Birds 44: Braised Sparrows

“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.”[1]


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 various restaurants serving it there.

On a separate note, the sparrows mentioned here are probably passer montanus.


Birds 41: Dry Steamed Duck (乾蒸鴨)

“This is the dry steamed duck made at the household of Hangzhou merchant He Xingju. Wash a fat duck and chop into eight chunks. Immerse the duck completely with sweet wine and autumn sauce in a porcelain jar and seal it well. Place everything directly in a dry pot to let “steam” over a low flame with not adding water. When it is ready to be served, the ducks meat should be as soft as mud. The dish takes the two incense sticks of time to cook.”


“Dry-steaming” is quite similar to the cooking technique “men” (), which means that the food is covered, heated, and then allowed to cook through using the residual heat. From the recipe, we see that the temperature is probably quite a bit higher, almost like low temperature baking. (See Pork 12: Dry steamed pork).

The Western equivalent of this dish would be probably be a confit de canard or cassoulet de canard (without the beans).

Birds 31: Chicken Braised with Mushroom (bis)

“Take a jin of chicken, a jin of sweet wine, three qian of salt, four qian of rock sugar, and fresh mushrooms free of growing mold. Braise everything over a gentle flame for a period of two incense sticks until done. Don’t not add any water, and cook the chicken until eighty percent done before adding the mushrooms.”


The shaggy mane mushroom, one of the possible mushrooms to use for this/these recipe(s) (Credit: H. Krisp)

This a very similar recipe compared to the previous recipe with the exact same name for “chicken with mushrooms”. This makes one wonder if Yuan Mei was unintentionally repeating himself. Or it this is not the case, perhaps Yuan Mei just did not remember to combine the two similar recipes together? Or perhaps he forgot that he already wrote something about chicken with mushrooms?

In any case, his Qing dynasty editors (if he had any) missed this.

Birds 12: Chicken Braised with Mushrooms (蘑菇煨雞)

Take four liang of white button mushrooms, soak them in boiling water to rid them of sand, then swirl them in a bath of cold water. Clean the mushrooms well with a toothbrush, then bath them in four changes of clean water. Stir-fry the mushrooms over high heat in two liang of vegetable oil until done, then dress them with several sprays of wine.

Chop the chicken into square pieces and boil them in a pot. Skim off the floating foam, add sweet wine and light soy sauce, then braise the chicken for eighty percent of the total required time. Add the mushrooms to the chicken and braise everything for the remaining twenty percent of time. Add bamboo shoots, green onions, Szechuan pepper and serve. Do not add water when preparing the dish.

Garnish with three qian of rock sugar.


Bite-sized globular white button mushrooms (Credit: Dennis Myts)

In the course of translating this thick manual on Qing dynasty gastronomy, invariably you learn some things. Sometimes this learning comes in one gigantic chunk of well integrated knowledge leading to an “Aha!” moment.  But more often the information comes in discrete disconnected pieces that present themselves in a “Hmmm…that’s interesting…” way. Sorta like unexpectedly biting into a nub of squeaky curd-cheese as you finish the last fries in your poutine.

In the case of this recipe there are a lot of hidden squeaky curd-cheese nubs:

  1. I thought the white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) was a very recent introduction from the West, but I guess it was already there in Mid-Qing Dynasty. The Chinese name for them is interestingly called “mouth mushrooms” (口蘑菇), possibly due to the fact the younger specimens are perfectly round and bite-sized.
  2. They had tooth brushes in Qing dynasty? Somehow I thought people didn’t brush their teeth back then and again toothbrushes were a Western hygiene thing. As I have suspected all along, I have been thoroughly colonized.
  3. Finishing a dish with sugar is not unusual in Chinese cuisine. What is odd here is that rock sugar is used as a topping to garnish the finished dish, and in relative large quantities no less (around 12g). This leads one to wonder if this step was purely for the sake of cuisine (crunching bits of sugar is sorta fun) or was it in fact a display of one’s wealth. Given the cost of sugar back then I’m inclined to believe it’s more the latter. My grandmother used to tell us that during 1920’s Taiwan, some families would show off their well-to-do-ness by serving meat dishes with crystalline MSG. And for all the same exact reasons.
  4. Did Yuan Mei get an editor or have somebody read his manuscript? There is a less complete repeat of this recipe later in the chapter.

