Scaleless Aquatic Creatures 2: Red-Cooked Eel (紅煨鰻)

Braise the eel in wine and water until soft, adding sweet sauce instead of the usual autumn sauce.1 Reduce the broth, add fennel seeds and star anise, then plate it. There are three common errors when cooking this eel dish. First, the skin had become marked by wrinkles and folds, thus rendering it no longer tender. Second, its flesh falls apart in one’s bowl, making it impossible to pick up with chopsticks. Finally, when salted fermented beans2 are added too early when cooking, the eel’s flesh will no longer be tender. The household of Officer Zhu from Yangzhou is most skilled in making this dish. In general, red-cooked eel is best when its cooking juices are reduced, which allows the flavours to be fully absorbed into the flesh of the eel.

紅煨鰻
鰻魚用酒、水煨爛,加甜醬代秋油,入鍋收湯煨乾,加茴香、大料起鍋。有三病宜戒者︰一皮有皺紋,皮便不酥;一肉散碗中,箸夾不起;一早下鹽豉,入口不化。揚州朱分司家制之最精。大抵紅煨者以乾為貴,使鹵味收入鰻肉中。

Notes:
1Does Tianjiang (甜醬) refer to Tianmian Jiang (甜麵醬), or more like a sweeten soy sauce similar to Taiwanese thickened soy sauce (醬油膏)? While either could work taste-wise in the dish, I’m more inclined towards the latter since this would make the dish less muddy, which may be what Yuan Mei prefers.

2Yanchi (鹽豉) is likely the same as the fermented black bean (豆豉). It is referenced in the Han Dynasty texts.

*Header image (not the best quality) shows the Changji red braised eel (昌吉紅燒炖鰻) restaurant in Taipei. The eel is of course excellent, but the rest of the food is also very good, highly recommended if you’re there!

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Pork 30: Jiangrou (醬肉)

“Lightly cure the pork with salt then marinade it with tianmian sauce. Alternatively, mix the pork well with autumn sauce. Hang the pork up and let it dry in the wind.”

持牲單::醬肉
先微醃,用麵醬醬之,或單用秋油拌郁,風乾。

Homemade jiangrou/larou drying in a window. (Credit: Sharon1987720)

The jiangrou described here is a cured and dried meat product likely similar to what is now commonly known as “larou” (臘肉). In fact, it may have well been made in precisely the same way back then using thick slices of pork belly.

In Southern China, making larou is something typically done on the twelfth month of the Chinese lunar year, also known as layue (臘月). This is also where the “la” (臘) in larou comes from. People sometimes mistakenly write “la” using the similar-looking homophone character for wax (蠟). This in turn has the unfortunate effect of causing larou to be wrongly translated to “waxy pork“, when if anything it should be called “December pork”.

Any ways, here in Canada it’s better to make larou or other cured meats earlier in October or November when the winds are dry and cold, but not yet freezing. Of course you can also buy larou in most Chinese supermarkets. But considering the peace of mind of making it yourself and how absolutely easy it is to do, why would you even consider buying?

So how does one use this cured dried pork? Diced larou stir-fried with corn kernels is very good. Green beans are also great when stir-fried with larou cut into thick core-sample-like “sticks”. You can also steam, slice, and eat the larou plain though it may be a tad salty.

Pork 19: Fen-Zheng Pork (粉蒸肉)

持牲單::粉蒸肉
用精肥參半之肉,炒米粉黃色,拌麵醬蒸之,下用白菜作墊。熟時不但肉美,菜亦美。以不見水,故味獨全。江西人菜也。

A dish of Fenzheng rou
A dish of Fenzheng pork that looks like what this recipe should produce. (Credit: Ching Ching)

Pork(List of the Ceremonial Animal):: Fen-zheng pork[1]
For this dish, use pork that is half lean and half fatty. First, toast coarsely ground rice until it is golden brown, [2] then mix it together with tianmian sauce [3] and the pork. Next, steam the pork in a steaming basket lined with Napa cabbage.

