Side Dishes 40: Firm Tofu of Niushuo

The firm tofu manufactured in Niushuo is the best. There are, however, seven sellers of the item in the foothills. Still, those made in the household of the monk Xiaotang are the best of them all.


1The Niushou Mountains 牛首山 (lit. ox head mountains) are low-altitude mountains in Jiangsu Province near Nanjing, so named because the twin peaks resemble ox horns.

Vegetable Dishes 32: Taro Geng

The texture of taro is soft, smooth, and dense, and quite suitable for cooking with strong-flavoured meat or in simple vegetable dishes. It can be chopped finely and made into duck geng1, braised with pork, or braised with tofu, soy-sauce, and water. The household of Official Xu Zhaohuang chooses small taro and braises them with tender chicken for a incredibly good soup. Sadly, the recipe for this has been lost. On the whole, one uses only seasonings for preparation of this dish and does not use of any water.


1 A geng is a soup made with rich broth thickened with starch. It is perhaps one of the most ancient Chinese dishes. Incidentally, many of the Chinese soups served today are technically geng.

Vegetable Dishes 26: Spinach

Spinach are plump and tender and can be prepared by boiling with soy sauce, water, and tofu. In Hangzhou, people know this as “Gold inlaid on a slab of white jade”. This vegetable is thin but quite meaty2 and thus does not require cooking with bamboo shoot tips or shitake.


1Bocai (菠菜), or spinach, in Chinese literally translates to “Persian vegetable”, which points out the degree of trade between the two peoples in Ancient times.

2Say literally “lean but fat”, I’m going out on a limb here with this translation but I don’t think it is inaccurate.

Vegetable Dishes 9: Shrimp-sauce Tofu

Use an aged shrimp-sauce to substitute for the light soy-sauce when stir-frying tofu. Both sides of the tofu should be pan-fried until golden brown. The wok must be hot. Cook with rendered lard, green onions, and Szechuan pepper.


1Xiayou 蝦油 (translated literally as “shrimp oil”), or shrimp-sauce, is a soy sauce that has been boiled and aged with shrimp, and probably much more umami and rich in taste than plain soy sauce. See the later section on Shrimp-sauce. In some Chinese communities, xiayou is sometimes used to describe an oil flavoured by frying shrimp heads and shells in vegetable oil. However, this is not the case here since Yuan Mei defines it in a later chapter and indicates it here that it substitutes regular light soy-sauce.

Vegetable Dishes 8: Frozen Tofu

Freeze tofu for one night, cut into square pieces, and boil them to rid them of their bean-like smell. Add them to a mixture of chicken broth and extracts, ham extract, and pork extract and braise. When serving, remove the chicken and ham and the like, leaving only the shitake and the winter bamboo shoots.

When tofu has been braised for a long time its texture becomes spongy, with its surface becoming honey-combed like frozen tofu.1 For stir-frying use soft tofu, while braising should be done with firmer tofu.2 The household of Officer Jia Zhihua cooks tofu with mushrooms, even during the summer they follow the same recipe for frozen tofu, since it is very good. Do not use strong flavoured hun meat broths3 for this dish since doing so would destroy to delicate light flavours of this dish.


1I think Yuan Mei is trying to say normal tofu looking like frozen tofu after prolonged boiling.

2This feels slightly off on a tangent, and may not apply exclusively to frozen tofu. In fact, the rest of the paragraph goes on a tangent.

3Though the term hun 葷 (pronounced hoon) is commonly used to refer to any meat from any animal, this is clearly not the meaning here. When Yuan Mei say’s “葷湯”, or “hun soup”, he is not saying “animal broth” since there is already chicken and ham used to make this dish. Most likely he is referring to the stronger and richer tasting pork, and possibly beef broth, thus I translating it as such. It seems that every “vegetable” dish here is full of animal ingredients. This is still true for most Chinese vegetable dishes where lard and broth (or MSG) are “musts”.

