Fish 14: Shrimp on Shad Xiang (蝦子勒簽鯗)

During the summer, choose a white, clean, belt shad xiang1 and soak it in water for a day to remove its salty taste. Dry it under the sun and pan-fry with oil. When one side of the fish is golden brown, remove it from the pan. Place shrimp the side of the fish that that has not been fried, then put everything on a plate, add white sugar, and steam for a stick of incense’s duration in time until done. This dish is perfect for late summer.

蝦子勒簽鯗2
夏日選白淨帶子勒鯗,放水中一日,泡去鹽味,太陽曬乾,入鍋油煎,一面黃取起,以一面未黃者鋪上蝦子,放盤中,加白糖蒸之,以一炷香為度。三伏日食之絕妙。

Notes:
1 Xiang is basically a salted dried fish similar to Western salt cod except in this case, it is made from leyu (勒魚, sometimes written as with the “fish” character as root) or Ilisha elongata. In English, this long-ish fish is commonly known as “slender shad”. In the Chinese text “daizi lexiang” (帶子勒鯗, literally: belt slender shad xiang) probably refers to a particularly slender, long, and belt-like specimen of slender shad made into salted fish.

2 Xiazi le qian xiang (蝦子勒簽鯗) sounds cryptically poetic, if we listen to the Mandarin phonetics of this creatively it could be interpreted as: “The blind happily holds the elephant”. Reminds me of that Indian blind people and elephant story.

Pork 23: Babao Pork (八寶肉)

“Take one jin of pork that is half lean and half fatty. Boil it in plain broth for ten to twenty guun then cut it into willow-leaf shaped pieces. Prepare two liang of small mussels, two liang of shrimp, one liang of shitake, two liang of jelly-fish, four pieces of walnuts with the bitter membrane removed, four liang of bamboo shoot slices, two liang of good dry-cured ham, and one liang of sesame oil. Braise the pork in autumn sauce and wine in a pot until half done. Combine the pork with all of the accompanying ingredients and continue braising until done. The jelly-fish should only be added at the very end.”

持牲單::八寶肉
用肉一斤,精、肥各半,白煮一二十滾,切柳葉片。小淡菜二兩,鷹爪二兩,香蕈一兩,花海蜇二兩,胡桃肉四個去皮,筍片四兩,好火腿二兩,麻油一兩。將肉入鍋,秋油、酒煨至五分熟,再加餘物,海蜇下在最後。

One of the many many Babao recipes in existence. This one in particular is called “Babao vegetables” (八寶菜). (Credit: Lombroso)

Look through a typical Chinese cookbook and one is bound find at least one recipe for a Babao dish. These “Eight Treasure” dishes range from savoury appetizers and main dishes to a slew of sweet desserts, but they are connected by the fact that they all contain eight different multicoloured, sometimes expensive, but always interesting-to-eat ingredients. In this recipe, the pork was considered a precious enough ingredient to be included as one of the treasures, but usually the base ingredient is not counted as one of the eight. For example, the famous Babao rice (八寶飯) is a sweet dish containing eight notable ingredients plus rice.

I also love how Yuan Mei decided to refer to the shrimp here as “Eagle’s talons“ (鷹爪). In all likelihood, this may just be an abbreviation for the “Eagle talon shrimp” (鷹爪蝦) Trachypenaeus curvirostris, but by omitting the “shrimp” part, he raises the status of the otherwise lowly crustacean to something more exotic, precious, and maybe more fitting to be one of the eight treasures. And a treasure they are. When fresh, these shrimp are so delicately crisp that biting into them you are almost shocked by the sensation. Needless to say, they would have worked wonders with other “crisp” textured ingredients such as bamboo shoots and jelly fish. While “eagle talons” could also arguably refer to chicken feet (known as “Phoenix talons”, 鳳爪), or even be read quite literally, the texture of bird talons whether they are from chickens or eagles would not have fit well in this dish. Besides, if you wanted to serve real eagle talons, you would serve them on their own, not mixed in and confused with a whole bunch of other stuff. When you’re trying be flamboyant and extravagant, it is probably good to be as direct as possible.

As for where the whole thing about “eight treasures” came from it, the most obvious answer would be the Buddhist eight treasures. However, I suspect that it goes back earlier than the introduction of the Buddhism to China from India. Fact is, Chinese culture from ancient to modern always had a tendency towards using numerological concepts in daily life, something which can be attributed directly to the Taoists. I will leave it to somebody to do the real research while I “armchair” it.

