Seafoods 1: Bird’s Nest (燕窩)

海鮮單::燕窩
燕窩貴物,原不輕用。如用之,每碗必須二兩,先用天泉滾水泡之,將銀針挑去黑絲。用嫩雞湯、好火腿湯、新蘑菇三樣湯滾之,看燕窩變成玉色為度。此物至清,不可以油膩雜之;此物至文,不可以武物串之。今人用肉絲、雞絲雜之,是吃雞絲、肉絲,非吃燕窩也。且徒務其名,往往以三錢生燕窩蓋碗面,如白髮數莖,使客一撩不見,空剩粗物滿碗,真乞兒賣富,反露貧相。不得已,則蘑菇絲、筍尖絲、鯽魚肚、野雞嫩片尚可用也。余到粵東,楊明府冬瓜燕窩甚佳,以柔配柔,以清入清,重用雞汁、蘑菇汁而已。燕窩皆作玉色,不純白也。或打作團,或敲成面,俱屬穿鑿。

List of Seafoods::Bird’s Nest
Bird’s Nest is an a precious ingredient and should not be used trivially. If one wishes to serve bird’s nest, each bowl must contain at least 2 liang [1] of the ingredient, prepared by first soaking it in boiled rain-water and any dark strands or debris removed with a needle. It must then be boiled in stock made by combining the broths made from tender chickens, good ham, and new mushrooms until the bird’s nest takes-on the tone and clarity of jade. Note that bird’s nest is extremely delicate [2] in flavour and must not be prepared with anything oily. Its soft and elegant texture also necessitates that is never combined with foods that are firm or aggressive in taste. People today like to serve bird’s nest with shredded pork and chicken. In doing this they are only tasting shredded chicken and pork, not bird’s nest.

Mo’ money mo’ problems? Easily solved. Just eat it away. Three pieces of bird’s nest of the quality in the image, each only about size of two small fingers, will set you back around $150 Canadian dollars. Easily. (Photo Credit:Reforma.imufomot)

In a futile effort to feint wealth, some host would scatter 3 qian [3] of raw birds nest as a thin facade on top of a bowl of soup. One could have picked them out like wisps of grey hair. [4] These shreds of birds’ nest immediately disappear when a guest stirs their bowl, revealing it full of only base ingredients. Like the ruse of a beggar child pretending to be rich, they only reveal how poor they actually were.

If for whatever reason one must add anything else to the bird’s nest soup, use shredded mushrooms [5], shredded bamboo shoot tips, fish maw, or slices of pheasant breast. During my visit to Yangmingfu, Guandong I had an incredibly good winter melon and birds’s nest soup. It was richly flavoured with only chicken and mushroom extracts, with the soft textures and delicate flavours of the two main ingredients matching each other superbly.

Bird’s nest should always jade coloured and translucent, but never opaque white. Those who make bird’s nest into balls and pound it into powder are doing nothing but forced and exaggerated interpretations of the ingredient.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: About 75 g

[2]: I had been struggling with how to translate 清 (qing). In the past I used “light”, “clear”, and “mild”, or a combination of them but none have felt completely correct. However I think I now have found a satisfactory English translation for this; one that gives the essence of this culinary term both the right meaning and feel: “delicate”. A few years ago, I had a clear cucumber soup that exemplified qing. The broth was clear, devoid of fat and not overburdened by umami. The mature cucumber gave the soup a slightly sour edge. The delicate elegance of the soup somehow calmed the clamor of the restaurant despite one being perfectly aware of it, like a petal floating in a rippleless puddle. Similar to how great French chefs of past elevated the lowly Coq-au-Vin, the chef that crafted this soup managed to take a rather unremarkable, homely peasant dish and transform it into a transcendental work of art. Drinking it was possibly as close as one could get to imbibing a physical bowl of Zen.

[3]: About 13g

[4]: May have come from the phrase “白髮數莖”? http://baike.baidu.com/view/5125244.htm

[5]: At first I thought 蘑菇 (mogu), a loose term translating to “mushroom”, would mean shitake, but that does not make sense since the dark skin of shitake would clash with the birds nest. Sure enough Yuan Mei referred to shitake as 香蕈 (xiangxun) in other parts of the manual. This leaves one thinking what mushroom he was talking about here. My guess is a common white colour mushroom such as Coprinus comatus (Shaggy mane young/known as chicken drumstick mushroom) or Pleurotus eryngii (a thick fleshed oyster mushroom/”king oyster”杏鮑菇). Note, I may be wrong.

