and pork extracts with soy sauce until supple and soft. One should use shitake or wood-ear mushrooms [3] as supporting ingredients to sea cucumber since their colours match well. If one is entertaining guests the next day, preparations for the sea cucumbers must be started immediately since it needs to be simmered for an entire day in order for it to be soft enough to eat.

In the summer, Observer Qian’s abode[4] serves an exceptionally good salad of shredded sea cucumber tossed with a ground mustard and chicken extract dressing, or soups of finely cubed sea cucumber with cubed bamboo shoots and cubed shitake mushrooms in chicken broth. In the abode of Assistant Minister Jiang [5] they serve a dish made with simmered tofu sheets, chicken thighs, and mushrooms with sea cucumbers that is also very good.

Random note:
[1]: Apostichopus japonicus. These are popular for individual servings due to their smaller size. But for more gourmets, Holothuria fuscogilva, known as the “white teatfish”, is more alluring due to the thickness of its gelatinous flesh. The thickness criteria for quality extends to squid and cuttlefish. There is nothing better than biting into thick slice of fresh grilled squid simply seasoned with olive oil and salt, like they do in Valencia, Spain.

[2]: Sea cucumbers, the “Ginseng of the oceans” (海參), are almost never sold fresh and any “fresh” sea cucumbers should be suspect. When dried they are hard as a rock and a bit heavy for its size. Check-out this site for pictures. Yes, by many people’s standards they look far from appetizing, but note too that by many people’s standards a moldy spoiled chunk of coagulated milk is also rather disgusting.

[3]: Shitake and woodear. Delicious.

[4]: For a while I had no idea what was “錢觀察家”. Roughly translated it means: “Person/family in a profession that watches money”. Accountant? Money handler? Treasurer? Financier? Little did it occur to me tha perhaps “錢” could have been a last name. So, 錢觀察家 should actually be translated as “Observer Qian’s abode”. Go figure.

[5]: Jiang was also famous for his eponymous tofu dishes the “Assistant Minister Jiang Tofu” (蒋侍郎豆腐)


Things to Avoid 5: Exaggeration (戒穿鑿)


List of Things to Avoid::Exaggeration[1]
Each ingredient has its own innate characteristics, which are best shown off using a specific set of culinary techniques. One must not be “force” an ingredient using techniques that exaggerate or overextend these characteristics. Bird’s nest is delectable the way it is, so why would one wish to pound and shape it into balls? [2] Sea cucumbers are fine in their original forms, so why would one wish to turn it into a sauce? One knows that sliced watermelon quickly loses its delicate freshness if left out too long, yet some would go so far as to process it into cakes and pastries. Similarly, overripe apples lose their crispness, yet there are those who would steam and dry them.

Then there are the pastries such as the Qiuteng Bing, described in Gao Lian’s “Zunsheng Bajian”, and the Yulan Gao described by Li Liweng, [3] all of them examples of ingredients forcefully bent and twisted out of their normal character. It would be as if one tried to make cups and bowls out of willow twigs; a rather sorry and futile exercise. If a person of earnest virtue and manner can attain sainthood on their own at home, why would they wish to hide this fact? [4]

Random notes:
[1]: There must be a better term than “exaggeration” or “over-extension” here. The idea is that an ingredient should not be “coerced” into dishes or forms that do not suit it’s nature. The analogy in people is like dressing a prudish accountant up like a rapper with sagging pants; it’s so out-of-place that it’s painful to look at. Suggestions welcome.

[2]: Watch the (original) Iron Chef episode on Bird’s Nest where Chen Kenichi battles Li Junlun. Some of the bird’s nest dishes looked pretty good, but most of them makes you go WTF.

[3]: Qiuteng Bing translates to something like “Wisteria biscuits” while Yulan Gao to “Magnolia cake”. Airs of pretense surround the names of these little pastries. Yuan Mei mocked the authors of these imaginative creations at the end of the Preface, calling them “mediocre scholars”. Oh Snap!

[4]: In Chinese folk tales, in order to attain sainthood, a person has to climb to the peak of a mystical mountain to apprentice themselves to a long white bearded saint, being tested in trials and undergoing years of physical and psychological struggle. Become a saint in the comfort of one’s home is infinitely tamer and less extraordinary. I think what Yuan Mei was trying to indicate here that one should not be ashamed of cooking an ingredient in the canonical way, because the technique is simple or common. If the cooking technique does wonders to the ingredient, who cares whether it’s simple or common? Making a great steak is simple, requiring only 2 ingredients (good beef and salt, 3 if you add pepper/spices) and a hot grill. Pretension, bad technique, trying to do something out of the ordinary too often destroys the dish. Case in point, there is a place on Peel street in Montreal called “Entrecôte St Jean” which grills their steak salt-less and then covers it in a greasy mustard sauce before serving. For a restaurant that does ONLY steak, it is remarkably meh. I attribute their success largely to the nice French Bistro décor and the tasteless clientele that frequents the place (4 stars on yelp? What?). The term “庸德庸行” probably comes from Zhongyong (中庸: Scroll 13).

