Fish 8: Fish Slices (魚片)

Take slices of black carp or a grouper, season with autumn sauce, then add starch powder and egg white. Start a wok and stir-fry them over high heat. Plate them using a small dish and add green onions, Szechuan pepper, and soy-pickled ginger. Each dish should not contain more than six liang of fish, since heat cannot be evenly and thoroughly applied when there is too much ingredients.

魚片
取青魚、季魚片,秋油郁之,加芡粉、蛋清,起油鍋炮炒,用小盤盛起,加蔥、椒、瓜薑,極多不過六兩,太多則火氣不透

Notes:
This recipe is quite similar to the preparation of our contemporary stir-fried fish slices (炒魚片), which shows how old this method of fish preparation likely is. Although some recipes contain more ingredients than this, regardless the core technique for stir-frying the fish is the same.

While stir-frying fish slices (likely stir-frying itself) sounds easy to do, all too often the fish slices gets cooked into jerky by the novice cook or stirred until it disintegrates into something more like fish floss. Successful preparation of this dish takes some skill and a few tricks. First the fish’s flesh needs to be sliced with its grain so the pieces does not easily fall apart. Next, the fish must be first quickly pan fried in a wok to set their shape before being quickly and gently flipped until the fish is barely cooked. The cooking typically takes less than a minute or so. Any other ingredients that goes into the dish must be precooked to not mess up this timing.

When done well, the resulting dish is sublime.

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Fish 6: Fish Floss (魚鬆)

Steam black carp1 or grass carp2 until done and pull the meat off the bones. Fry the meat in a wok until golden brown, then add fine salt, green onion, Szechuan pepper, and soy-pickled ginger. When stored in a sealed jar during winter, this can keep for a whole month.3

魚鬆
用青魚、鯶魚蒸熟,將肉拆下,放油鍋中灼之,黃色,加鹽花、蔥、椒、瓜薑。冬日封瓶中,可以一月

Fish floss is the piscine variant of the more commonly found pork floss. Although not much to look at on its own, fish soong is one of those little condiments that light up an otherwise mundane bowl of congee or rice at mealtimes. It’s actually very easy to make, but rather time consuming since one has to stay in front of the stove to continuously stir and lightly mash the fish until it is fluffy  and dry.

If you are interested in trying it out, below is our family recipe:


Chen Family Fish Floss (陳氏魚鬆)

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg        Fish fillet (any fresh seasonal medium to large local fish. I’ve tried this on salmon, trout, pickerel, swordfish,… and they all worked fine)
  • 1 Tsp      Salt (or to taste. Soy sauce is fine but I find it overwhelms the flavour of the fish)
  • 4 Tbsp   Sugar (or to taste)
  • 2 Tsp      Ginger and green onion juice (puree ginger and green onion and squeeze)
  • 1 Tsp      Sesame seeds

Instructions:

  1. Place fish fillet into a pan at medium heat and let it cook until the flesh starts to flake.
  2. Flake the fillet thoroughly
  3. Add salt, sugar, the juices, and stir them into the flaked fish
  4. Keep stirring and flipping the flakes of fish in the pan to dry out the water. Take out any bones you see during the process.
  5. Repeat step 4.
  6. When the fish is quite fluffy and dry with a light brown toasted colour, add the sesame seeds and stir for another 3 minutes.
  7. Let cool and seal in a airtight jar
  8. Serve on top of any starch you like (rice, bread, pancakes, whatever) or eat it on its own if you so desire.

Notes:
1Mylopharyngodon piceus

2I’ve translated junyu(鯶魚) as being grass carp, but if it is written as “軍魚” then the fish would be Spinibarbus caldwelli

3This fish soong is more similar to the commonly found dried meat product, rousong.

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.”

羽族單::炒雞片
用雞脯肉去皮,斬成薄片。用豆粉、麻油、秋油拌之,芡粉調之,雞蛋清拌。臨下鍋加醬、瓜薑、蔥花末。須用極旺之火炒。一盤不過四兩,火氣才透。

chicken_and_almonds_stir_fry
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 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.

羽族單::炒雞片
用雞脯肉去皮,斬成薄片。用豆粉、麻油、秋油拌之,芡粉調之,雞蛋清拌。臨下鍋加醬、瓜薑、蔥花末。須用極旺之火炒。一盤不過四兩,火氣才透。

chicken_and_snow_peas_with_stir_fried_green_beans_281566697484429
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.

Pork 27: Babao Meatballs (八寶肉圓)

“Take one portion of lean pork and one of fatty pork and mince them into a fine paste. Take pine-nuts, shitake, the tips of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, soy-pickled cucumbers and ginger, then mince them into a fine paste as well. Combine everything with powdered starch and shape the mixture into balls. Place the meatballs on a dish and steam with sweet wine and autumn sauce. When eaten, the texture of the meatballs should be crisp and tender. Jia Zhihua once said: “To make meatballs, the meat should be finely cut and not chopped”. There is truth in his statement.”

持牲單::八寶肉圓
豬肉精、肥各半,斬成細醬,用松仁、香蕈、筍尖、荸薺、瓜薑之類,斬成細醬,加芡粉和捏成團,放八盤中,加甜酒、秋油蒸之。入口鬆脆。家致華雲︰「肉圓宜切,不宜斬。」必別有所見。

The bejewelled meatballs described by Yuan Mei probably looked something like this, albeit with ingredients that are more finely minced. (Credit: jules / stonesoup)

An “eight treasured” dish with only six side ingredients? Quaint. But truth is this recipe is missing more than just ingredients, it is missing a huge chunk of information on technique.

