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Yuan Mei: China's Great Gastronome

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(1) page(s): 27, 28, and 29

Arthur Waley, in: Yuan Mei Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet published by Grove Press in New York in 1956, says the chap he is writing about is "lovable, hot-tempered, and wildly prejudiced...the best known poet of his time...and witty, generous, and affectionate." Not everyone agrees. Some say he is a 'hedonist, romantic, an exceptionally curious chap, and an individualist.' Still others call him 'an inspired scholar.' E. N. Anderson, author of The Food of China (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1988) calls him "the Chinese counterpart of Brilliat-Savarin," the Frenchman who wrote extensively about French food.

Yuan Mei, the poet, did write about the foods of China and he demanded good ingredients and good cooking. He is quoted as saying "You do not just cut bamboo with a knife that just cut scallions; you do not crush food with a pestle that has just crushed pepper; nor do you use a dirty cloth or cutting board, the flavor of which can linger on the food." He also said the good cook "sharpens his knives, uses a clean towel, scrapes down the chopping board, washes his hands, keeps tobacco ash, and ash from the fire, and his own sweat all safely away from food." He knew and said that "ever ingredient has its own special qualities just as different persons are differently endowed" and he demanded good food made well.

Hsian Ju LIn and Tsuifeng Lin, wife and daughter of Lin Yutang and authors of Chinese Gastronomy, believe his cookery book is "one of the most interesting and informative books on Chinese cooking." They say that and so much more.

We know that Yuan Mei was born into a poor family in Hangzhou in 1716 and raised by a widowed aunt. She told him stories about goings on in the Han, Qin, Song, and Tang Dynasties. She told others he was a brilliant child. Some years later, his first tutor, a poet, recognized the talents of this young child. They both saw his passion for stories, books, and poetry.

At age eleven, Yuan Mei passed the first government examination, a rarity for one so young. He was then able to sit for the First Degree. Later, at age twenty, he took a special exam, the youngest ever to do so, and at age twenty-three, received the highest degree possible. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed as a tutor at the Imperial Hanlin Academy, a very prestigious governmental school.

In 1739, Yuan Mei went home to Hangzhou and married the lady he was engaged to. She was twenty-two, he a year older. Some time later, as they had no children, he took on a concubine, and then another. That was commonplace in those days. The first, a Miss Tao, bore him a daughter they named A-cheng. He also took on a cook, and both influenced him greatly. The cook, Mr. Wang Hsiao-yu, insisted on doing the marketing saying: "I must see things in their natural state before I can decide whether I can apply my art to them." His concern for every aspect of food and his culinary talents impressed his master who said "What astonishes me is that out of a couple of eggs, you can make a dish that no one else could have made."

Once, when the cook was asked why he stayed and worked for so little money, he replied, "To find an employer who appreciates one is not easy" and "appreciation consists as much in detecting faults as in discovering merits." Yuan Mei was very demanding and his cook appreciated that. He worked for him for ten years until he died. This left his master sad as he recognized the impact this cook had on his appreciation of food.

In 1742, unable to pass an assigned Manchu language examination, Yuan Mei was released from the Academy. After that, he was appointed magistrate in one district, then in another; and he knew he was not happy. In 1748, he retired from government service and moved to Nanjing to what was called 'The Garden of Contentment.' This was a place once owned by a well-known wealthy family, one of whom wrote The Dream of the Red Chamber.

In 1755, Yuan Mei actually did move into its garden, and he abandoned all thoughts of government employment. He supported himself writing funeral inscriptions, poems, and other things. He did not want for money because these intimate, solemn, even sometimes humorous efforts were in demand. He had many friends and so he was writing many things casual and caustic for them. Some say he wrote the caustic ones as he suffered with bouts of malaria. He said he did so as had a weak stomach.

When chastised about the less than nice writings and behaviors that matched, a friend told him he needed to appreciate Buddha. "Not so" he replied, "all these tales about Buddha are senseless taradiddles...and he (Buddha) is in fact as intangible as the wind."

From the cook and early scholarly influences, Yuan Mei became most interested in the properties of foods. As to their behaviors, he believed that oils and vinegars each have their own defects. He was most concerned with how foods were prepared, and he commented that "iced bean curd was far superior to bird's nest, if well flavored."

In 1795, three years before his death, Yuan Mei published his now-famous book, Sui-yuan Shi-tan. This book's title is translated as Sui-Yuan's Menus and sometimes people translate it as Sui-tan's (or Sui-Yuan's) Garden. In China, this three hundred sixty-two recipe book is still popular and praised. It reflects well-known dishes of its time.

Yuan Mei also wrote about a chef, Wang Xiaoyu, touting his culinary skills, experiences, and ethics. This was the first serious item ever written about a chef and his culinary skills. He also wrote about important people such as Yin Jishan, the Viceroy of Liangjiang, and about things he considered important such as cleanliness, scientific means of eating, reducing culinary extravagances, and more.

Concentrating on his now famous cookbook, and using translations by Huang Hehe and Irving Chang, and with their help eight of his recipes are provided below. One mentioned and previously published in this magazine, but not a direct translation, is his Iced Bean Curd. Popular during China's Cold Food Festival, it was written about in a twenty-eight page article published in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (1986). The Cold Food Festival was featured in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 9(1) on pages 12 and 18.