[6]: If your culinary experiment over-strech the “capabilities” of your ingrediants, don’t try to serve to your guests.

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Things to Avoid 13: Muddiness (戒混濁)

戒單::戒混濁
混濁者,並非濃厚之謂。同一湯也,望去非黑非白,如缸中攪渾之水。同一鹵也,食之不清不膩,如染缸倒出之漿。此種色味令人難耐。救之之法,總在洗淨本身,善加作料,伺察水火,體驗酸鹹,不使食者舌上有隔皮隔膜之嫌。庾子山論文云︰「索索無真氣,昏昏有俗心。」是即混濁之謂也。

List of Things to Avoid::Muddiness
Just because a dish is muddy and turbid doesn’t mean that its texture will be thick and unctuous. Soups that resemble silted water from an agitated barrel; broths with the colour of grey liquids left in a dyeing vat; neither of them have appearances and flavours that anyone could enjoy.[1] The way to rescue turbid and muddy dishes is as follows: rise all the solid ingredients well, prudently adjust the amount of seasonings, add the right quantities of water, cook at the right heat, and correct the salty and sourness of the food. Most importantly, the resulting dish should not coat the mouth of the diner with that unpleasent filmy feeling.[2] Yuxin in poetry stated: “Those who tremble lack inner strength. Those with confused characters have vulgar hearts”, which perfectly described the character of such dishes.

Random notes:

[1]: Maybe it just the difficulty of getting back into translating, but I found this string of sentences really difficult to do. The more literal translation goes something like: “A soup, neither black or white, like water stired up from a tank. A brine/soy-sauce broth, neither light nor greasy, like the slurry poured out from a dyeing vat. Such appearances and flavours are hard to bear.” I started out with this (more poetic?) translation but I ended up with the above. I’m not sure if it was for better or for worse. Expect a rewrite in the future

[2]: Like chewing on a banana peel. The American Chinese food place in the food court of my hospital serves a “Honey Garlic Chicken” that does this. I think it’s the grease that they use tha just coats the sides of your cheeks and tongue while having this taste that in Taiwanese we call “ga-ga”; a more agressive taste than “gam”.

[3]: From YuXin, from the Northern Song, in his poem Niyonghuai (擬詠懷). I think here it is used to indicate that a dish must not be turbid in order to have impact and character in both appearance and flavour.

Things to Avoid 12: Cliché (戒落套)

戒單::戒落套
唐詩最佳,而五言八韻之試帖名家不選,何也?以其落套故也。詩尚如此,食亦宜然。今官場之菜,名號有「十六碟」、「八簋(音詭)」、「四點心」之稱,有「滿漢席」之稱,有「八小吃」之稱,有「十大菜」之稱,種種俗名,皆惡廚陋習。只可用之於新親上門,上司入境,以此敷衍;配上椅披桌裙,插屏香案,三揖百拜方稱。若家居歡宴,文酒開筵,安可用此惡套哉?必須盤碗參差,整散雜進,方有名貴之氣象。余家壽筵婚席,動至五六桌者,傳喚外廚,亦不免落套。然訓練之卒,範我馳驅者,其味亦終竟不同。

List of Things to Avoid::Cliché
Tang poetry is esteemed to be the pinnacle of classical poetry, yet it is seldom referred or quoted by famous Tang-style poets.[1] Why? Due its popular widespread use, the material has become hopelessly cliché.[2] If this can be true with poetry, it can also be so for gastronomy.

In today’s Court Cuisine, one too often hears of ostentatious references to “sixteen dishes, eight vessels[3], and four side-dishes”, the “Manchurian-Han banquet”, the “eight small delicacies”[4], or the “ten great dishes”. These hackneyed categories stem from the vulgar habits of bad chefs. Displays this trite are useful only for welcoming new relations through one’s gates or when the boss comes to visit. They serve as perfunctory acts of duty; mere decorations to be set alongside tables and chairs draped in embroideries, fine ornamental screens, and embelished incense platforms.[5] Of course, all this is to be accompanied by one’s endless bowing as required by custom.

If one is having a celebratory banquet at one’s abode, where the grand meal will be interwoven with prose, poetry, and fine wine, how could one feel comfortable hosting it in manner as trite as those mentioned above? When feasting with close friends and kin, the food need to be assembled together in joyous disarray of dishes and bowls such that an intimate air of refinement is brought to the meal.