In order to have meatballs with that “crisp and tender” texture of good fishballs, you need to beat the pork mixture for quite a while with salt. If you made the meatballs exactly according to Yuan Mei’s instructions, what you would get are loose, floury meatballs like those from IKEA that don’t have much of any texture. By machine, mixing and beating the meat mixture for texture takes a good half an hour, by hand, this would have taken a lot lot longer.

The final statement extolling meatballs made with finely cut pork makes a good deal of sense. For the same reasons why coffee ground using mills are better than that ground using blade grinders, finely cut the pork produces minced pork with more even particle sizes. This evenly minced pork in turn produces meatballs with a more consistent and enjoyable texture. As for how long it would have taken to finely cut enough pork for one’s meatballs, I could not imagine.

Thank goodness for modern food processing machines.

River Delicacies 4: Yellow Croaker (黃魚)

江鮮單::黃魚
黃魚切小塊,醬酒郁一個時辰,瀝乾。入鍋爆炒兩面黃,加金華豆豉一茶杯,甜酒一碗,秋油一小杯,同滾。候鹵乾色紅,加糖,加瓜薑收起,有沉浸濃郁之妙。又一法,將黃魚拆碎,入雞場作羹,微用甜醬水、芡粉收起之,亦佳。大抵黃魚亦係濃厚之物,不可以清治之也。

What is a sea dwelling Yellow croaker doing in the River Delicacies chapter? Regional trade and confusing names, perhaps. (Credit: efishalbum.com)

List of River Delicacies::Yellow Croaker[1]
Cut the yellow croaker into small chunks. Marinade with soy sauce and wine for a day and let allow it drip dry. Fry the pieces until the sides are golden brown, then add a small cup of Jinhua douchi [2], a bowl of sweet wine, a small cup of autumn sauce, and boil together. When the sauce has reduced, add sugar, soy-sauce pickled cucumber and ginger [3], and continue to reduce slightly before plating. The flavours of this dish are deep, rich, and delicious.

Another method of preparation of yellow croaker is to first removed bones of the fish, shred the meat,[4] and then combine it with chicken broth to make a thick soup. Lightly season it with sweet soy sauce and thicken with starch before serving this delicious soup. Note that yellow croaker is a thick textured and flavoured fish and should not be cooked using methods reserved for light or delicate ingredients. [5]

Random notes:
[1]: Figuring out what type of fish was “Huang yu” (黃魚, lit. Yellow fish) took quite some time. The challenge came down to the fact that while there are many references to “yellow” fish in Chinese, there are no freshwater river fish known by the name. However, many clues point to the saltwater Yellow croaker (Larimichthy crocea) as being the most likely candidate for “Huang yu”. First, although Yellow croaker is a saltwater fish, it congregates in the brackish waters of the Yangtze delta and estuary in certain seasons. It is also fished year-round in the sea surrounding the delta and is, commonly now as before, shipped up the river to be sold in both its fresh and dried forms. Second, considering how the previous chapter’s title Haixian can mean “Delicacies from the sea” as much as “Delicacies from over-seas”, I am also willing to allow this chapter’s title Hexian to veer off to mean “Delicacies shipped in by river” although it should specifically mean “Delicacies from the river”. The yellow croaker fits in the former category. Third, the first recipe is remarkably similar to Hongshao yellow croaker (紅燒黄魚, lit. red-cooked yellow croaker) and its variant Douchi hongshao yellow croaker (豆豉紅燒黄花鱼) while the second recipe basically describes Yellow croaker soup (黄魚羹), both of which are well-loved preparations for the fish even now. I did consider Trachinotus blochii (金鯧, lit. golden pomfret) as a possible fish due to its common preparation with douchi is used with it, but it is really a light textured fish and contrary to the last sentence of the section’s text. But what finally settled this for me was actually a line in the Suixiju Gastronomic Manual (隨息居飲食譜) by a close contemporary of Yuan Mei, the Qing Dynasty Doctor Wang Shixiong (王士雄). In this document, he explicitely stated “Shishou fish is know as Huang fish, and also as Jiang fish” (石首魚一名黃魚,亦名江魚). What this line effectively links is the Sciaenidae or croaker fish family (石首魚科) with the term Huang yu (黃魚), making Huang yu a species of croaker and most likely the Yellow croaker. But even more interesting is the fact that the Huang yu is also known colloquially as Jiang yu (江魚) or the “(Yangtze) River fish”, which may explain why Yuan Mei placed it in this chapter of river delicacies despite the fact that it is not a freshwater river fish. All of these points indicate that the “Huang yu” referred by Yuan Mei is undoubtably Larimichthy crocea, more commonly known as the Yellow Croaker.

[2]: Douchi is a fermented black soybean that can be used directly to season food. It is only an intermediate product used make a very high quality soy sauce in Taiwan known as Yinyou (蔭油, lit. Shaded sauce).

[3]: I previously translated gua-jiang (瓜薑) as just “ginger”, thinking it was just another ginger variety. Turns out, it’s a rather common ingredient pair made of soy-sauce pickled cucumber and ginger.

[4]: The term here is chai (拆) means to tear and disassemble like taking meat off chicken to make chicken sandwich. I’m not sure if this is the best way to translate it.

[5]: For example, shad.