When finished, not only is the pork excellent, the cabbage is also delicious. By not using any water in the dish’s preparation, all the flavours are retained within the ingredients. This is a dish from Jiangxi. [4]

Random notes:
[1]: Though it is not well known by most Westerners, Fenzheng pork is a staple dish for many Chinese families and eaten quite often at home. That is, assuming you know how to make it. It’s not my favorite, but this is the dish that many of my culinarily uninclined Chinese friends “order” when visit their parents.

[2]: Ground toasted rice is known in modern Chinese cuisine as “pork/meat steaming powder”(蒸肉粉)and seems to been used mainly for this purpose and not much else. The only recipes I’ve seen using toasted rice are the Laap (ลาบ) meat salads of Southeast Asia.

[3]: I don’t know if “mian jiang” (麵醬, lit. dough sauce) refers to tianmian sauce, but it seems entirely plausible so I’m going with it. Many modern recipes use douban sauce instead.

[4]: Spice and picked ingredients feature prominently in Jiangxi cuisine. Indeed, while this recipe is quite benign, I’ve seen several other fenzheng pork recipes that are quite spicy or mala.

Pork 9: Three Ways of Preparing Red-Cooked Pork (紅煨肉三法)

持牲單::紅煨肉三法
或用甜醬,或用秋油,或竟不用秋油、甜醬。每肉一斤,用鹽三錢,純酒煨之;亦有用水者,但須熬乾水氣。三種治法皆紅如琉璃,不可加糖炒色。早起鍋則黃,當可則紅,過遲則紅色變紫,而精肉轉硬。常起鍋蓋,則油走而味都在油中矣。大抵割肉雖方,以爛到不見鋒稜,上口而精肉俱化為妙。全以火候為主。諺雲︰「緊火粥,慢火肉。」至哉言乎!

Red-cooked pork on rice. Looks good. (Credit: FotoosVanRobin )

Pork(List of the Ceremonial Animal)::Three Ways of Preparing Red-Cooked Pork
To make red-cooked pork, one can used Tianmian sauce [1], autumn sauce, or neither of these two sauces. For each jin of meat, add three qian of salt, and braise it with wine.[2] If one uses water in cooking the pork, it must be boiled away to reduce the cooking liquid. All three methods of preparation produces pork with colours as bright as red cast glass, [3] thus there is no need to prepare caramel in order to colour it.

If the meat is removed from the pot too early it will only be yellowish, but if is cooked for the right amount of time its colour will become an appetizing red. However, if the pork is cooked or soaked for too long in the cooking liquid, the meat will darken from red to purple, with the leaner meats turning dry and hard. [4] Be aware, if one continuously opens the lid to check the cooking pork, the oils inside the pork would be rendered out of the meat along with its flavours. [5]

The pork for this dish should be cut into rough cubes and braised until their edges and corners have become rounded and soft [6], the lean meat melting in ones mouth. The success of this dish depends wholly on the strength of the cooking heat. A proverb goes: “A burning hot flame for congee, but a slow flame for meat.” What a pertinent saying!

Random notes:
[1]: Translated by some as ” sweet bean sauce”, a type of fermented bean paste made with a large amount of white flour or dough giving it a special sweetness. It’s also the sauce one uses when wrapping and eating Peking duck.

[2]: One jin (斤) is 597g while one qian (錢) is 3.7g

[3]: Liuli (琉璃) is considered one of the precious items in Chinese Buddhism along with gold, silver, giant clam shell, agate, amber, and coral. What is confusing is that depending on the source, luili could either refer to cast glass or a deep blue stone (likely lapis lazuli). In this case, Yuan Mei’s red coloured liuli is clearly not the latter, which means that he was referring to the red cast glass produced in Tibet that was very popular in Ming and Qing Dynasty China.

[4]: Some recipe books suggest that the cooking liquid be strained out from a red-cooked dishes like this and only added back in when serving, all to prevent the meat from being made salty, darkened, and hardened by the sauce.

[5]: See Things to Avoid 11: Rendering Fat (戒走油)

[6]: Basically the meat should be so tender as to barely be able to hold its form.