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.
“Pull the meat of chicken into shreds and toss it with autumn sauce, ground mustard, and vinegar. This is a Hangzhou dish. One can also add bamboo shoots and celery to the dish. Another method is to stir-fry the shredded chicken with shredded bamboo shoots, autumn sauce, and wine. Use cooked chicken for the former “tossed” method and raw chicken for the latter stir-fried method.”
Here Yuan Mei presents two quite typical home-styled recipes. My preference is for the first one, which is almost like a meat salad dish with a mustard vinaigrette, it’s similar to something I actually make quite often at home.
As for stir-frying, I prefer shredded pork to chicken since it has more of a firm texture that one can bite into. For whatever reason, I feel it’s more “correct” to use something with firmer textures with techniques such as stir-frying that have more assertive flavors.
“Cut coagulated chicken blood into strips and cook them with chicken broth, soy sauce, vinegar, and starch powder to make a geng. This dish is well suited for the elderly.”
Blood is generally good for the anemic since it is high in bioavailable iron. This makes it probably beneficial to many elderly or anyone of weaker constitution, who are susceptible to the condition. The fact that chicken red blood cells are nucleated also means that you get more nucleic acids than regular blood, which probably doesn’t hurt either if you are already eating it.
“Take a young chicken, chop it into square pieces, and mix with a marinade of autumn sauce and rice wine. When the diners are ready for the chicken, take the pieces out of the marinate and sear them in a pan of boiling hot oil. Remove the chicken from the pan and repeat this searing process three times in a row. Sprinkle vinegar, rice wine, powdered starch and chopped green onion on the chicken immediately before plating.”
The literal translation of this dish is “raw stir-fried chicken”. I’m translating “炮” as simply “stir-fry”, though a more accurate translation would be “explosively hot stir-fry”, perhaps like the “爆” (bao) technique? Or maybe it was more of a shallow frying technique? As for why the recipe name explicitly states that the chicken was stir-fried raw, it may have be that most meats at the time were actually cooked huiguo in some form and stir-frying from the raw state was actually out of the ordinary. That said, it’s just a guess.
As for the recipe itself, two things stand out. First, there is the repeated sear and remove technique, which is uncommon in modern Chinese cuisines. Doing this likely prevented the accumulation of juices seeping from the chicken in the wok, which keeps the wok hot enough to give the chicken the right texture and good wokhei. This is the same idea as not crowding the pan when searing food in Western cuisine, since it cools the pan down too much and causes the food’s juices to pool and steam. This in turn prevents the Maillard reactions from occurring, and results in bland uninspiring food: A relatively common beginner’s error.
The second thing that stands out in this recipe is the use of powdered starch. In Chinese cuisine, a thin starch water slurry is commonly used finish a dish, but this is the first time I have heard of finishing with dried starch. As for why this was done, my guess is that it “dries” things up by soaking up some of the juices from the chicken and prevents the dish from becoming wet too quickly upon plating. I’ll give this a go next time I stir-fry some chicken and write more about it.