Birds 8: Steamed Young Chicken (蒸小雞)

Place a whole young chicken on a plate. Add autumn sauce, sweet wine, shitake mushrooms, and bamboo shoots to it, then steam everything over a rice pot.


Om nom nom nom! (Credit: HKArchitect)

The chicken used in this recipe is probably an older chick, hovering around a month or two in age. I would have liked to use the French term “poussin”, which is perfect for describing the age of the chicken, but I’ve settled on “young chicken”, which sorta works.

In North America, the chicken sold as “Rock Cornish Game hen” could be used here. Still, in reality all the industrially farmed chicken that we eat now days are so young and soft that any would do for this recipe.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Assorted Livestock 14: Masked Palm Civet (果子狸)

It is hard to find palm civet in fresh form. To prepare dry-cured civet, steam it with sweet wine lees until done, and served it cut into slices with a sharp knife. Be sure to soak dry-cured civet in rice water for a full day to remove excess salt from the meat. Civet is more tender and oilier than a dry-cured ham.


Eat it and a bunch of people are going to get angry at you. (Credit: Denise Chan)

If people consider it beautiful or majestic, you can bet there will be many out there crying foul if you try to eat it. If it’s fuzzy and adorable, that outcry will be worse. But add “threatened species” and “Chinese” to this and what you get is a hoard of angry people screaming things tinged with covert racism.

Well, thankfully the Masked Palm Civet is not endangered or even threatened. But it is still cute. This means that if you mention eating it to anyone well-colonized or otherwise outside the culture, it will certainly bring about sneers and jeers of disapproval.

Sure, if an animal or plant is harvested until it is threatened or endangered it has to stop. But what right does anyone have to say that I cannot eat dogs, turtles, and civet cat and then morally judge me for being okay with it? Just because one had restricted themselves to only eating certain animals and pride themselves in doing so does not mean that everyone else have to follow. This is the same sort of crap that the Inuit have to deal with when they go on subsistence whale hunts or when the Newfoundlanders go on seal hunts. It’s a lot of international cross-cultural finger wagging and people crying foul, then everybody goes back to gorging on their bottom trawled seafood and endangered tuna, all while complaining about those shark’s fin eating Chinese.

As for what fresh or dry-cured civet tastes like, I have no idea. Duck? Chicken? Dry-cured ham? Tell me if you have tried it.

But silently, lest you wish to brave the angry hoards.

Assorted Livestock 3: Sheep’s head (羊頭)

“The hair on the sheep’s head must be completely removed, any hair that cannot be removed should be burned off with a flame. Wash the head clean, cut it open, boil it in water until soft, and remove the bones. The old coarse skin inside the sheep’s mouth must be thoroughly cleaned. Slice the eyes into two, remove the dark retina and the lens, then chop the eyes into a fine dice.

Simmer the head in the broth made from a fat old hen along with shitake mushrooms, diced bamboo shoots, four liang of sweet wine, and one cup of autumn sauce. If one desires a spicer dish, add twelve peppercorns and twelve stalks of green onion flowers into the cooking liquid. If one desires a more sour dish, add a cup of good rice vinegar.”


This has got to be the most serene looking sheep’s head that I have ever seen. Contrast it with this picture and you’ll see what I mean. (Credit: Karols Raymond)

This recipe for sheep’s head look somewhat like a French Calf’s head. I had this once at a country roadside diner in Normandy a few years ago and it was boiled and served like almost like pot-au-feu, devoid of any sauce or distracting flourishes. It was surprisingly good, and albeit the French flair, rather reminded me of the pork trotters and knuckles served with Taiwanese stewed pork leg noodle (猪脚麵線), particularly because of the dish’s mix of skin and meat with a rich broth.

Sheep’s head would most likely taste much stronger due to the flavour of the meat, but I bet the textures that one find in the dish would be rather similar to calf’s head or pork knuckles. If I had to cook this, I would go for Yuan Mei’s spicy version with the peppercorns and green onions, since the former goes very well with lamb/mutton/goat and helps to cut into the “stinkiness” (臊) from this type of meat and the latter gives it the dish a mild sweetness.