Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 3: Fried Eel (炸鰻)

Choose a large eel, remove its head and tail, and chop it into inch-long1 segments. First, fry them in sesame oil until thoroughly cooked and place them on the side. Take the tender tips of fresh chrysanthemum greens2 and stir-fry them until done, using the oil previously used to cook the eel. Next, place the eel on top of the greens, season, and braise them for one incense stick of time.3 The quantity of chrysanthemum greens used should be about half that of the eel.4


1I know, I know, the Chinese cun (寸) is not related to any of the Western inches. But it reads better.

2Tongcai (蒿菜), which is also known as tonghao (茼蒿) or the “edible chrysanthemum” in English, has a unique flavour that can be strangely addictive once you get used to it.

3Basically, the chrysanthemum greens are to be cooked until brown and mushy. There seems to be this dichotomy in Chinese vegetable cooking: it’s either done quickly over high heat, no more than a few minutes, or it’s deliberately cooked until brown and falling apart.

4By the time you finish reading this, you would have realized this dish is not any sort of fried food in the Western sense (and that appetizing header image is a total lie). Actually, it would be more accurate to call this “eel braised with chrysanthemum greens”. The initial frying is most likely there to form a seared layer on the eel and prevent it from disintegrating during the incense stick’s worth of cooking time. The reason for the name would have be a mystery except for diners in the know.

Birds 35: Steamed Duck (蒸鴨)

“Remove the bones from a raw fat duck. Stuff the duck’s body cavity with a mix consisting of one wine cup of glutinous rice, diced dried-cured ham, diced kohlrabi,[1] shitake, diced bamboo shoots, autumn sauce, wine, warm-pressed sesame oil,[2] and chopped green onions. Place the duck on a plate and ladle chicken broth on it. Steam the duck, separated from the water, and do so until it is thoroughly cooked. This recipe definitely comes from the household of Prefect Wei.”



There is supposedly steamed duck in this picture. I think it’s those two slices of pink flesh on the boat-shaped glass dish in the center. (Credit: Chris)


Not much to say about this other that the fact that this would have been quite an opulent dish back in the day. This would be be served in celebratory meals much like a roast turkey would be served in North American Thanskgiving and Christmas day.  Come to think of it, the stuffing described here could be used directly for turkey too.

Now, to fill-up some space here are some translation notes:

Translation notes:
[1]: In modern usage, datoucai (大頭菜) can be one of three vegetable items, all produced from the mustards of genus Brassica: Kohlrabi, the stem of the tatsai (Brassica juncea subsp. tatsai), or turnip. Of the three, the first two are stems while the latter is a root. It’s hard to figure out which of these are the vegetable selected so I’m going with the kolrabi since it’s the most common modern usage. Still, tatsai is native to China so it would be a strong contender.

[2]: Xiaomo Mayou (小磨麻油) is a warm pressed white sesame oil using hot water to separate out the oil instead of the typical hot roasting and hydraulic pressing. A more gentle sesame taste, than the typical sesame oil.

Birds 7: Stir-Fried Chicken Slices (炒雞片)

“Take boneless chicken breasts and chop them into thin slices. Mix the slices with mung bean starch, sesame oil, and autumn sauce. Next add thickening starch and mix in egg whites. Just before stir-frying, add to it soy sauce, soy pickled ginger, and chopped green onion. One must use a burning hot flame to stir-fry the dish. Only four liang of chicken should be cooked per serving so that the heat can properly and rapidly cook the meat.”


Yet another chicken stir-fry dish (Credit: SpaceMonkey~commonswiki )

This a recipe one could expect to find in an any modern Chinese cookbook. The interesting thing here is that the seasoning/marinade used here includes “doufen”(豆粉), which I translated as “mung bean starch” or alternatively can also be interpreted as “mung bean noodles”.

In both cases, adding either during marinating process seems somewhat strange since the former would give a rather gelatinous textured coating and the latter would mean oddly marinating the meat with bits of noodles. Still, I went with the former since it seems more plausible in my opinion. However, given that hundreds of year went between now and then, your guess is as good as mine.

Birds 13: Chicken Stir-fried with Pear (梨炒雞)

Take chicken breasts from a young bird and slice them. Heat up three liang of rendered lard and stir-fry the chicken giving it three to four tosses. Add a large spoon of sesame oil, and a small spoon each of powdered starch, fine salt, ginger juice, and Szechuan pepper. Finally, add finely sliced snow pear and small pieces of shitake, then stir-fry everything for three or four tosses before plating in a five inch dish.


