Vegetable Dishes 1: Jiang Shilang’s Tofu (蔣侍郎豆腐)

Remove the skin on both sides of each piece of tofu. Cut each piece into sixteen slices and sun dry them slightly. Sear the tofu in hot rendered lard but only add them when whiffs of smoke appear over the lard. Sprinkle a large pinch of salt on the tofu, flip them, then add a tea cup full of good sweet wine and one hundred and twenty large dried shrimp. If one does not have large dried shrimp, use three hundred small dried shrimp instead.1 The dried shrimp must be first boiled and then soaked for two hours.

Next add a small cup of autumn sauce, let the tofu boil,2 then add a large pinch of sugar, and let it keep boiling. Finally, add one hundred and twenty segments of thin green onions,3 each half an inch long, and plate at a leisurely pace.

蔣侍郎豆腐
豆腐兩面去皮,每塊切成十六片,晾乾,用豬油熱灼,清煙起才下豆腐,略灑鹽花一撮,翻身後,用好甜酒一茶杯,大蝦米一百二十個;如無大蝦米,用小蝦米三百個;先將蝦米滾泡一個時辰,秋油一小杯,再滾一回,加糖一撮,再滾一回,用細蔥半寸許長,一百二十段,緩緩起鍋。

Notes:
1By going with the amount of dried shrimp, this is either a rather large dish of tofu or this dish uses as much dried shrimp as tofu.

2Terms like gunyihui (滾一回) mean something like “simmer/boil for one round”. I’ve opted to translate this as something like “let it boil”.

3This recipe is quite detailed, even prescribing the number of pieces of green onion to add to the dish. Weird thing is despite the clear instructions in this recipe, modern chefs that “recreate” the dish often do something completely different than what is presented in the recipe. The only person I could find that attempts an actual recreation is this lady who also read the Suiyuan Shidan.

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Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 26: Frogs (水雞)

Remove the body of the frog and use only the legs. First sear them in hot oil, add autumn sauce, sweet wine, and soy-pickled ginger, then serve. Its meat can also be pulled off and stir-fried.

It tastes like chicken.

水雞1
水雞去身用腿,先用油灼之,加秋油、甜酒、瓜薑起鍋。或拆肉炒之,味與雞相似。

Notes:
1Shuiji (水雞), which literally translates as “water chicken” is used by Yuan Mei to refer to frogs, no doubt because of the similar texture of their flesh to chicken. They are also commonly called tianji (田雞) or “paddy chicken”, since they are commonly found in the flooded fields where rice is grown.

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]

煨麻雀
取麻雀五十隻,以清醬、甜酒煨之,熟後去爪腳,單取雀胸、頭肉,連湯放盤中,甘鮮異常。其他鳥鵲俱可類推。但鮮者一時難得。薛生白常勸人︰’勿食人間豢養之物。’以野禽味鮮,且易消化。

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.”

乾蒸鴨
杭州商人何星舉家乾蒸鴨。將肥鴨一隻洗淨斬八塊,加甜酒、秋油,淹滿鴨面,放磁罐中封好,置乾鍋中蒸之;用文炭火,不用水,臨上時,其精肉皆爛如泥。以線香二枝為度。

“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.”

蘑菇煨雞
雞肉一斤,甜酒一斤,鹽三錢,冰糖四錢,蘑菇用新鮮不黴者,文火煨兩枝線香為度。不可用水,先煨雞八分熟,再下蘑菇。

schopftintling-coprinus-comatus
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.

蘑菇煨雞
口蘑菇四兩,開水泡去砂,用冷水漂,牙刷擦,再用清水漂四次,用菜油二兩炮透,加酒噴。將雞斬塊放鍋內滾,去沫,下甜酒、清醬,煨八分功程,下蘑菇,再煨二分功程,加筍、蔥、椒起鍋,不用水,加冰糖三錢。

agaricus_bisporus_mushroom
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.

羽族單::蒸小雞
用小雛雞,整放盤中,加秋油、甜酒、香蕈、筍尖,飯鍋上蒸之。

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!