Vegetable Dishes 7: Cheng Liwan’s Tofu

During the 23rd year of the Qianlong Emperor, I visited the home of Cheng Liwan with Jin Shanmen and had a pan-fried tofu that was unparalleled in deliciousness. The tofu was dry and golden brown on both sides without the least bit of cooking liquid. It also had a hint of the delicate savouriness one finds in giant clam, yet there was no giant clam nor any other ingredients to be found in the dish.1

The next day I told Cha Xuanmen about this, and he proudly stated: “Oh, I can make that dish! I’m going to invite you over to try it.” Thus, I went together with Hang Jinpu to eat at Cha’s place.

But as we reached with our chopsticks to try it, we broke out in laughter. Before us was a dish made with chicken and sparrow brains without any tofu to be seen. It was so greasy and nauseating that it proved hard to stomach. The cost of this dish was also ten times that of Cheng’s, but the flavours were not even close.

Sadly at the time, I had to quickly depart due to the death of my younger sister and lacked the time to ask Cheng for the recipe. Cheng passed away after a year, leaving me with much regret. Now all I have is the name of this dish. Still, I will ask for the recipe when opportunity comes.2

乾隆廿三年,同金壽門在揚州程立萬家食煎豆腐,精絕無雙。其豆腐兩面黃乾,無絲毫鹵汁,微有蛼螯鮮味。然盤中並無蛼螯及他 雜物也。次日告查宣門,查曰︰﹁我能之!我當特請。﹂已而,同杭菫浦同食於查家,則上箸大笑;乃純是雞、雀腦為之,並非真豆腐,肥膩難耐矣。其費十倍於 程,而味遠不及也。惜其時,余以妹喪急歸,不及向程求方。程逾年亡,至今悔之。仍存其名,以俟再訪。

1My guess is the tofu was boiled and marinated in concentrated clam broth or extract before being lightly air dried and pan fried.

2This reads like a diary entry, where Yuan Mei visits his buddies to shoot the breeze, then something like a cooking contest happens. I have no idea who these people Yuan Mei ate with actually are but I would not be surprise if they are all important political or literary figures of the time. It’s not a recipe, but still quite informative and fun to read.

Vegetable Dishes 6: Prefect Wang’s Babao Tofu

Take tender tofu, then slice and cut it until thoroughly pulverized. Add to it pulverized1 shitake, pulverized mushrooms, pulverized pine nuts, pulverized melon seeds, pulverized chicken, and pulverized dried-cured ham. Put everything into concentrated chicken extract, and boil2 the mixture until boiling, then plate and serve.3 One can also used douhua in place of the tofu. Eat this with a spoon and not with chopsticks.

Prefect Meng Ting recounted: “The recipe for this dish was bestowed by the Sagely Forefather4 to Minister Jian An. When the Minister went to acquire the recipe, the Imperial kitchens charged him one thousand taels of silver.”5 The Prefect’s ancestor was Master Lou Cun, who was born to the aformentioned Minister, which is how he got the recipe.


1I have translated xue 屑 as pulverized, which is not the best or most accurate translation. However, I feel it’s better than calling it “bits” or “crumbs”, since they have the same meaning of even fineness that one get by cutting in an orderly manner. The term “dice” would give the “orderly cut” meaning, but even if one said “dice finely” one still cannot describe the fineness required, thus we have “pulverized” until something better comes along.

2The actual term used here is chaogun 炒滾, which literally means “stir-fry until boiling”. Basically you boil this thick mixture at high heat and stir continuously, just like you are stir-frying food.

3This feels like a more tedious version of wensidofu 文思豆腐). While Wensi needs everything to be cut into fine threads, this require another set of cuts to “dice” all the ingredients into bits around <1mm cubed.

4The Qing Dynasty Sagely Forefather/Saintly Ancestor 聖祖 is none other than Emperor Kangxi.

5A recipe from the Qing Imperial kitchens, all the way back around 300 years ago!

6Babao 八寶 means “eight-treasure”. While I could translate it as such, I think it cheapens this otherwise culturally rich phrase. If interested, the reader should go figure it out for themselves what it’s all about.