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The Poet and the Chef

If I could spend 40 years of my life compiling a cookbook...

12·10·2010

If I could spend 40 years of my life compiling a cookbook then I would die a happy man. At just eight years old I masterfully flipped crepes in the pan, much to my French mother’s approval. “A crepe must be so thin that you can wrap it around your pinky,” she instructed me. I smiled, gazing at the pancake bubbling on the stove.

Twenty years later, I find myself homeless in China’s housing bubble. The newest recipe sent by my mother is just one of the dozens of unread emails in my inbox. On my desk an overflowing coffee mug is routinely lost in the piles of translation projects and housing ads. Beijing apartments are expensive and hard to find this year; I sleep on friends’ couches and eat packaged sandwiches from 7-Eleven. I’m homeless and overworked; I miss cooking, it’s been months since I held a pan.

Exhausted on a Friday, I unwrap a deep-fried chicken sandwich when my boss throws “The Suiyuan Cookbook” (《随园食单》 Suíyuán Shídān) on my lap. “This is one of China’s most renowned cookbooks. Research and translate it,” he says and sets another tight deadline. Sighing, I lazily flip through the pages of 250-year-old recipes. Although I’ve been in China for seven years I’ve never had a chance to learn much about local cooking methods. Reading, I suddenly come across instructions for sheep’s head, bird’s nests, and pig’s trotters. Resting my hand on the waiting sandwich, I try to focus on the dense pages of classical Chinese.

“A dish’s seasonings are like a woman’s clothing and jewelry. Even the most beautiful of women will look ugly when dressed in rags.” As I realize that these are more than just recipes I slide my hand off the sandwich and reach into the clutter on my desk. “Where is the best soy sauce produced? Why are fish with scales better than fish without?” My fingers find the handle of the coffee mug, sending housing ads sailing to the floor. “Foods are like people. They all have their own characteristics, these must be embraced.” I take rapid sips. “The pork skin must be thin; chicken should be tender, not too large or small, and should have been salted…”

Choking, I put the mug down and close the book. The coffee is terrible, and the author Yuan Mei (袁枚) has left thoughts of flavors wafting through my head. It’s clear that he’s written more than just a list of simple recipes to cook at home. This is a gourmet’s guide of refined literary quality. Excited by this new project and inspired by Yuan Mei’s writing I dump the sandwich into the garbage bin and come to a resolution: I will find an apartment, cook more to relieve stress and throw a dinner party my guests will never forget.

That evening I’m shown apartments by housing agents, but Yuan Mei and the plans for my dinner party dominate my thoughts. The scholar, born in 1716 in the southern province of Zhejiang, was gifted as a child and became the first of his family to pass the imperial exams. He started writing poetry at a young age and later went into officialdom. He retired early to Nanjing where he settled in his self-designed Suiyuan Garden, or “Garden of Contentment.” He gave in to his eccentricities, and started to call himself Mister Suiyuan.

I can imagine Yuan Mei sitting on a wall in his garden licking the icing out of a bowl. The poet was a lover of all things good and is remembered as a hedonist and a cultivator of naturalness and individuality. For over 40 years he took notes on the various dinner parties he attended. If impressed by the food, he would quiz the cook on their technique. That gourmand lifestyle and those scribbled notes developed into his masterpiece cookbook filled with anecdotes from parties and family names assumedly well-known at the time.

The apartments I see are all, meanwhile, filthy. The kitchens are greasy and have dangerous gas stoves that are difficult to turn on. “You’ll have to pay rent in three month installments, plus a deposit and an agency fee. Can you sign the lease tonight?” the agents ask, callously, circling me like vultures. Many blame these housing agencies for the housing bubble.

The state of the apartments and the agents are frustrating. I know there are better apartments; they just aren’t showing them to me. “Show me something a bit more expensive, but cleaner, with a big kitchen and maybe I’ll sign a lease,” I say. The agents chatter amongst themselves and then promise to show me more.

“A table of good food is 60 percent chef and 40 percent the person who bought the ingredients.” Yuan Mei’s rules for cooking fill the first two chapters: “The Must-Know List” (须知单 Xūzhīdān) and “The Must-Abstain List” (戒单 Jièdān). From how to wash ingredients, the order food should be served in, and what types of pots to use, Yuan Mei’s talents as a poet show clearly in his directions. “The more you pay for an ingredient, the more of it you should use.” “There are five flavors under heaven, don’t bore your guests with just one.” His instructions go on to criticize bad cooking habits and shallow dinner party trends. “Don’t force food into your guest’s mouths, it is a physical violation, let them choose for themselves.” I wonder if I really can hold a dinner party up to his standards.

“I’m pushing your dead-line for that cookbook forward, and the pub-lishers want five recipes translated by the end of next week,” my boss sneers and stands over me slurping his daily Starbucks green tea latte.

“Recipes for what?” I ask, annoyed. “This book isn’t just about recipes, it’s about—”

“They want samples, just pick five,” he interrupts and leaves me staring at the cookbook.

How do you translate something as vague as “pig’s juice?” And give people recipes that demand soy sauce from an ancient town that you can barely find on a map? Contemporary critics of the cookbook argue that it is outdated, most of the recipes now useless. In Yuan Mei’s time food was localized and seasonal, you cooked what grew and lived in the surroundings.

“When cooking, pork is used the most… hence our ancestors used to present whole pigs as gifts.” Yuan Mei refers to pigs as “special animals” (特牲 tèshēng) and explains that other meats like beef and lamb are not often prepared by Southerners as those animals come from the north of the country. He mentions how cow tail is a delicacy but is ruined on the journey south. “The best part to be eaten is the fatty bit in the middle,” he adds.

Cooking methods of his time are now long out of use. The base for many dishes was a certain type of “meat juice” or “broth.” Made from chicken, pork, mushrooms, ginger or ham, this traditional flavoring agent has long been replaced with MSG, large bags of which can be found in any Chinese kitchen. Nowadays, even with all his brilliant insight, Yuan Mei’s instructions seem ridiculous to try for real.

I’m chopping mushrooms, chopping them into small squares. The smell of dirt and fungus is invading my nostrils. I’m nauseous. I’m still chopping. I wake up from the nightmare clutching my stomach. The mushrooms in the hot pot I ate yesterday are upsetting my stomach. Hot pot is one of the dishes Yuan Mei despised the most. He was repulsed by the idea of randomly mixing foods together. He believed strongly in embracing the original flavor of ingredients and working from there. If something is rich and savory, mix it with something else rich and savory, not something light. The hot pot I ate had just about everything in it: mushrooms, lamb, beef, lotus root, bamboo shoots.

I’m bed ridden, barely able to eat, locked in my friend’s apartment. I nurse myself on congee, or zhou (粥). Yuan Mei loved this rice porridge for its simplicity and scoffed if it was mixed with nuts or beans. “I once observed at someone’s dinner that the dishes were acceptable,” he wrote, “but the zhou was awful. I had to force myself to swallow it and I was sick upon my return home. Of this matter I used to tell people, ‘The five spirits of the five-organ temple suffered, so naturally I could not bear it.'” By “five-organ temple,” Yuan Mei was referring to the human body and the five organs—heart, liver, lungs, spleen and kidney—that suffered from the poorly-made zhou he ate. Perhaps it isn’t the mushrooms that are making me sick, but the hodgepodge hot pot that violated the five spirits of my own five-organ temple.

My stomach in tatters, I can’t bear to read about food, so have to force my way through Yuan Mei’s “menus” and “lists” for different food categories. He starts with “Edible Bird’s Nest,” or “Swallow’s Nest” (燕窝 yànwō). A Chinese delicacy for over 500 years, “Swallow’s Nest” is actually made from the saliva of the swift bird. I assume Yuan Mei classified it as seafood because the nests can be found in coves along seashores. Again he criticizes the trendy ways of eating the dish. “Some people in pursuit of the dish’s name take a few strands of nest to cover a bowl of noodles. They look like strands of white hair. When guests pick at them with chopsticks the strands immediately disappear to reveal the obscene food underneath. It’s like a beggar trying to look rich, yet in doing so reveals his meager status.” When the principal of an academy Yuan Mei attended told the budding poet, “Your prose… leaves utter annihilation behind it wherever you pass.” He was not mistaken.

Yuan Mei then provides a whole 43 recipes for how to cook meat from a pig, which start with “Pig’s Head—Two Methods” and “Pig’s Trotters—Four Methods.”Readingon I find that Buddhist philosophy resounds in the way the writer hierarchies his tastes. “In cooking, chicken is the most useful; many dishes cannot do without it. Just like a person who secretly does good deeds without anyone else knowing…”

Yuan Mei also poetically expresses his fancy for the shape of scaled water animals and warns of the fishy taste in the animals without scales. “Use cinnamon to remove the fishy flavor,” he advises. Slowly, I’m regaining my appetite, the severity of Yuan Mei’s tone brings assurance to my ailing tummy, and I want more than ever to cook his recipes. The deadline is catching up. I only have a few days to get this done.


I’m riding home on my bike. I’ve got a pig’s head in my backpack and live shrimp stabbing me in the shoulders. On the handlebars I am balancing a giant pot. Pulling up to my new courtyard home I start the preparations. Pig’s Head, Drunken Shrimp, Eight Treasure Tofu, Thick Mushrooms, Pear Fried Chicken and Natural Pancakes are on the menu.