Yuan Mei's cookbook is considered the first comprehensive Chinese cookbook. It has main-ingredient categories, and is so important that Lin Ju-Lin and Lin Tsuifeng did test his recipes when writing their cookbook, Chinese Gastronomy. The fourteen chapter titles in Yuan Mei's cookbook can be translated many ways. Two of these translations, one not in and the other in parentheses, are as follows:

Notice of Food and Drink (Directories of Food)
Warning of Food and Drink (Prohibited Food)
Seafood dishes (Fresh Sea Food)
Crappie Dishes (Fresh River Food)
Pork Dishes (Special Animal Food)
Beef, Mutton and Venison Dishes (Miscellaneous Animal Food)
Fowl/Bird Dishes (Poultry)
Fish with and Without Scales (Aquatic and Scaled Food)
Vegetable Dishes (Vegetarian Food)
Side dishes (Side Dished)
Dim Sum (Pastries)
Rice and Congee (Rice and Porridge)
Tea (Tea)
Wine (Alcoholic Beverages)

In these chapters and in other writings, Yuan Mei was greatly indebted to the Gorgon School led by brothers Yuan Songdao and Yuan Hongdao, and a gentleman called Li Zhi. Yuan Mei spoke about the need for pork to be thin skinned and fragrant, carp needing to be slender and with a white stomach, and that at banquets sixty percent of the credit needs to go to the cook and forty percent to those who do the marketing.

His cookbook, though considered very important, has not been reprinted often, nor when it has, have enough copies been available. People complain they can not locate even one, but we did find two reprints in the past ten years. Do they know that all but one publication of his book are in Chinese?

One friend who does not read Chinese, told us Yuan Mei speaks about the processing of Dragon Well tea, including how it is dehydrated,. His words are often quoted, this friend never saw a copy, yet he advises us too never expose tea leaves to heat if we want to preserve the original taste of the leaves. So many write about what Yuan Mei said, that this and other words he was written about spread without many copies of his cook book.

Many want to read his recipes. Therefore, we share eight of them and you can look at Chinese Gastronomy where others are discussed.

The recipes below are from his Sui-yuan Shi-tan, a volume also translated as Menu from the Garden of Leisure. Do enjoy reading and preparing them even though they are as printed with no ingredient amounts. Be creative and guess how much he would have used, also figure out how he would have prepared each of them in those cases where clarity seems foggy.
Iced Bean Curd, Sui-Yuan
Ingredients: and the Preparation, as given:
Freeze a piece of medium do-fu overnight, then cut it into small square pieces. Put it (blanch) it in boiling water to rid of its original flavor, then put it in a pot and add some chicken soup, ham soup, and meat stock, and simmer for a while. Then add fragrant tan shoots (maybe cinnamon) and bamboo shoots. If you simmer it for fifteen or twenty minutes, it becomes tough and is full of honeycombs. Saute it in oil to maintain its tenderness.
Sea Cucumber, Sui-Yuan
Sea cucumber itself has no taste. It is hard to cook it well because it has much sand and can taste fishy. A kind with spikes is the best choice. First dip it in clean water in order to clear away sand. Use broth to stew it. Then cook it in chicken soup and broth until flaccid. Accessories are Chinese mushroom and black mo-er, because they are all a similar black color. Or prepare to stew the sea cucumber before the day of a dinner party so that it can be flaccid. I have seen a method for cooking it in observer Qian’s home. This excellent method is to mix mustard and chicken soup with cold sea cucumber or first cut sea cucumber into dice then stew it with diced bamboo and diced Chinese mushrooms in chicken soup. The chef in minister Jiang’s home uses thin sheets of bean curd, drumstick, and Chinese mushrooms stewed with sea cucumber which is a good practice.
Stewed Pork with Sauce, Sui-Yuan
Use sweet sauce, soy sauce, or none. Accompany seventeen ounces of pork with a teaspoon of salt and stew it in wine. Use some water instead while making sure the water does not boil out. Color when finished should be amber red. Do not use fried sugar to color it. If lack of cooking time, the pork's color will be yellow, right amount of time it will be red, and too much time it will be purple. Pork which can melt in the mouth immediately is best. This is mainly related to mastering fire. As a proverb says, 'Use rapid fire to cook congee, and use slow fire to cook meat.' It does make sense!
Browned Chicken, Sui-Yuan
One fat hen, clean it, then add four ounces of lard, four pieces of star anise and sear it slightly. Add some water and cook the chicken until it is nearly done. Remove the soup. Add sesame oil and brown the chicken once more. Add small amount of vegetable oil, wine, whole scallions, and some soup when needed. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces 'family recipe.
Fish Soong, Sui-Yuan
Use a fresh water fish, after cleaning, place in a steamer and steam until done. Remove fish from steamer, skin and bone it and place cooked fish in slightly oiled wok using very low heat to cook it. With constant stirring, add salt, scallions, black pepper, canned soy and dry. It is done.
Eel Noodles, Sui-Yuan
Take a large salt water eel and steam it over boiling water. Skin and bone it an mix the meat with flour and add chicken soup to form the dough. With a round piece of wood roll it thin and then cut it into strips to form noodles. Put the noodles into a mixture of chicken soup, ham soup, and mushroom soup. Bring the noodles and the soup to a boil and serve hot.
Crispy Pancake, Sui-Yuan
Mix a bowl of oil with a bowl of boiling water and add flour to it. Knead to form a cold oily dough. Then make and knead another ball of dough by mixing cold water with flour. Run a little oil on its outside and place it in a steamer and steam it. Take a piece of raw dough and shape it into a ball the size of a walnut. Take a piece of the steamed dough, its size smaller than a walnut. Knead the steamed dough ball into the raw dough ball and roll the combined ball into a piece twice as long as wide. Then fold the piece around like a bowl and roll it out many time thus forming a layered pancake. This dough is now ready to be fried or baked.
Lamb Stomach Soup, Sui-Yuan
Wash the lamb stomach thoroughly inside and outside. Cook until it is soft and thoroughly done. Then cut into slivers while leaving it in its original broth. You may add black pepper and vinegar. This is the way northerners prepare it, Southerners do not prepare the meat as crispy.

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