Birthday and wedding banquets at my abode tend to become rather large affairs that gather enough guests to easily fill five or six tables. On these occasions, outside cooks need to be hired, which inevitably leads the food to become the aforementioned sad and ostentatious displays. However, if the hired cooks are in fact skilled and experienced, capable of preparing the dishes to my specifications, then the resulting food is quite something else altogether.[6]

Random notes:
[1]: In Chinese it says something like “experts of the Wuyan-Bayun style”, but I’ve decided to translate it as “Tang-style poets” and not transliterate it as “Wuyan-Bayun”. I think it makes it easier to read and the sentence more logical. Wuyan-Bayun literally translates to “five sylabels, eight rhyme poetry” and is an East Asian poetic form consisting of eight lines with five sylable each. originating and popular in the Tang dynasty. It is also known as the Imperial Examination poetic form (試帖詩) due to it’s use in the Chinese imperial examinations over several dynastic periods.

[2]: This is like Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which has been played so often as background in elevators worldwide that it has lost all impact. We aren’t even accounting for the fact that it’s probably the most commonly butchered piece by kids learning piano. I for one can no longer listen to it without feeling both irritated and slightly nauseated.

[3]: I’ve translated 簋 (gui) as “vessel”. The “Gui” are a type of ceremonial vessels used in Ancient China from the 11th Century BCE up until Zhou dynasty. An “Eight Gui” dinner is probably a rather pompous affair.

[4]: Although commonly (mis)translated as “snack”, xiaochi (小吃) in Chinese cuisine is more of a small quick-to-eat dish or meal-in-a-bowl, than a snack in the modern Western sense. Something like a hot-dog or poutines would be more akin to xiaochi in Chinese cuisine than a bag of crisps or cheesies. In the context of Imperial Court cuisine, “eight xiaochi” is not likely to be eight small snacks but more like 8 small delicacies, hence the translation.

[5]: In modern Chinese society, these things are brought out during days of worship, like the Taiwanese “大拜拜” (da-bai-bai) day where ancestors and deities are venerated. When I hear “da-bai-bai”, my head immediately fills with images of these tables with embroideries, food piled high on tables, gigantic incense burners fumigating temple courtyards, and throngs of people extruding themselves through the temple gates. These are loud, extravagant, and ritual-filled events. It suffices to say that they are INTENSE.

[6]: Here, Yuan Mei excuses himself from any clichéd banquets he may have hosted. The problem lies with those bad chefs he had to hire, not him. Uh huh…sure.

Things to Avoid 4: Dishes for the eyes (戒目食)

戒單::戒目餐
何謂目食?目食者,貪多之謂也。今人慕「食前方丈」之名,多盤疊碗,是以目食,非口食也。不知名手寫字,多則必有敗筆;名人作詩,煩則必有累句。極名廚之心力,一日之中,所作好菜不過四五味耳,尚難拿準,況拉雜橫陳乎?就使幫助多人,亦各有意見,全無紀律,愈多愈壞。余嘗過一商家,上菜三撤席,點心十六道,共算食品將至四十餘種。主人自覺欣欣得意,而我散席還家,仍煮粥充饑。可想見其席之豐而不潔矣。南朝孔琳之曰︰「今人好用多品,適口之外,皆為悅目之資。」余以為餚饌橫陳,燻蒸腥穢,目亦無可悅也。

List of Things to Avoid::Dishes for the Eyes
What are “Dishes for the eyes”? Dishes for eyes exist only to satisfy one’s desire to see large quantities and varieties of food. Present day people are most impressed when the banquet table is over-laden [1] with food-filled dishes and bowls of every size, which are undoubtedly great for viewing but not made for tasting.

One must understand that even the best calligrapher will fault if they overextend himself in writing and the most renown poet will invariably compose tired verses when vexed. Note that even through great effort, an excellent chef can produce only four or five good dishes over the course of a day, not to mention that each dish’s success is not guaranteed. Therefore can we really expect much of the food if a chef had to throw together enough of it to cover a banquet table?[2] Even with numerous helpers in the kitchen, each of the helpers have their different skill levels and opinions on how things should be done, as such the more of them there are, the worse the dishes usually become.

I once attended a banquet hosted by a merchant, where three separate courses of dishes were served along with 16 appetizers. In total, the banquet amounted to almost 40 dishes! While the host was immensely satisfied with the pompous banquet, I left it hungry and had to cook congee at home in order to quell my hunger.[3] Such banquets, while abundant with food, are both vulgar and unwholesome. Kong-Lin of Southern Song once said: “People of present times enjoy numerous foods; few of them are for the mouth, most of them for the eyes.” I would only add that if the grand spread of dishes before you are rank and unpleasant, no pleasure can be derived on viewing them.