I had found the courtyard home just three days before. In Beijing’s hutongs, nicely renovated courtyard homes, or siheyuan, have become trendy to rent. When the agents showed it to me I jumped on it. The room is only 30 square meters but I have my own outdoor space, an actual garden where I can grow plants and vegetables. The kitchen is tiny with only one small electric stove. But it’s clean and the window looks out into the garden which is surrounded by a charming grey brick wall. It is like I’m living in a small cottage in the middle of one of the world’s largest, most polluted cities.

I’d spent my first evening in the courtyard choosing the recipes for my dinner party and had decided to translate these as the samples for my boss. Once I’d cooked the recipes the instructions would be clearer, I reasoned with myself. But I still chose ones that captured the spirit of Yuan Mei. I did so in the hope that the publishers would catch on that it is more than just a cookbook.

Pig’s Head First Method

猪头第一法 Zhūtóu Dì Yī Fǎ 

Clean the pig’s head. For a five jin (one jin equals half a kilo) heavy head use three jin sweet wine. For a seven to eight jin heavy head use five jin of sweet wine. First boil the head in the wine then add 30 onion stalks, and three qian (one qian equals five grams) of star anise. Bring to a boil over 200 times. Pour in one big cup of soy sauce, and two liang of sugar. Wait for the meat to be done and taste to see if it is savory enough and add soy sauce as needed. Add boiling water until it is one inch above the head and cover with something heavy. Use high heat to cook for 45 minutes then simmer. When the juice is dry and the meat greasy the head is ready. If you remove it too late it will lose oil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drunken Shrimp

醉虾 Zuìxiā

Fry shrimp with their shells still on in cooking wine (料酒 liàojiǔ) until they turn yellow. Stew in soy sauce (青酱 qīngjiàng) and rice vinegar (米醋 mǐcù). Then simmer under a bowl’s lid. When ready to eat, put the shrimp in a plate. Even the shells will be crispy.

Eight Treasure Tofu

八宝豆腐 Bābǎo Dòufu

Chop tender tofu into hash. Add chopped mushrooms, chicken and ham. Also put in sunflower seeds and pine nuts. Fry everything in chicken juice (鸡汁 jīzhī) until it’s cooked… Meng Ting Prefect told me, “This is a recipe given to Xu Jianan Minister by Emperor Kang Xi. When Xu Jianan went to the emperor’s kitchen to get the recipe the minister also paid 1,000 liang silver coins in thanks.” The prefect’s grandfather got this recipe because Xu Jianan was his teacher.”

Stewed Wood’s Ear, Mushrooms

煨木耳,蘑菇 Wēi Mù’ěr, Mógu

In the Ding Hui Nunnery in Yangzhouthere is a monk who can stew wood’s ear until it is two fen thick (one fen equals 0.6cm), mushrooms until they are three fen thick. The method is to stew the mushrooms into thick gravy.

Pear Fried Chicken

梨炒鸡 Lí Chǎo Jī

Slice chicken breasts. First heat three liang (one liang equals50g) pig’s oil, add the chicken and fry three to four times. Add a spoon of sesame oil, starch, salt, ginger juice and a teaspoon of freshly groundSichuan pepper. Then add snow pear slices and chopped mushroom. Fry three to four times and remove from pan. This dish is best served on a five-inch plate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Natural Pancakes

天然饼 Tiānránbǐng

At Jing Yang Lotus Pond, Zhang Mingfu family makes Natural Pancakes. Use high quality white flour. Add a little sugar and pig’s oil. Mold the dough into a pancake shape the size of a bowl. They can be square or round, about two fen thick. Bake on clean cobblestones. The pancakes will change shape according to the shape of the cobblestones. When they are a yellow color they are ready. This type of pancake is crisp and sweet. They can be made with salt as well.

“Ew!” The chicken carcass I had purchased to boil in chicken juice has spoiled. The stench fills the kitchen. In the sink a bowl of mushrooms soaks in water. Outside on the barbeque, a pig’s head sits in a bubbling broth of onion and cooking wine. In a panic I run to the grocery store where on a lonely shelf by the soy sauce I spot a bottle of chicken broth and grab it. I feel a pang of guilt. I imagine Yuan Mei scolding me, “Using packaged broth is no better than using MSG. You might as well buy the whole meal packaged!” But I have guests coming in a few hours, it will have to do.

Back in the kitchen I start simmering the mushrooms in soy sauce and water. I can see them growing fatter, getting juicier. I go outside to bring the pig’s head to a boil for the 60th time. Why Yuan Mei instructs readers to bring the head to a boil 200 times, I decide, must be a way of measuring time. On the barbeque it is practically impossible to control the temperature. I have to repeatedly take the giant pot off the fire, let it cool, and then put it back on to bring it to a boil again. After the 65th time I decide it has cooked for long enough and continue with the recipe.

