Fish 3: Redfin Culter

The flesh of the redfin culter1 is the finest texture of all fish. It’s best when steamed with shad that has been cured in rice lees. It’s also very good lightly marinated during winter for two day in wine and its lees.

I once got a live culter just caught from the Yangzi and steamed it with wine, it was delicious beyond words.2 Culter goes best with wine lees but in should not be over-marinating since doing so turns its meat dry and hard.

白魚
白魚肉最細。用糟鰣魚同蒸之,最佳。或冬日微醃,加酒釀糟二日,亦佳。余在江中得網起活者,用酒蒸食,美不可言。糟之最佳,不可太久,久則肉木矣。

1 Baiyu (白魚) literally translates as “White fish”, which is a rather unfortunate and ambiguous name, given that the fish that are called such in Chinese are almost too numerous to count. But looking at the Herbal Medicine Classics of China, “white fish” is likely from “鲌” (《滇南本草》 from 140 years earlier than Compendium of Materia Medic, which was eventually also known as “鱎魚”《綱目》) all of them referring to scientific names used to indicate the Redfin culter. It certainly doesn’t help that this culter is known by numerous latin names, among them Erythroculter ilishaeformis and Culter alburnus. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Life, its accepted scientific name is actually Chanodichthys erythropterus.

2 Yuan Mei’s actual words on the flavours of the fish were meibukeyan (美不可言), or “so beautiful I could not describe/express it”, which is a lot to say considering someone with his skill in words.

River Delicacies 2: Shad (鰣魚)

江鮮單::鰣魚
鰣魚用蜜酒蒸食,如治刀魚之法便佳。或竟用油煎,加清醬、酒釀亦佳。萬不可切成碎塊,加雞湯煮;或去其背,專取肚皮,則真味全失矣。

Reeves shad, popular in China. I've never tasted one, but it's probably not too bad. (Credit: FAO)
Reeves shad, popular in China. I’ve never tasted one, but it’s probably not too bad. (Credit: FAO)

List of River Delicacies::
As with the same preparation for grenadier anchovy, Shad[1] is excellent when steamed with sweet honey wine. This fish is also very good pan-fried with oil, and finished with light soy-sauce and wine lees. However, shad must not be cut into small chunks and cooked in chicken broth. As well, do not reserve only the belly of the Shad and throw away its back, in doing so one would lose the true flavours of this fish. [2]

Random notes:
[1]: The shad in question is none other than Reeve’s shad, Tenualosa reevesii. The shad lifecycle is a bit salmon like in that in spawns in freshwater but growns to adulthood in the sea, which I guess makes it qualifiably “river”

[2]: Yuan Mei also spoke of not doing so in Things to Avoid 7: Waste

River Delicacies 1: Two Ways of Preparing Grenadier Anchovy (刀魚二法)

江鮮單::刀魚二法
刀魚用蜜酒釀、清醬,放盤中,如鰣魚法,蒸之最佳。不必加水。如嫌刺多,則將極快刀刮取魚片,用鉗抽去其刺。用火腿湯、雞湯、筍湯煨之,鮮妙絕倫。金陵人畏其多刺,竟油炙極枯,然後煎之。諺曰︰「駝背夾直,其人不活」。此之謂也。或用快刀,將魚背斜切之,使碎骨盡斷,再下鍋煎黃,加作料,臨食時,竟不知有骨,蕪湖陶大太法也。

Coilia grayii, yet another species of Grenadier Anchovy. Unlike most mentioned recipes in the Suiyuan Shidan, Grenadier Anchovy prepared using the Nanjing fried-to-dessication method is actually available in canned form at your local Chinese grocers. Problem is Yuan Mei mentions it in this section only to laugh at how poor a way it is for preparing this fish. Indeed, the canned product looks about as appetizing as deep-fried toenails, hence the use of this lovely illustration instead. (Credit: efishalbum.com, for all your fish picture needs)

List of River Delicacies::Grenadier anchovy
Grenadier anchovy[1] is best when cooked in the manner of shad: seasoned with sweet wine lees and light soy sauce then placed on a plate and steamed. One does not need to add water in preparing the dish. If one dislikes having to deal with fish bones, use a sharp knife to fillet the fish, then pull out the bones with tweezers. Simmer these fillets in a mixture of ham, chicken, and bamboo shoot broth, and one gets a incredibly delicious soup.

People in Nanjing do not wish to deal fish bones, so instead they bake the anchovies in oil until they are dried and shriveled and then pan-fry them more afterwards.[2] There is an adage that goes: “Straighten a humpbacked person’s back and you’ll surely kill him”, which quite suitably describes this method for cooking Grenadier anchovy. Tao Datai from the city of Wuhu has another way of preparing this fish. A sharp knife is used to obliquely slice down the back of each grenadier anchovy to sever their bones. They are then pan-fried until golden brown and seasoned with the proper condiments when done. One would be hard-pressed to feel any bones when eating anchovies prepared so.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: A quick search of daoyu (刀魚, lit. knife fish) will reveal that the name used to refer to at least half a dozen types of fish. Many of them, like the popular Pacific saury (秋刀魚) or one of the many types of beltfish do not fit the bill here, not only because they are saltwater fish but also because they have bones that are far too thick and coarse to be “tamed” using the methods described here. As such, we have to assume that the fish described is actually the Coilia genus of anchovies that swim in the Yangtze River, either Coilia ectenes, also known as the Japanese grenadier anchovy, Coilia macrognathos, the Longjaw grenadier anchovy also known as the Yangtze dao fish 长江刀鱼, or Coilia mystus. All three anchovies are also known as Phoenix tail fish (鳳尾魚) or simply as daoyu (刀魚).

[2]: In this section, we have “2 ways for preparing grenadier anchovies” and not 3, because this is mention only to make fun of people from Nanjing. Although mocked by Yuan Mei here, this preparation is actually quite similar to that of a rather tasty dish known as “congshao jiyu” (蔥燒鯽魚, lit. scallion braised crucian-carp), whose preparation involves first soaking the fish in vinegar, followed by a long deep-frying, then stewing in a vinegar sauce. The result of this preparation is fish that can be eaten like a think piece of Scottish shortbread, with its head, bones, flesh and all crumbling and melting in one’s mouth; the ultimate lazy diner’s fish dish. This should be available at any good Shanghai cuisine restaurant though one may have to order ahead of time.

[3]: I wonder if “regular” anchovies are any good cooked this way.