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.
Steam black carp1 or grass carp2 until done and pull the meat off the bones. Fry the meat in a wok until golden brown, then add fine salt, green onion, Szechuan pepper, and soy-pickled ginger. When stored in a sealed jar during winter, this can keep for a whole month.3
Fish floss is the piscine variant of the more commonly found pork floss. Although not much to look at on its own, fish soong is one of those little condiments that light up an otherwise mundane bowl of congee or rice at mealtimes. It’s actually very easy to make, but rather time consuming since one has to stay in front of the stove to continuously stir and lightly mash the fish until it is fluffy and dry.
If you are interested in trying it out, below is our family recipe:
Chen Family Fish Floss (陳氏魚鬆)
1 kg Fish fillet (any fresh seasonal medium to large local fish. I’ve tried this on salmon, trout, pickerel, swordfish,… and they all worked fine)
1 Tsp Salt (or to taste. Soy sauce is fine but I find it overwhelms the flavour of the fish)
4 Tbsp Sugar (or to taste)
2 Tsp Ginger and green onion juice (puree ginger and green onion and squeeze)
1 Tsp Sesame seeds
Place fish fillet into a pan at medium heat and let it cook until the flesh starts to flake.
Flake the fillet thoroughly
Add salt, sugar, the juices, and stir them into the flaked fish
Keep stirring and flipping the flakes of fish in the pan to dry out the water. Take out any bones you see during the process.
Repeat step 4.
When the fish is quite fluffy and dry with a light brown toasted colour, add the sesame seeds and stir for another 3 minutes.
Let cool and seal in a airtight jar
Serve on top of any starch you like (rice, bread, pancakes, whatever) or eat it on its own if you so desire.
“In Nizan’s1 Yuan Dynasty work, the “Yunlin Compendium”, he recorded a recipe for preparing geese. Take a whole goose, clean it, rub the inside of the body cavity with three qian of salt, and stuff it with a large bundle of green onions2 such that the cavity is solidly filled. Cover the outside of the whole goose with a mixture of honey and wine. In the pot, add a large bowl of wine and a large bowl of water for steaming, and build a rack made of chopsticks to keep the goose elevated from the water. Use two bundles of mountain grass3 as fuel for the stove, allowing it to slowly and completely burn away. Wait for the pot to cool down completely, then open the lid, flip the goose over to its other side, replace the lid, and seal it well for steaming. Use another bundle of grass and allow it to burn completely. The fuel should be allowed to burn on its own without any disturbance by the cook. The lid should be well sealed with cotton paper. If the sealing paper dries and cracks during cooking, simply moisten it with water.
When it is ready to serve, the goose will be soft as mud and its broth absolutely delectable. If duck is prepared using the technique it will be just as delicious. Each bundle of the mountain grass used a fuel should weight one jin and eight liang. While one is rubbing the goose with salt, add in some green onions and finely ground Szechuan peppercorns mixed with wine. The “Yunlin Compendium” contained numerous recipes, but after numerous trials this was the only good one, the rest of the recipes were simply false elaborations.”
1A renowned poet and painter and the famous goose dish that bears his pen name (Yunlin), made even more famous in the culinary world by the fact that Yuan Mei endorses it so here. The full name of Nizan’s work is (雲林堂飲食制度集)
2Literally says, “stuff with a broom of green onion”.
3The term shanmao(山茅), translates literally to “mountain tall-grass” We know from the term “茅” that it is a tall wild grass that grows on hill sides with large woody sheaths and long blades. Looking up the term shanmao, it could refer to any grass including: Sabai grass (Eulaliopsis binata), Cymbopogon distans, Scleria levis, or Cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica), and likely many others. Yuan Mei does refer the fuel here also as maochai (茅柴, literally “grass fuel“), which may point to cogon grass since it is also know by that name. But again he could also just be saying maochai to indicate “a grass used for fuel” instead of “a grass known as maochai”. At the end, I’m not sure what the grass is so I’m just going to call this all “mountain grass”.
“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.
“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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Deer tendon does not soften easily. For the first three days of preparations, one must pound and boil the tendons several times, while continually wringing out any foul-smelling juices from within it. Next, braise the deer tendon in pork broth and then after that braise it in chicken broth. Add autumn sauce, wine, and starch to thicken and reduce the cooking liquid.
The tendon can be served as-is as a white-cooked dish without addition of anything else. They can also be braised together with ham, winter bamboo shoots, and shitake until they take on a reddish hue and then served in a bowl without reduction. To finish the white-cooked dish, sprinkle it with finely ground Szechuan pepper.”
While I buy beef tendon and eat it often enough, I have never had deer tendon. And unless I have to chance to go deer hunting one of these days, I highly doubt I will. Coming at more than $100CAD per kg in dried form, deer tendon is not exactly cheap especially considering that beef tendon is usually much less than a tenth of the price. Truth is, if their texture and flavours are anywhere similar to one other, I’m not sure why I would pay anything close to eat the former.
Regardless, this recipe is still rather informative since it shows one how to reconstitute and process dried deer tendon, at least in the way the people in Qing Dynasty did it. The technique is the same as most dried texture foods used in Chinese cuisine (like sharks fin or sea cucumber) but with more pounding and wringing. Basically, you are trying to purge the ingredients of all its original smells and tastes, fill it with the flavours of a good meat broth, and then use in your recipe.
The two methods of preparing deer tendon described here probably works well enough for fresh pork and beef tendon. That said they still probably cannot beat a plate of mala tendon (麻辣牛筋).
Pork(List of the Ceremonial Animal)::Furong Pork
Slice one jin of lean pork, dip each of the slices in light soy sauce, and let them dry in open air for two hours. Shell forty large shrimp and cut two liang of whole lard into small dice. Place one whole shrimp and a piece of lard on each slice of pork and pound the shrimp and lard flat onto the pork. Place the pork in boiling water to cook through. 
Heat half a jin of vegetable oil, place the pieces of pork onto a large skimming spoon, and ladle hot oil over them until done. Bring to boil half a wine-cup of autumn sauce, one cup of wine, and half a tea-cup of chicken broth, and pour on top of the pork. Finish by adding steamed rice noodles , green onion, and Szechuan pepper to the pork before serving.
: This is same “furong” as “fu-young” in egg fu young. In Chinese cuisine, the name of this complex-looking hibiscus flower is given to irregularly shaped foods or egg-based dishes. In Northern China, egg-based foods are almost almost always called “furong”-something.
: The steps here as described in this first part by Yuan Mei are pretty vague and incomplete, and required me to look up a few contemporary recipes to piece things together. Basically, it’s a translation with a few bits added here and there to make things make sense.
: Zhengfen (蒸粉) should be a type of steamed rice noodle, it seems rather strange to use it in a Chinese dish in such a manner that I’m wondering whether I got this wrong.