The mushrooms have been simmering for over an hour when I return to the stove. They are getting plump, but something smells funny. Stirring them I find a few have burned to the bottom and spoiled the flavor. Yuan Mei gives strict instructions on controlling temperature, saying it’s “the most important cooking skill.” But my little electric stove only has five settings. My guests will be short one dish of thick mushrooms.

Returning to the barbeque I start adding water to the pig’s head. I had bought it for 80 RMB at a local market. The woman I bought it from had echoed Yuan Mei’s instructions, and warned me to clean it well. It turned out to be one of the foulest tasks I’ve ever come across. I dug chopsticks into the ears and scooped out lumps of wax. I rubbed a cloth over the eyeballs and along its teeth. I picked hairs off of its snout.

As I add water to the pot the barbeque’s legs start to buckle under the weight. Cursing, I clumsily remove the pot and pig’s head broth sloshes all over my pants. The barbeque is crippled, but there is no way that pot will fit on my electric stove. The sun is setting. My guests will arrive shortly. Determined to make this a success I find a few bricks in the yard and prop up the legs enough to get the pot back on top, safely.

I’m just staring to knead dough for the Natural Pancakes when colleagues and friends start to arrive. I’m covered in flour and reek of pig and onions. At a house warming party in China it is customary to give something with roots, to help the host get “rooted” in their new home, and I’m given a turnip, bamboo, a potted plant and a piece of ginger from my colleague, Ginger. In a flash the guests have taken over the kitchen. We fry pork fat into pig’s oil. They read Yuan Mei’s instructions out loud as I toss the pan.

While cooking the drunken shrimp, two of my Chinese colleagues start arguing over the cooking verb 煨 (w8i), or stew. One argues that in the region of China she comes from, it is done off the stove in a bowl with a lid on it. The other argues that where she comes from, it is done on the stove with a lid on the pot. It strikes me how diversified China is, not only in its food and cooking methods, but even in the way recipes are interpreted. How on earth could I really know what Yuan Mei meant to say in his book? We settle on doing it off the stove, as the shrimp seem well cooked already.

The drunken shrimp, tofu and chicken come off without a hitch. They are laid out on a table in the courtyard. I’ve got cobblestones heating on the barbeque for the Natural Pancakes. And the pig’s head, its snout having burst in the heat of the pot, now sits in the center of the table. The glow of candles and the moon over the animal’s head bring a quiet calm to the party. We are at a ritual.

What I fear the most at that moment is the quality of the dishes. Will they be up to Yuan Mei’s standards? Will my guests enjoy them? Are the flavors varied enough? Have I managed to keep the individual characteristics of each ingredient intact? The guests devour the food. In each bite I can taste the separate flavors clearly. The sweet pears, savory chicken and tinglingSichuanpeppers each sing in their own voice. The sunflower seeds, pine nuts and ham stand out boldly from the smooth texture of the tofu. The drunken shrimp are crisp; their flavor accentuated by the wine and vinegar that put them to bed. And the pancakes, which cooked slowly on the cobblestones, turn out sweet and soft, they burn the tongue only so slightly.

I’m disappointed with the pig’s head. We can really only taste onion, but I’d struggled with that recipe. Thirty onion stalks seemed far too much and I couldn’t decide if Yuan Mei meant spring onions or leeks. A friend told me that leeks are used to remove the strong flavor in meat, so that’s what I’d used. But perhaps it was the balance that I had gotten wrong. In the beginning of the book, Yuan Mei says, “Even the most beautiful of women will look ugly when dressed in rags,” and he’s calling not just for quality but for balance. When cooking his recipes that should always be the first rule. If something seems out of balance then use your own judgment. I should have used fewer onions.

And so I learned that cooking is not about mixing the right flavors to create something new, but about striking a balance; a balance which gives each ingredient a chance to be brought out to its own highest potential.

The publishers rejected the recipes as vague and infeasible. But still I keep “The Suiyuan Cookbook” in the cupboard above my sink. Back at the office my desk is clear of housing ads and I’ve switched from coffee to tea. Opening my inbox I find a new email from my mother. She’s just finished compiling a cookbook of all my favorite childhood recipes. And I reply with a recipe for pig’s head.

  • cookbook
  • càipǔ 菜谱
  • gourmand
  • tānshízhě 贪食者
  • bubble
  • pào
  • pot
  • guō
  • I would like a cookbook of Sichuan recipes.
  • Wǒ xiǎng yào yī běn sìchuān càipǔ. 我想要一本四川菜谱。
  • Hold on, I’m trying to clean a pig’s head.
  • Děng yīxià, wǒ zài xǐ zhū tóu ne. 等一下,我在洗猪头呢。

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