“Take a live bream1, add wine and autumn sauce, then steam. Cook until the flesh is translucent like jade. If it is cooked to an opaque white, the texture of the flesh would have become tough and its flavour changed for the worse. While steaming, cover everything well with a lid and do not let any condensing water drip onto the fish. When it is ready to be served, add shitake and bamboo shoot tips.
Bream can also be prepared by pan-frying with wine. For this, use only wine and not water. This is known as ‘Imitation Shad’.2”
Notes: 1 Bian yu (Parabramis pekinensis) is more often written as “鳊魚” with only the Cantonese writing it in Yuan Mei’s form as “邊魚”. Both have the same pronunciation and appear to be the same fish from visual identification. In fact, the Cantonese steam it in a very similar manner (清蒸邊魚) to Yuan Mei’s description. 2 The last phrase simply says “It is known as ‘imitation shad'”. This could either mean the bream pan-fried with wine is call that, or that the white amur bream is in general called such. It seems more likely to be the former due to the sentence structure, but still: caveat lector.
“Use the breast from a fat duck and chop it into large square pieces. Simmer it in half a jin of wine, one cup of autumn sauce, bamboo shoots, shitake, and chopped green onions. Reduce the cooking liquid and serve.”
Another braised duck recipe, except in this one the duck has been glazed by the reduced cooking liquid.
“Take a fat duck and boil it in water until eighty percent done. When cool, remove its bones and tear the meat in natural and disorderly pieces, neither ‘squared nor round’. Place the meat back into its cooking liquid than add three qian of salt and half a jin of wine. Also add coarsely crushed mountain yam into the pot to thicken the dish. When the meat is braised tender, add finely chopped ginger, shitake, and chopped green onion. If one wants an especially thick soup, add powdered starch. The dish is also very good if one substitutes the mountain yam with taro instead.”
The rather comical name of this dish probably comes from the fact that the duck is intentionally torn into random pieces and the yam is bashed into chunks. This is definitely a dish attributable to the culinary endeavors of a clumsy or confused person. To be honest, the name of dish can also be accurately translated as “Canard a la Clutz”, however I decided to side on the formal since it felt a bit more correct, for whatever the reason.
On a separate note, I’m not too sure about the appeal of this dish, but I suspect the scholars and high officials like to contrast their usually impeccably prepared meals with something that has the air of being haphazardly and coarsely cobbled together in a “peasant-like” way. After all that ultra-rich family in the largely biographical work Dream of the Red Chamber did this too, once eating grilled meats around the fire with their bare hands (which was used to hint at their eventual demise as beggars). So perhaps Yuan Mei and company, ate this dish while pretending they live the simple country peasant life, much in the way Marie Antoinette enjoyed playing make-believe at her fake peasant village?
“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, shitake, diced bamboo shoots, autumn sauce, wine, warm-pressed sesame oil, 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.”
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:
: 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.
: 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.
“Take a chicken breast, chop the meat finely, mix in a chicken egg, and season it with enough light soy sauce to make it fragrant. Take a large piece of caul fat and cut it into squares. Wrap the mixture into small rolls with the cut squares of caul fat and fry them until they are fully cooked. Finish by stir-frying the rolls with light soy sauce, wine, shitake, and wood ear mushrooms. Throw on a pinch of sugar before plating.”
This recipe “imitates” the pheasant recipe later in the chapter, where the meat is seasoned, wrapped in caul fat, and fried. It is in-turn remarkably similar to a modern Taiwanese dish known as chicken roll (雞卷), where a mixture of ground pork, onion, and egg is wrapped inside tofu skin.
Although the ingredients for the three dishes are somewhat different, one sees from the similarity in their textures and their names that they are in fact variants of one another. Their fillings: the ground pork and egg mixture, the chicken breast and egg mixture, and the pheasant, all cook to similar textures and consistency. Their wrappings or tofu skin or caul fat all fries up crisp and has a “snap” when you bite into them.
Looking at these recipes together and identify their similarity and differences is quite like tracing back a family’s lineage or looking back in the fossil record, to identify an individual’s ancestors. Together, I see the changes across time of these three dishes as evolution in action.
“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.”
Nothing really to say about this other than a few translation notes:
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.
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
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.
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.
If everything was supposed to be place on a five inch dish then it must have been quite a mound of chicken.
“Take some chicken breasts, cut them into small dice, and stir-fry them in boiling hot oil. Add autumn sauce and wine to the chicken and remove from the pan. Toss the chicken with diced water chestnuts, dice bamboo shoot tips, and diced shitake, with the ones producing a dark broth being the best.”
Lightly par-fry chicken, season, add some veggies, and it’s done. All in all, a rather typical Chinese chicken dish.
The only weird part here is the note in the last sentence saying that dark broth is the best. This is weird since the dish has mainly light coloured ingredients so a dark broth will not work. One can only assume that Yuan Mei was referring to the shitake, which when soaked from its dry form or cooked in soup lends a clear darkish tan broth.