The best specimens of this vegetable comes from the North. Cook it seasoned with vinegar, or braise it1 with dried shrimp.2 Serve it immediately when done, any delay would change its colour and flavour for the worse.
Note: 1The question comes up of when this vegetable is supposed to be “done”. In Pork 42: Napa Cabbage Hearts Braised with Ham (黃芽菜煨火腿) Yuan Mei indicated that the cabbage in that recipe should be braised for half a day, so perhaps it’s the same here?
2This is my favourite way of cooking napa cabbage: braised with dried shrimp. This classic home-styled preparations for napa cabbage is known as Kaiyang napa cabbage (開陽白菜), and basically involves braising napa cabbage in water or broth for around 10 minutes with umami providing ingredients such as shitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, dried flounder, or dried ham.
Of all the braised napa cabbage dishes, one of the most famous has to be the mundane sounding “napa cabbage in boiled water” (開水白菜). When served, this atypical Szechuan dish looks exactly like what its name describes, basically, napa cabbage hearts in a tureen of clear water. However, the surprise comes when the soup is tasted. The “boiled water” is actually an exquisitely prepared consommé that is clear as water but rich and umami as a good Chinese superior broth (高湯). Despite its simple appearance, this dish is in fact one of the most flamboyantly wasteful and extravagant in all the Chinese cuisines. By the time you have sweated and prepared a tureen of this soup, you are left with a mountain of depleted remains from several chickens, ham, and egg whites used to create the broth, along with a large mound of outer napa cabbage leaves left over from extracting the heart. Expectantly, all the junzi-like scholars loved it.
Green vegetables that are tender can be stir-fried with bamboo shoots. During the summer, dress it with ground mustard and a little vinegar to awaken one’s appetite. One can make a soup with it using dried-cured ham. One must look for those that have been freshly picked to ensure that they will be soft and tender.
Notes: 1Qingcai (青菜) means literally “greenish-blue vegetable” and is used to describe a wide variety of different greenish vegetables, typically mustards (like Brassica rapa). The term is sometimes translated to “Chinese cabbage” or “Bok Choy”, but I went with the direct translation since these English names tend to be rather inaccurate. Besides, most of these qingcai plant varieties do not have good or consistent names in English. Come to think of it, the rather colloquial English term for vegetables: “greens“, may actually be a better translation than the more typical ones.
Jiaobai1 can be stir-fried with pork or chicken. These shoots are very good when cut into pieces and grilled with soy-sauce and vinegar. They also very good when stir-fried over high heat with pork.2 Before cooking, the shoots must be sliced into inch long pieces for the best effect. The weak and thin shoots have no flavour.3
Notes: 1Jiaobai (茭白) or jiaobaisun (茭白筍), is actually the pithy ligule and sheaths of an aquatics grass related to American wildrice (Zizania latifolia) that has been infected by the fungus Ustilago esculenta, the latter of which is closely related to the corn smut fungus (I’ve always been impressed how English can make so many foods sound unappetizing). When the thick infected sheaths has been peeled like bamboo shoots, they reveal a firm creamy-white plump centre “shoot”. When stir fried, this shoot-like food is delectably crisp in texture, refreshingly sweet, and utterly delicious.
2Found in the 2nd last recipe in the next chapter for dried jiaobai.
3This either means that thin weak specimens are not tasty, or if you slice it too thin it won’t taste good. Most likely the former though likely true for either.
The preparation is the same as pearl algae. During summer, it is especially good mixed with sesame oil, vinegar, and autumn sauce.
Note: 1This is an algae Ulva compressa or Ulva intestinalis, found growing on the rocks and boulders on the sea side. I originally thought of this was another name for facai (髮菜, Nostoc flagelliforme) but in looking at a variety of ancient and old medical texts, we can see the ingredient is most likely that of genus Ulva.
Chop a live black crap into large pieces, sear the pieces in oil, then add soy sauce, vinegar, and spray with wine. The more broth in the dish the better. When it is done immediately remove everything from the pan. This dish is most famously prepared by Hangzhou West Lake’s Wuliuju.1 But ever since they started using an ill-smelling soy sauce, the fish served there is now inedible. What a pity!
The fame of Songsao Fish Geng2 is not warranted at all. The discussions in “Menglianglu” should also not be believed.3 The chosen fish must not be big, since the flavours will not penetrate into a big fish. The chosen fish must also not be small, since small fish tend to have more spiny bones.
Notes: 1Wuliuju translates to the “house of five willows” 2The famed fish geng by Madamn Song, consists of fish in small pieces and cooked in a thick and rich soup punctuated by vinegar. I guess Yuan Mei did not think much of it. 3Menglianglu (夢粱錄), or “Records on Dreams of Millet” was written in Song Dynasty by Wu Zimu (吳自牧). As for what contents in the work were considered untrustworthy by Yuan Mei, I am not sure.
“Pull the breast meat off a pheasant and season well with light soy sauce. Wrap the breast meat in a sheet of caul-fat and fry it in a flat-bottomed iron pot. The meat can be either wrapped as flat squares or as rolls. This is one method. One can also slice the pheasant meat and stir-fry with seasonings, or do so with its diced breast meat. The whole pheasant can also be braised in the manner for the domestic chicken. Another method is to first fry the meat in oil, then pull it apart into thin shreds, toss it with wine, autumn sauce, vinegar, and celery together as a cold dish.
Finally, one can also serve the raw meat sliced to be cooked in a hot pot and eaten immediately when done. The problem with this latter method is that when the meat is still tender it still lacks flavour, but by the time the flavour has infused the meat it is already too tough.”
Doing the comments footnotes this time since it presents the concepts more clearly. That and I’m being lazy today:
: The Chinese phrase for pheasant is “wild chicken”. This makes sense and is quite an accurate observation since a domesticated pheasant is very similar to the modern chicken in taste and texture and they are of the same family Phasianidae. In fact, genetic studies on the modern chicken pins their closest wild relative as the wild red junglefowl with some other wild pheasant relatives (green and grey junglefowl) mixed in.
: We can see from this that Yuan Mei is not completely adverse to the hotpot after all (See previous section on Chafing dishes), though he is still critical of this class of cooking techniques. I wonder if this aversion is rooted in prejudice since it is one of those techniques favoured by the Mongolian and Western Asian peoples.