Things to Avoid 3: Meals for the Ears (戒耳餐)


List of Things to Avoid::Meals for the Ears
What are “meals for the ears”? A meal for ears exists only for the purpose of bolstering name and reputation. By bantering the names of expensive and coveted ingredients to flaunt one’s wealth to one’s respected guests, such meals tease one’s ears but confer no satisfaction to one’s tongue. Don’t they know that the flavours of well-seasoned tofu excels that of bird’s nest and that badly prepared seafood is no better than spoiled food?[1] In the past I have often referred to chicken, pork, fish, and duck as the “talented nobility” of food ingredients since they each have their own unique, distinguishing flavours and by their own merits, hold a dish together and ensure its success. Ingredients such as sea cucumber and bird’s nest, on the other hand, are more akin to those vulgar and despicable individuals of society who are devoid of spirit and character and mostly reliant on the support and merits of others to succeed.[2]

I attended a certain prefecture banquet, where we were served bowls as big as tureens each filled with four taels [3] of bird’s nest cooked in plain water. It had not a shred of flavour, yet the guests were clamoring to praise it. To this I joked: “I came here to enjoy bird’s nest, not collect it for resale!” Tell me, what exactly is to purpose of serving pricy food at a banquet in such large portions if it tastes terrible?[4] If the sole expressed purpose of this exercise was to flaunt one’s wealth and position, one might as well fill the banquet bowls with hundreds of gleaming pearls worth tens of thousands in gold taels. It would be just as inedible and pointless.

Random notes:
[1]: In its plainest meaning 蔬筍 (lit. vegetables and shoots) refer the the vegetables eaten by barbarian/wild people (宋 王明清 《挥麈后录》卷二:“ 康节 云:‘野人岂识堂食之味,但林下蔬笋,则尝喫耳。’”) or sour, putrid, rank smells (宋 苏轼 《赠诗僧道通》诗:“语带烟霞从古少,气含蔬笋到公无。”自注:“谓无酸馅气也。”参见“ 酸馅气 ”。) In this context, I’m guessing it likely means something “bad tasting” commonly consumed by so-called “barbarians”.

[2]: 寄人籬下 is similar to the idea of riding on coat-tails, where a person relies on the effort, strength, or merit of someone else to gain some sort of standing. The best example of this in Chinese cuisine is shark fin which is at best flavourless and requires an excellent broth made from hams, chickens, and numerous unsung heroes to be palatable. One finds quite a few shark fins in academia.

[3]: This must have been some extravagant affair considering that the stuff is usually served in small dessert bowls. Even at this day and age where bird’s nest is more accessible and easily (over) harvested, 150g of bird’s nest per person is still quite a large quantity. As of early 2014, 150g of mid-quality bird’s nest is around US$225. Top grade is easily double the price.

[4]: “Ear meals” are a mainstay of gastronomy, be it in Eastern or Western cuisine. Fois gras is fantastic, but if a restaurant serves it thin (< 5mm) just to be able to name it in their dish, it’s an ear meal. White truffle oil in your pasta? Ear meal. “Kobe beef” hamburgers? Ear meal.[5]

[5]: Fois gras should be served thicker than 1cm. If there are no truffle shavings there are no truffles. Kobe beef in the form of hamburgers is pointless.

Essential Knowledge 3: Cleaning (洗刷須知)


List of Essential knowledge::Cleaning
The requirements of cleaning and washing specific ingredients are as follows; one must remove all feathers from bird’s nest, remove all mud from within sea cucumbers, remove all sand from shark’s fin, and wash the foul smells from deer tendon. If the meat contain sinews, one needs to remove them such that the meat can remain tender after cooking. Duck kidneys have a foul odour [1], therefore be sure to remove them and rinse the cavity well. Be careful to not break the fish’s gall bladder when gutting and cleaning the fish since doing so will render the entire dish bitter. If one does not wash away the saliva of an eel during its preparation, the resulting dish will have an unpleasant fishy odour. One must remove the old leaves when cleaning garlic chive, leaving only the tender white stems. When preparing leaf vegetables, one should remove the coarser outside leaves and use only the heart. In Nei-Ze (禮記::內則) it is said: “One should remove the orbital bone around a fish’s eyes and remove the orifices [2] of the soft shell turtle.”, admonishing us to diligently clean the ingredients for a dish [3]. The common proverb: “If you want a fish to taste good, you will have to clean it extremely well.” [4], also highlights the truth behind these facts.

Random notes:

[1]: One can also read the text as “Ducks have a foul urine-like kidney odour, make sure to clean it (and it’s insides) well to remove the smell.” So, either the duck’s kidneys smells bad, or the duck has bad kidney smells. Your pick.

[2]: I have no idea what “醜” are. It says here they are “perforated openings of the turtle”. What does that even mean? Nostrils? Cloaca? Mouth? Ears? I’m going saying “orifices” here for the sake of generality.

[3]: The full text is in here. Basically, the whole sentence tells what to do with animals in cleaning and preparations. Did you know you should remove the head of a badger and the intestines of a wolf when preparing them? I didn’t.

[4]: The Chinese text says “To make fish taste good, wash it until the white tendons/nerves come out”. Basically what’s being said here is that you have to wash the fish very well, right? At first I thought this was indeed the case and the white tendon part was simply exaggeration for humour. That is, until I read this. It appears that there ARE long white strands of nerves tissues that you have to remove from each side of the spine near the gills to really rid a fish such as carp of its strong fishy smells.