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
Note: 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!
“The first is Luosuo pork. The second is plain boiled pork tossed with sesame seeds and salt. The last is sliced and braised pork tossed with light soy sauce. These three dishes are great for home cooking.
Chef Nie and Chef Yang of Duanzhou excel at making these three dishes. So much so, that I asked Yang-er to go to the chefs in order to learn the dishes’ preparation.”
Back when I was a kid, my grandmother often prepared a dish of plain pork boiled in broth, sliced and served with a dipping sauce of minced garlic and soy sauce. Neither my sister or I particularly enjoyed this relatively bland dish, so once we asked my grandmother why she kept making it and why we had to keep eating it. Her response, in Taiwanese, was sharp and quick: “In the old days, as long as you get to eat meat it was good” (古早人有肉吃就好了).
This phrase kept on coming back to me as I translated this and the previous section. Although it was technically a scolding directed towards two ungrateful children that didn’t appreciate or realize what good fortune they had, the statement can also be read another way. Namely, that in the old days, meat was scare enough that regardless of how it was cooked, it always tasted good. The grandma of an American friend said something similar, in that as long as there was chicken in the pot nothing else mattered.
In this regard, I wondered whether these three dishes that Yuan Mei enjoyed in Duanzhou were really that good. No doubt the simplicity of the three recipes mean that their successful preparation required the skills of an excellent chef, and that when well done they can be good in the way that white cut chicken is good. However, it is really so good that Yuan Mei was willing to send his own chef, Yang-er, more than a thousand kilometers away to a district in Guangzhou to learn how to prepare them? It’s like someone these days sending his chef to from Toronto to Singapore just to learn how to prepare chicken rice. The effort is commendable, I guess.
Still, considering the fact that he is a gastronome that has eaten his way through numerous banquets, I suppose we have to give him some credit. Perhaps it’s the special methods used in preparing them that made these three dishes exceptional: those dexterous and fantastical techniques that died with chefs Nie and Yang, which we will never know about. Or perhaps, the pigs were raise in such a way with the right feed and level of the exercise that made their meat irresistible even when cooked simply. Or maybe the pigs were indulged with beer and wine, had Mozart played to them over loud-speakers, and were lovingly massaged every afternoon like their modern Japanese bovine counterparts.
Or maybe in the bad old days, as long as you did not ruin the meat, it always tasted fantastic.