Unripened snow pear (Credit: Darkotico)

Nothing really to say about this other than a few translation notes:

  1. I don’t think there are any difference in anatomy between chicken breast described using the words xiong (胸) and pu (脯). Still I wonder if there are subtle difference in meaning that are being conveyed through the two terms. For example, the terms for sesame oil, could be mayou (麻油) or xiangyou (香油). The first simply indicates that it’s oil taken from the seeds of the sesame/hemp plant, while the second indicates that the oil is fragrant.
  2. Yuan Mei used the word ci (次) to describe the duration of cooking here, which literally means “times”, as in: “How many times were you forced watch Totoro and Frozen this week?”. When Yuan Mei says “stir-fry three or four times“, I’m taking that he means you stir and toss it that many times while cooking
  3. I translated 茶匙 as a “small spoon” instead of its literal meaning “tea spoon”, since most English readers would assume its the standard teaspoon measure otherwise. This small spoon was most likely a small scoop (勺) used for cleaning teapots in kung fu tea “ceremonies” and are probably around half a standard teaspoon.
  4. The pear used is the snow pear (Pyrus nivalis) with its crisp flesh that is similar to very fresh bamboo shoots. Actually, it could be quite an interesting substitute for bamboo shoots in most stir-fry recipes, assuming you don’t overcook it.
  5. If everything was supposed to be place on a five inch dish then it must have been quite a mound of chicken.

Birds 7: Stir-Fried Chicken Slices (炒雞片)

Take boneless chicken breasts and chop them into thin slices. Mix the slices with mung bean starch, sesame oil, and autumn sauce. Next add thickening starch and mix in egg whites. Just before stir-frying, add to it soy sauce, soy pickled ginger, and chopped green onion. One must use a burning hot flame to stir-fry the dish. Only four liang of chicken should be cooked per serving so that the heat can properly and rapidly cook the meat.


There are no good images of stir-fried food on wikimedia commons, but just in case you need some visuals on what cooked chicken slices look like… (Credit: jefferyw)

One question came up during this translation: what exactly is dou fen (豆粉)? It literally means bean flour, but does that mean it’s mung bean starch? Roasted soy bean powder? Raw soy bean powder? Mung bean flour? I guess we’ll never know definitively, but it worth trying out the recipe to find out. Meanwhile I’m saying it’s mung bean starch, because it makes sense to me.

Birds 5: Browned Chicken (焦雞)

Wash a fat hen clean and boil it whole in a pot. Add two liang of lard and four  fennel seeds to the chicken and cook until it is around eighty percent done. Next, take out the chicken and sear it in sesame oil until it is golden brown then put it back into the liquid to cook. Simmer until the cooking liquid has thickened, then add autumn sauce, wine, a whole stalk of green onion, and simmer to reduce the liquid to a glaze. When one is about to serve the chicken, chop it into slices, and ladle the glaze on the chicken. One can also toss the chicken in the glaze or serve it on the side as a dip. This is a recipe from the abode of Yang Zhongcheng, but the one from Brother Fangfu’s abode is also good.


Yuan Mei’s jiao chicken probably looks quite a bit like the modern soy sauce chicken.  (Credit: Dennis Wong)

Jiaoji chicken (焦) means literally “burnt”, “blackened”, or “charred” chicken. I think calling it “browned chicken” captures a good bit of Chinese name’s meaning and the technique used to make this dish. I considered calling it “blackened chicken”, though that name has already been claimed by another dish.

Browning the chicken before braising is pretty common in making soy sauce chicken with the practice being quite standard in making soy sauce duck. Yuan Mei’s method does the browning when the chicken is almost done, which is less common. It probably changes the texture of the skin in some way, though in what way, I’m not sure. A more bubbly skin to soak up more sauce perhaps?

Still, looking at the ingredients and the basic cooking technique, this feels pretty much like the same soy sauce chicken you can get in most Cantonese siu mei eateries. Four fennel seeds as spice seems a bit too little, but then again maybe Yuan Mei and company were not a huge fan of its flavour?

Birds 2: Chicken Soong (雞鬆)

Take the legs of a plump chicken, remove their tendons and bones, then mince the meat finely. Be sure to not damage the skin. Mix the meat together with egg whites, starch thickening, and chopped pine nuts. If there is not enough leg meat, substitute it with some cubed chicken breast meat.

Fry the meat in sesame oil until golden brown and place it in a earthern crock. To the crock, add half a jin of baihua liquor, a large cup of autumn sauce, a ladle of chicken fat, along with the likes of winter bamboo shoots, shitake, ginger, and green onions. Cover the mixture with the reserved chicken skin, add a large bowl of water, and steam it until done. Remove the chicken skin when serving.


Chicken on the loose. (Credit: Infrogmation)

Chicken soong literally means “loose chicken”, which alludes to texture of the minced cooked chicken. In modern Chinese cooking, this dish is usually stir-fried untill done without the extra step for steaming. This modern version will definitely have a more assertive flavour than what Yuan Mei had in his time.

Then as now, Soong (鬆) dishes of all kinds, be they chicken, pork, duck, or shrimp, would have been eaten on rice. However, most restaurants nowadays served wrapped in lettuce leaves to be eaten like a taco. To be honest I prefer this modern presentation since I like eating with my hands and I can better enjoy the textures of the chicken and pine nuts better with the crispness of the lettuce.

As for this detailed recipe, it is the same as that for the previously translated recipe for “Luosuo rou“. The only difference between the two recipes is that chicken is used instead of pork. Both recipes also state explicitly that the mixture must be steamed covered with the skin of the respective animal to completion. Again I not sure why this is done, but can only speculated that doing so improves the flavours and the textures of the resulting dish.

And now, for a different kind of Chinese chicken song: