Vegetable Dishes 33: Tofu skin

Soak the tofu skin1 until supple, and mix with autumn sauce, vinegar, dried shrimp to make dish well suited for summer. The household of Jiang Shilang makes a nice dish by adding sea cucumbers to it. It is also good in a soup with laver and peeled shrimp. It can also be braised with mushrooms and bamboo shoots for a very good clear soup. Cook the tofu skin until soft.

Monk Jing Xiu of Wu Lake rolls the tofu skin into a cylinder, cuts them into segments, lightly browns them in oil, and braises them with mushroom for an excellent dish. Do not add chicken broth.

豆腐皮
將腐皮泡軟,加秋油、醋、蝦米拌之,宜於夏日。蔣侍郎家入海參用,頗妙。加紫菜、蝦肉作湯,亦相宜。或用蘑菇、筍煨清湯,亦佳。以爛為度。蕪湖敬修和尚,將腐皮卷筒切段,油中微炙,入蘑菇煨爛,極佳。不可加雞湯。

Note:
1 Tofu skin is not technically a tofu but rather made from the membrane of soy protein that forms on the surface of simmering soy milk. This is similar to what happens when one simmer cow’s milk on the stove. This thin membrane is lifted off the milk, folded, dried, and then shipped and sold everywhere you can buy Chinese dried goods. However, like many things, it is best to get them fresh. The Japanese make something more or less the same known as “yuba”.

Seafoods 2: Three Ways of Preparing Sea Cucumbers (海參三法)

海鮮單:海參三法
海參,無味之物,沙多氣腥,最難討好。然天性濃重,斷不可以清湯煨也。須檢小刺參,先泡去沙泥,用肉湯滾泡三次,然後以雞、肉兩汁紅煨極爛。輔佐則用香蕈、木耳,以其色黑相似也。大抵明日訪客,則先一日要煨,海參才爛。嘗見錢觀察家,夏日用芥末、雞汁拌冷海參絲,甚佳。或切小碎丁,用筍丁、香蕈丁入雞湯煨作羹。蔣侍郎家用豆腐皮、雞腿、蘑菇煨海參,亦佳。

List of Seafoods::Three Ways of Preparing Sea Cucumbers
As an ingredient, sea cucumbers have little to no taste, are full of sand, and are remarkably fishy in smell. For these reasons, it is also the most difficult ingredient to prepare well.

This is a classic preparation of sea cucumber, braising with shitake. Looking at this makes me so so hungry. (Photo Credit: avixyz)

Due to its heavy and thick texture, sea cucumbers should never be cooked in mild and delicate soups. For the small spiked sea cucumber [1], one must first soak it in water [2] and remove all the mud and sand embedded in the item. It must then be boiled three times in meat broth and then simmered in chicken and pork extracts with soy sauce until supple and soft. One should use shitake or wood-ear mushrooms [3] as supporting ingredients to sea cucumber since their colours match well. If one is entertaining guests the next day, preparations for the sea cucumbers must be started immediately since it needs to be simmered for an entire day in order for it to be soft enough to eat.

In the summer, Observer Qian’s abode[4] serves an exceptionally good salad of shredded sea cucumber tossed with a ground mustard and chicken extract dressing, or soups of finely cubed sea cucumber with cubed bamboo shoots and cubed shitake mushrooms in chicken broth. In the abode of Assistant Minister Jiang [5] they serve a dish made with simmered tofu sheets, chicken thighs, and mushrooms with sea cucumbers that is also very good.

Random note:
[1]: Apostichopus japonicus. These are popular for individual servings due to their smaller size. But for more gourmets, Holothuria fuscogilva, known as the “white teatfish”, is more alluring due to the thickness of its gelatinous flesh. The thickness criteria for quality extends to squid and cuttlefish. There is nothing better than biting into thick slice of fresh grilled squid simply seasoned with olive oil and salt, like they do in Valencia, Spain.

[2]: Sea cucumbers, the “Ginseng of the oceans” (海參), are almost never sold fresh and any “fresh” sea cucumbers should be suspect. When dried they are hard as a rock and a bit heavy for its size. Check-out this site for pictures. Yes, by many people’s standards they look far from appetizing, but note too that by many people’s standards a moldy spoiled chunk of coagulated milk is also rather disgusting.

[3]: Shitake and woodear. Delicious.

[4]: For a while I had no idea what was “錢觀察家”. Roughly translated it means: “Person/family in a profession that watches money”. Accountant? Money handler? Treasurer? Financier? Little did it occur to me tha perhaps “錢” could have been a last name. So, 錢觀察家 should actually be translated as “Observer Qian’s abode”. Go figure.

[5]: Jiang was also famous for his eponymous tofu dishes the “Assistant Minister Jiang Tofu” (蒋侍郎豆腐)

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.

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 9: Chafing Dishes (戒火鍋)

戒單::戒火鍋
冬日宴客,慣用火鍋,對客喧騰,已屬可厭;且各菜之味,有一定火候,宜文宜武,宜撤宜添,瞬息難差。今一例以火逼之,其味尚可問哉?近人用燒酒代炭,以為得計,而不知物經多滾,總能變味。或問︰「菜冷奈何?」曰︰「以起鍋滾熱之菜,不使客登時食盡,而尚能留之以至於冷,則其味之惡劣可知矣。」

List of Things to Avoid::Chafing Dishes
Chafing dishes are often used when hosting banquets in winter [1], which is a rather irritating practice considering how noisy they are. This is not to overlook the more serious problem of their use; it ignores the fact that cooking a dish with optimal flavour requires the precise control of heat and the duration of its application.[2]

Recently people have started using alcohol-based chafing dishes instead of charcoal, believing it to an improvement. This is not the case. Regardless of its type, the use of chafing dishes will lead to over-boiled food that hasd changed its flavour for the worse. Some people may contest: “But what if the food gets cold?” I would say they them: “If the boiled thing that had just been scooped out of the pot does not whet a guest’s appetite, then let them eat it cold so they know how bad it really tastes.”[3]

Random notes:
[1]: The term 火鍋 (huoguo) here likely does not refer to the hot-pot/fondue of present times. Judging from the context of this section it more likely refers to a heated vessel, similar to a chafing dish used to keep food warm in colder venues. In modern hot-pots, you don’t really let your ingredients boil, at least not the more tender ones. Rather, you swish it in the stock and fish it out when it is perfectly done. This is purely speculation but perhaps the original huoguo was indeed a pot of boiled food served on a chafing dish at the table, more akin to sukiyaki. But due to this method’s tendency to overcook food, it has lead to the development of “dip-and-swish” cooking techniques in modern Chinese hot-pot or Japanese shabu-shabu. I think Yuan Mei would have approved the our version of houguo, assuming he would tolerate the noise of boiling stock at the table.

[2]: Let’s not forget that Yuan Mei has an entire section devoted to the topic of heat control (火候).

[3]: I personally think he was trying to say something like: “If the boiled food is so unpalatable that your guest would not touch it while hot, there’s no difference it letting them eat it cold.” However, I think the translation is more accurately registered with the sentence in Chinese. Is it? I’ll have to think about it.

Things to Avoid 6: Delays (戒停頓)

戒單::戒停頓
物味取鮮,全在起鍋時極鋒而試;略為停頓,便如黴過衣裳,雖錦繡綺羅,亦晦悶而舊氣可憎矣。嘗見性急主人,每擺菜必一齊搬出。於是廚人將一席之菜,都放蒸籠中,候主人催取,通行齊上。此中尚得有佳味哉?在善烹飪者,一盤一碗,費盡心思;在吃者,鹵莽暴戾,囫圇吞下,真所謂得哀家梨,仍復蒸食者矣。余到粵東,食楊蘭坡明府鱔羹而美,訪其故,曰︰「不過現殺現烹、現熟現吃,不停頓而已。」他物皆可類推。

List of Things to Avoid::Delays
To get the most of a dish’s flavours, it is best to serve it as soon as it has been finished. Consuming food that has been delayed can be likened to wearing an old mildewed robe; even one made of the finest material and finished with the most exquisite details will not make it more enjoyable nor smell better.

The American Chinese buffet, where food is placed on steam tables to be warmed and warmed and warmed and warmed and…

Some banquet hosts are rather impatient in nature, insisting that all dishes must be brought to the table at the same time. To make this happen, the kitchen staff would prepare all the banquet’s dishes before-hand, keep them warm in a steamer, and await the signal from the host to bring it all to the table. Can these dishes be expected to have any flavour left after such a long delay? It is interesting that on one side, a good cook toils to perfect the details in every bowl and dish of food produced, but when the food gets to the people who eat, it is violently swallowed without tasting, regardless of its state.[1] This is as wasteful as if one received some delectably crisp Aijia pears, and insisted that they be steamed for eating.[2]

While traveling in Guangdong province, I had an incredibly good rice-eel soup in Yanglanpoming prefecture.[3] When I inquired on the secret of making a dish so perfect, I was told: “The eel was killed and cooked to your order and served the moment it is done without delay. That is all.” This principle should be applied to all aspects of food preparation and serving.[4]

Random notes:
[1]: The line “鹵莽暴戾,囫圇吞下” combines the violent coarse nature of barbaric creatures and porcine-natured individuals into one elegant phrase. The latter part of the phrase likely came from the part of the story in Journey to the West where the greedy pig-headed character, Bajie, gobbled down a delicate fruit of immortality without so much as tasting it. (《西游记》第二四回:“﹝ 八戒 ﹞见了果子,拿过来,张开口,轂轆的囫圇吞咽下肚)

[2]: The famous Aijia pear or Ai pear (哀家梨) has been lauded since Han dynasty in literature for it’s large size and remarkably crisp yet tender texture. This contrasts with the more standard Asian pear, the Ya pear, which although crunchy tends to be much tougher and is thus sometimes steamed for eating. The reason why Yuan Mei mentioned steaming pears here is because of the Chinese idiom: “Steaming Ai pears for eating” (哀梨蒸食), which points to the fact that a foolish person has no idea of the quality of the thing they have in their hands and thus proceeds to ruin it; like destroying the texture and flavours of delicate Aijia pears by steaming. The idiom was itself derived from a section in ShiShuo XinYu which told of people in a certain part of China using it as an insult. (《世說》曰:桓南郡,每見人不快,輙嗔云:「君得哀家梨,復蒸食否?」舊說秣陵有哀仲家梨,甚大如升,入口消釋。言愚人不別,得好梨蒸食之。) “Steaming Ai pears for eating” would be like somebody making Sangria or Kalimotxo with a Château Pétrus or stewing fois gras for a meal. A family friend told me that she once gave an award winning (and rather pricy) Taiwanese High-Mountain oolong to her Western in-laws. When asked about the tea, the in-laws complained that its brew was so light that they had to use to whole tin of tea leaves to get the colour right, but then the brew was too bitter to drink, so they dumped everything. My mother-in-law did something similar, taking some of the best tea I have and mixing it with turmeric and ginger to make a health drink. I guess the concept being described here by Yuan Mei is somewhat similar to the Western idiom: “Pearls before swine”.

[3]: Yuan Mei wrote the Yanglanpoming prefecture Book (楊蘭坡明府書). I guess he ate some eel while doing the research.

[4]: My Europeans friends seems to always prefer their food cold. When served a steaming bowl of noodle soup, they would stir it forlornly until everything is limp and lukewarm, all while stating how it’s too hot. Even fried-chicken, which is best served soon after it has been fished out of boiling fat, would be left untouched on the plate until it’s cold and lifeless. I have to admit I’m helplessly annoyed by this; don’t they know how hard it is to perfectly time finishing and serving the food? This contrasts with East Asian friends who would dig-in, piping hot morsels and all, appreciating that you served the food in the best and freshest state possible. Perhaps Western folks expect foods to be served at the “right” temperature, while Chinese folks expect that foods be served as soon as it’s ready. This may explain why “resting” something after cooking is so common in Western cuisine (roast and grilled meats, bread, etc.) while such concepts are considered odd or pointless in Chinese cuisines. Thankfully, unlike their European cousins, it seems North Americans don’t have the same behavior for waiting on food to become tepid before eating it.

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.”