Random notes:

[1]: What was actually stated here is (食前方丈) literally means “food in front, squared zhang”. A Zhang (丈) a unit of measure of around 3 meters. This is supposed be around the height of a man (please insert joke here), hence the term 丈夫 for a husband/married man. Saying: “People are impressed by a spread of dishes of 3×3 meters (~10×10 feet)” does not really work well, hence the translation.

[2]: Chinese Emperors had a lot of “Dishes for the eyes” in their official meals in order to show their wealth and power. Most of the dishes served during these official meals were never touched and given to the underlings to show that they are still in the Emperor’s favour. It must be terrible for the palace chef to know that most of what you cook will never be eaten. I read actually that many of Emperors ate their real and rather simple meals in their private quarters, and this sometimes included (shockingly) plain rice congee. I wonder if this was what Yuan-Mei was referring to in the following lines.

[3]: In my younger and much sillier days in Montreal, we once went to a restaurant on Prince Arthur Street for a rather pricy celebratory 3 course Table d’hôte. It was so memorable that I after these years I still remembered what I ate. The first course consisted of Lipton cup-of-soup, followed by the main course, which came in the form of a dessicated grilled lobster, good only for training jaw muscles. Third course? A small slice of McCain® Deep ‘n Delicious® Chocolate Cake or one of its nameless relatives. We left the restaurant hungry and annoyed, then went home and drank ourselves silly.

Things to Avoid 3: Meals for the Ears (戒耳餐)

戒單::戒耳餐
何謂耳餐?耳餐者,務名之謂也。貪貴物之名,誇敬客之意,是以耳餐,非口餐也。不知豆腐得味,遠勝燕窩。海菜不佳,不如蔬筍。余嘗謂雞、豬、魚、鴨,豪傑之士也,各有本味,自成一家。海參、燕窩,庸陋之人也,全無性情,寄人籬下。嘗見某太守宴客,大碗如缸,白煮燕窩四兩,絲毫無味,人爭誇之。余笑曰︰「我輩來吃燕窩,非來販燕窩也。」可販不可吃,雖多奚為?若徒誇體面,不如碗中竟放明珠百粒,則價值萬金矣。其如吃不得何?

List of Things to Avoid::Meals for the Ears
What are “meals for the ears”? A meal for ears exists only for the purpose of bolstering name and reputation. By bantering the names of expensive and coveted ingredients to flaunt one’s wealth to one’s respected guests, such meals tease one’s ears but confer no satisfaction to one’s tongue. Don’t they know that the flavours of well-seasoned tofu excels that of bird’s nest and that badly prepared seafood is no better than spoiled food?[1] In the past I have often referred to chicken, pork, fish, and duck as the “talented nobility” of food ingredients since they each have their own unique, distinguishing flavours and by their own merits, hold a dish together and ensure its success. Ingredients such as sea cucumber and bird’s nest, on the other hand, are more akin to those vulgar and despicable individuals of society who are devoid of spirit and character and mostly reliant on the support and merits of others to succeed.[2]

I attended a certain prefecture banquet, where we were served bowls as big as tureens each filled with four taels [3] of bird’s nest cooked in plain water. It had not a shred of flavour, yet the guests were clamoring to praise it. To this I joked: “I came here to enjoy bird’s nest, not collect it for resale!” Tell me, what exactly is to purpose of serving pricy food at a banquet in such large portions if it tastes terrible?[4] If the sole expressed purpose of this exercise was to flaunt one’s wealth and position, one might as well fill the banquet bowls with hundreds of gleaming pearls worth tens of thousands in gold taels. It would be just as inedible and pointless.

Random notes:
[1]: In its plainest meaning 蔬筍 (lit. vegetables and shoots) refer the the vegetables eaten by barbarian/wild people (宋 王明清 《挥麈后录》卷二:“ 康节 云:‘野人岂识堂食之味,但林下蔬笋,则尝喫耳。’”) or sour, putrid, rank smells (宋 苏轼 《赠诗僧道通》诗:“语带烟霞从古少,气含蔬笋到公无。”自注:“谓无酸馅气也。”参见“ 酸馅气 ”。) In this context, I’m guessing it likely means something “bad tasting” commonly consumed by so-called “barbarians”.

[2]: 寄人籬下 is similar to the idea of riding on coat-tails, where a person relies on the effort, strength, or merit of someone else to gain some sort of standing. The best example of this in Chinese cuisine is shark fin which is at best flavourless and requires an excellent broth made from hams, chickens, and numerous unsung heroes to be palatable. One finds quite a few shark fins in academia.

