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.
“Pull the breast meat off a pheasant and season well with light soy sauce. Wrap the breast meat in a sheet of caul-fat and fry it in a flat-bottomed iron pot. The meat can be either wrapped as flat squares or as rolls. This is one method. One can also slice the pheasant meat and stir-fry with seasonings, or do so with its diced breast meat. The whole pheasant can also be braised in the manner for the domestic chicken. Another method is to first fry the meat in oil, then pull it apart into thin shreds, toss it with wine, autumn sauce, vinegar, and celery together as a cold dish.
Finally, one can also serve the raw meat sliced to be cooked in a hot pot and eaten immediately when done. The problem with this latter method is that when the meat is still tender it still lacks flavour, but by the time the flavour has infused the meat it is already too tough.”
Doing the comments footnotes this time since it presents the concepts more clearly. That and I’m being lazy today:
: The Chinese phrase for pheasant is “wild chicken”. This makes sense and is quite an accurate observation since a domesticated pheasant is very similar to the modern chicken in taste and texture and they are of the same family Phasianidae. In fact, genetic studies on the modern chicken pins their closest wild relative as the wild red junglefowl with some other wild pheasant relatives (green and grey junglefowl) mixed in.
: We can see from this that Yuan Mei is not completely adverse to the hotpot after all (See previous section on Chafing dishes), though he is still critical of this class of cooking techniques. I wonder if this aversion is rooted in prejudice since it is one of those techniques favoured by the Mongolian and Western Asian peoples.
“Break the chicken eggs into a bowl and beat it with chopsticks a thousand times, then steam them until tender. Eggs immediately becomes old and tough when cooked, but with prolonged and continuous cooking they become tender again. Those with tea leaves should be cooked for a period of two sticks of incense. To cook a hundred eggs, use two liang of salt. For fifty eggs use five qian. One can also braise them with soy sauce. Other methods of preparation include pan-frying and stir-frying. Eggs steamed with shredded finch is also excellent.”
Over and over again, we see Yuan Mei’s standard for “tender” is quite different from our present standards. To me, an egg done over-easy or even a hardboiled egg can scarcely be call tough. That is, unless you’re lacking teeth, which may or may not be the case with our esteemed scholar. As for this section, it briefly describes six ways of preparing eggs, namely: steamed, boiled with salt, braised in soy sauce, pan-fried, stir-fried, and finally steamed with a species of finch known as the Eurasian siskin (Spinus spinus). All in all, pretty standard stuff for cooking eggs in Chinese cuisine, with the more unusual one being last method, which uses a very cute but also apparently very tasty ingredient.