Pork 21: Furong Pork (芙蓉肉)

持牲單::芙蓉肉
精肉一斤,切片,清醬拖過,風乾一個時辰。用大蝦肉四十個,豬油二兩,切骰子大,將蝦肉放在豬肉上。一隻蝦,一塊肉,敲扁,將滾水煮熟撩起。熬菜油半斤,將肉片放在眼銅勺內,將滾油灌熟。再用秋油半酒杯,酒一杯,雞湯一茶杯,熬滾,澆肉片上,加蒸粉、蔥、椒,糝上起鍋。

Furong is a type of Hibiscus, but the name is also used to describe irregularly shaped foods, as in the case of this recipe. (Credit: Shizhao)

Pork(List of the Ceremonial Animal)::Furong Pork[1]
Slice one jin of lean pork, dip each of the slices in light soy sauce, and let them dry in open air for two hours. Shell forty large shrimp and cut two liang of whole lard into small dice. Place one whole shrimp and a piece of lard on each slice of pork and pound the shrimp and lard flat onto the pork. Place the pork in boiling water to cook through. [2]

Heat half a jin of vegetable oil, place the pieces of pork onto a large skimming spoon, and ladle hot oil over them until done. Bring to boil half a wine-cup of autumn sauce, one cup of wine, and half a tea-cup of chicken broth, and pour on top of the pork. Finish by adding steamed rice noodles [3], green onion, and Szechuan pepper to the pork before serving.

Random notes:
[1]: This is same “furong” as “fu-young” in egg fu young. In Chinese cuisine, the name of this complex-looking hibiscus flower is given to irregularly shaped foods or egg-based dishes. In Northern China, egg-based foods are almost almost always called “furong”-something.

[2]: The steps here as described in this first part by Yuan Mei are pretty vague and incomplete, and required me to look up a few contemporary recipes to piece things together. Basically, it’s a translation with a few bits added here and there to make things make sense.

[3]: Zhengfen (蒸粉) should be a type of steamed rice noodle, it seems rather strange to use it in a Chinese dish in such a manner that I’m wondering whether I got this wrong.

Pork 7: Tenderloin (豬里肉)

持牲單::豬里肉
豬里肉,精而且嫩。人多不食。嘗在揚州謝蘊山太守席上食而甘之。雲以里肉切片,用縴粉團成小把入蝦湯中,加香蕈、紫菜清煨,一熟便起。

To me, pork tenderloin is analogous to chicken breast, a mediocre yet rather pricy cut of meat. While it’s certainly not bad, neither is it remarkable. It’s just another homogenous blob of meat.(Credit: Julo)

Pork(List of the Ceremonial Animal)::Tenderloin

Pork tenderloin is fine textured and very tender. However, most people do not know how to prepare it. I had a tenderloin at Yangzhou Prefect Xie Yunshan’s banquet that was delicious. [1] The meat was sliced, coated in starch, [2] then simmered in shrimp broth with shitake and laver. It must then be immediately removed from heat when cooked.[3]

Random notes:
[1]: Gan (甘) is one of those Chinese words that is a bit difficult to translate into English. Although its most straightforward translation would be the word sweet, it is usually used to describe a pleasant taste that is not overtly sour, bitter, or salty, but also not quite “sweet”. In Taiwan, the word is used extensively for describing the more “elusive” tastes, for instance, the pleasant taste of emulsified fats such as mayonnaise and creams, or that pleasant aftertaste one gets from eating things like bittermelon. For tenderloin cooked in shrimp broth, shitake, and laver, gan is most likely used for referring to their umami tastes (鮮) or at least the taste’s more delicate aspects. To convey the standard sweet sense of taste meant by native English speakers (sweet like sugar), the word tian (甜) is used instead.

[2]: This technique is called “velveting” by some. When you have the choice, use either potato, arrowroot, or sweet potato starch. Corn starch performs poorly for this purpose.

[3]: I was thinking that this was served as a soup but truth be told, but it could just as well be just the tenderloin slices. You decide.

Seafoods 6: Whitebait (海蝘)

海鮮單::海蝘
海蝘,寧波小魚也,味同蝦米,以之蒸蛋甚佳。作小菜亦可。

Fresh sardine whitebait from the coasts of Italy. Chinese whitebait is almost always sold in dried form. Both are incredibly delicious. (Credit: Elisa Prato)

List of Seafoods::Whitebait[1]
Whitebait are small dried fish from Ningpo.[2] Their flavours are similar to dried shrimp and are very good in steamed egg.[3] When prepared well they also make excellent side dishes.[4]

Random notes:
[1]: Known as haiyan (海蝘) or “sea geckos”, which matches the visual description of these tiny translucent silvery speckled fish. Nowdays they are called haiting (海蜓), which translates as “sea dragonfly”. In any case, both sound way better than the unappetizing term “whitebait”. Truth be told, I was tempted to go with the Italian term for this food, “bianchetti”, since any thing with an Italian name seems to sounds sophisticated, exotic, and possibly delicious to the Western ear. Well, give it to the English to ruin yet another food by name.

[2]: Ningbo, a coastal city of Zhejiang. Renown for seafood in China and throughout Chinese history.

[3]: Only if they are small (~2-3mm in body width), the large kinds (>4mm) are better stir-fried to make side dishes or snacks for drinks.

[4]: I really like to eat these things, especially the tiny ones. All you have to do is stir-fry them dry and eat them with rice as a topping. Simply incredible. Problem is, eating fish fry and fishing them possibly one of the most destructive things on can do to a fish population and their local ecology. I mean, what better way is there to wipe-out a species by eating all its childern before they reach reproductive age? Given the state of our environment now, I can’t find it in me to go eat this anymore even though a part of me craves it. I bet this is how vegans feel sometime.