Braise the eel in wine and water until soft, adding sweet sauce instead of the usual autumn sauce.1 Reduce the broth, add fennel seeds and star anise, then plate it. There are three common errors when cooking this eel dish. First, the skin had become marked by wrinkles and folds, thus rendering it no longer tender. Second, its flesh falls apart in one’s bowl, making it impossible to pick up with chopsticks. Finally, when salted fermented beans2 are added too early when cooking, the eel’s flesh will no longer be tender. The household of Officer Zhu from Yangzhou is most skilled in making this dish. In general, red-cooked eel is best when its cooking juices are reduced, which allows the flavours to be fully absorbed into the flesh of the eel.
Notes: 1Does Tianjiang (甜醬) refer to Tianmian Jiang (甜麵醬), or more like a sweeten soy sauce similar to Taiwanese thickened soy sauce (醬油膏)? While either could work taste-wise in the dish, I’m more inclined towards the latter since this would make the dish less muddy, which may be what Yuan Mei prefers.
2Yanchi (鹽豉) is likely the same as the fermented black bean (豆豉). It is referenced in the Han Dynasty texts.
*Header image (not the best quality) shows the Changji red braised eel (昌吉紅燒炖鰻) restaurant in Taipei. The eel is of course excellent, but the rest of the food is also very good, highly recommended if you’re there!
It is best to avoid cooking eel with its bones removed. The item is naturally fishy in smell, but one should not over manipulate or attempt to control it, lest we risk losing its natural character. Like Reeve’s shad, it should not be cooked without its scales.
To prepare it plain braised, take a river eel, wash away its slime, and chop it into inch long segments. Put them in an earthenware jar and braise with wine and water until soft. Add autumn sauce when it is ready to serve. One can also make a soup with it using newly preserved mustards prepared during winter, along with large amounts of green onion and ginger to rid the eel of its fishiness.
I also remember well that a certain official’s1 household braised it in thickening starch and mountain yam for a good dish. It can also be seasoned and directly place on a plate to steam without any added water. Official Jia Zhihua makes the best steamed eel. Add four units of soy sauce and six units of wine,2 making sure to use just enough broth to cover the body of the eel. The steaming time must be well judged and controlled, since over-steaming would cause the eel’s skin to wrinkle and its flesh to lose flavour.
Note: 1Bibu (比部) is an imperial government official. As for which individual he was speaking about it unclear.
2Cui (兌), which translate to “a unit” or “a weight”, is used here as an actual volume or weight to specify a certain ratio of wine and soy sauce to be added. The exact unit is uncertain, thought the lack of specificity may indicate it’s not overly important as long as the fish is covered with the wine and soy sauce mixture.
3Tangman (湯鰻) means “souped eel”, but it’s probably better translated as “eel with/in broth”.
When icefish1 are freshly caught from the water, they are known as “savoriness of ice”. Braise them in chicken broth with dried-cured ham. Alternatively, stir-fry them for a more tender fish. For the dried item, soak them in water until soft. They make a good dish when stir-fried with diluted soy sauce.2
Notes: 1Although the direct translation of the Chinese name is the somewhat ambiguous “silver fish”, the fact that Yuan Mei indicates this fish looks like ice tells use that it is most likely Salanx prognathus or Salanx chinensis, one of the species among a genus of Asian “ice fish”. These fish are quite interesting in that the adults retain much of the features present in a fish’s larval or juvenile stages. They are small, translucent, largely cartilaginous, and look amazingly like whitebait (and sometimes mistaken as such). They are also sometimes known as “noodle fish” since its form and texture resemble the small thick rice noodles. It goes to show that when you think you’ve seen all the wonders of nature, nature throws living rice noodles your way.
2I’m not sure what is jiangshui (醬水), or “watered sauce”. Could it soysauce and water or diluted soysauce, or just liquid extracted from a wet bean sauce? Either way it’ll likely taste like the former, hence the translation.
Chop a live black crap into large pieces, sear the pieces in oil, then add soy sauce, vinegar, and spray with wine. The more broth in the dish the better. When it is done immediately remove everything from the pan. This dish is most famously prepared by Hangzhou West Lake’s Wuliuju.1 But ever since they started using an ill-smelling soy sauce, the fish served there is now inedible. What a pity!
The fame of Songsao Fish Geng2 is not warranted at all. The discussions in “Menglianglu” should also not be believed.3 The chosen fish must not be big, since the flavours will not penetrate into a big fish. The chosen fish must also not be small, since small fish tend to have more spiny bones.
Notes: 1Wuliuju translates to the “house of five willows” 2The famed fish geng by Madamn Song, consists of fish in small pieces and cooked in a thick and rich soup punctuated by vinegar. I guess Yuan Mei did not think much of it. 3Menglianglu (夢粱錄), or “Records on Dreams of Millet” was written in Song Dynasty by Wu Zimu (吳自牧). As for what contents in the work were considered untrustworthy by Yuan Mei, I am not sure.
Pan-fry a large silver carp until done, add tofu, spray on soy sauce, water, green onion, wine, and then let everything come to a boil. When the colour of the soup has turn slightly red in hue1, it is ready to be served. The flavours from the fish’s head is incredibly good. This is a Hangzhou dish. The amount of soy sauce to be used here is proportional to the size of the fish
“Take fifty sparrows and braise them in light soy sauce and sweet wine. When they are done, remove their feet, taking only the sparrows’ meat from their breast and head, and put the collected meat into a dish with the cooking broth. Its flavours are incredibly sweet and delicate. Other birds such as magpies can also be prepared thus.
Unfortunately fresh birds are hard to find. Xue Shengbai often advises: ‘Do not eat food made from domesticated animals.’, since the flavours of wild creatures are more flavourful, fresher, and they are easier to digest.”
There perhaps is some truth to quote in the last sentence. Wild creatures have a more varied diets and thus they have more diverse and richer sets of micro-nutrients in their bodies. For instance, results from this semi-scientific study found many times more Vitamin E, D, and beta-carotene in free-range chicken eggs from various such farms versus traditional factory eggs . I’ve read somewhere else that vegetables grown via organic farming methods are richer in micronutrients than their “green-revolution” counterparts. Nevertheless, these studies are not peer-review scientific research, as such their results must be taken with a grain of salt.
In Taiwan, free-range chicken who are raised on open land feeding on a mix of wild plants, insects, poultry feed and supplemented greens (scraps from the green grocers) are highly prized both for their nutrition and their flavoursome and dense flesh. Whenever I’m Taipei, I make sure to get my fill of it in variousrestaurants serving it there.
On a separate note, the sparrows mentioned here are probably passer montanus.
“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.”
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.