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”.
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.
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.
Groupers1 have few bones and are best when sliced and stir-fried. For stir-frying, the more thinly sliced the grouper’s flesh the better. Lightly season the fish with autumn sauce, then mix it with starch-powder and egg-white before putting it into the wok to stir-fry, adding the appropriate seasonings while stir-frying. The oil that should be used here is vegetable oil.
Notes: 1The grouper in this section is referred to as jiyu (季魚) or as “鲫魚”. It is one of many species of groupers from the genus Epinephelus. It is also known more commonly as shibanyu (石班魚) or sometimes just banyu (班魚). The latter name should not be confused with the fish described in River Delicacies 5: Snakehead Fish (班魚).
“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?
“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.
“Cut coagulated chicken blood into strips and cook them with chicken broth, soy sauce, vinegar, and starch powder to make a geng. This dish is well suited for the elderly.”
Blood is generally good for the anemic since it is high in bioavailable iron. This makes it probably beneficial to many elderly or anyone of weaker constitution, who are susceptible to the condition. The fact that chicken red blood cells are nucleated also means that you get more nucleic acids than regular blood, which probably doesn’t hurt either if you are already eating it.
“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.