[3]: This must have been some extravagant affair considering that the stuff is usually served in small dessert bowls. Even at this day and age where bird’s nest is more accessible and easily (over) harvested, 150g of bird’s nest per person is still quite a large quantity. As of early 2014, 150g of mid-quality bird’s nest is around US$225. Top grade is easily double the price.

[4]: “Ear meals” are a mainstay of gastronomy, be it in Eastern or Western cuisine. Fois gras is fantastic, but if a restaurant serves it thin (< 5mm) just to be able to name it in their dish, it’s an ear meal. White truffle oil in your pasta? Ear meal. “Kobe beef” hamburgers? Ear meal.[5]

[5]: Fois gras should be served thicker than 1cm. If there are no truffle shavings there are no truffles. Kobe beef in the form of hamburgers is pointless.

Essential Knowledge 20: Foundations (本分須知)

須知單::本分須知
滿洲菜多燒煮,漢人菜多羹湯,童而習之,故擅長也。漢請滿人,滿請漢人,各用所長之菜,轉覺入口新鮮,不失邯鄲故步。今人忘其本分,而要格外討好。漢請滿人用滿菜,滿請漢人用漢菜,反致依樣葫蘆,有名無實,畫虎不成反類犬矣。秀才下場,專作自己文字,務極其工,自有遇合。若逢一宗師而摹仿之,逢一主考而摹仿之,則掇皮無真,終身不中矣。

List of Essential Knowledge::Foundations
Manchurian dishes tend to have more roasted and stewed dishes, Han dishes tend to have more soup-based dishes. When one is exposed to a culture’s foundations and trained in its methods from a young age, one can become extremely adept in the culture’s cuisine. As such, when a Han hires a Manchurian or a Manchurian hires a Han to prepare the cuisines for which they are most adept, the resulting dishes are a delight to eat, completely devoid of the jarring, confused qualities of poor imitations [1]. Sadly, today’s people have forgotten the importance of considering the cultural roots of the host and cook when eating. Rather, they prefer to appease and humour each other at the expense of the cuisine. When a Han invites a Manchurian to eat Manchurian food, or a Manchurian invites a Han to eat Han food, what is served is a sad pastich of the other culture’s cuisine, prepared without the needed fundamental skills and techinque [2]; like a person trying to paint a majestic tiger but ending up with a mangy dog. This is the same for scholars taking their examinations, namely, each scholar should make full use of their foundational skills and experiences during the exam, writing in his own words. By consistantly following this method, favorable results will come. However, if a scholar is always trying to imitate the style of every master that he comes upon, or the calligraphy of every chief-examiner he is trying to please, this person’s knowledge will be forever only skin deep, lacking in both depth and substance. Such an individual will never acheive anything in life.

Random notes:
[1]: 邯鄲故步 comes from “學步邯鄲” in which one not only fails to learn a new skill, but ends up losing and forgeting one’s original skills. In the context of cooking, chefs who cook dishes from a cuisine they don’t understand confuse its flavours and may end up not doing anything particularly well. Reminds me of all the “Fusion” cuisines that were so popular in the early 2000s, it’s like if you can’t cook French cuisine well and you can’t cook Chinese cuisine well, just open a restaurant and say you serve fusion foods.
[2]: Most people do this with good intentions, but when Western friends takes me to the “BEST Chinese restaurant” in some city it most often ends up being a giant disappointment. I’m sure I’ve done similar for other cuisines.

Essential Knowledge 12: Table service (上菜須知)

須知單::上菜須知
上菜之法︰鹹者宜先,淡者宜後;濃者宜先,薄者宜後;無湯者宜先,有湯者宜後。且天下原有五味,不可以鹹之一味概之。度客食飽,則脾困矣,須用辛辣以振動之;慮客酒多,則胃疲矣,須用酸甘以提醒之。

List of Essential Knowledge::Table service
The technique for table service: salty items should be served before bland items; Thick and rich items should be served before thin and light items; Dry dishes should be served before soupy dishes. There are numerous flavours in the world [1], so one should not be limited to serving only one. When one sees their guests becoming full, one should serve dishes with spicy and hot flavours to stimulate their appetites. When one’s guest have drank too much wine and are fatigued by the alcohol, one should serve sweet and sour foods to reawaken their stomachs.

Random notes:

[1]: Literally it says: “There are 5 flavours under the heavens.”