China / Cookbooks

Yuan Mei – Fascinating Cookbook from 18th Century China

Yuan Mei – China Cookbook Author

Yuan Mei was born in 1716 (in the famous lakeside city of Hangzhou) and died just short of the end of the century in 1798. He is regarded as one of China’s great poets, but he also spent much of his life (especially from 1755) growing a garden and documenting recipes cooked by his own chef and by acquaintances.

When we say growing a garden it extended to the building of some 24 pavilions and a small replica of the iconic West Lake which dominates his birthplace of Hangzhou. He was also lucky to have the services of a chef called Wang Xiaoyu who was attracted to Yuan due to the quality of his produce and the simplicity of his food requirements.

His book, The Way of Eating (also known as Recipes from the Garden of Contentment) has been translated from Classical Chinese into English by Sean J. S. Chen. Chen describes Classical Chinese as “a discontinuous mass of characters glommed together on a grid without any punctuation to guide the reader”.

However, the lack of a suitable English translation was a challenge that Chen was willing to take on:

without any English translation to work from and wanting very much to try the “ancient” recipes and heed the gastronomic advice doled out by Yuan Mei, I had no other choice but to delve head-on into the Classical Chinese text.

Yuan Mei, 1792

The massive task undertaken by Chen should be lauded. He not only battled his way through the impenetrable Chinese characters, but he also seemed to penetrate the mind of Yuan Mei and to understand his humour that leaps off the pages of this translation.

As an aside, chefs in China continue to take pride in presenting dishes from The Way of Eating as an homage to the famous author.

One thing that becomes obvious in reading the book is that Yuan Mei wasn’t a shrinking violet and was certainly opinionated! Consider his assessment of some previous authors:

Although matters of food and drink can be considered somewhat trivial, I have earnestly said all that I wish to say from my heart, and for that I regret nothing! As for the book The Domain of Texts, which lists thirty types of food and drink, as well as the works of the calligrapher and painter Mei Gong and author and playwright Li Weng, I have personally tested all their recipes. This has resulted, however, in nothing but offensive and noxious dishes. I conclude that, for the most part, these works are the results of the overextended imaginations of mediocre scholars, and as such I have cited nothing from them.”

Yuan Mei, 1792

The book then moves to a description of cooking techniques, tableware and much more including what to embrace and what to avoid (especially in the chapter entitled Objectionables).

When he addresses himself to food the first target is Bird’s Nest. He discusses how they are made (from the saliva of the Swift), how they should be cleaned (removing and debris with a needle) and how they should be cooked (after first soaking them in boiled rainwater).

He then goes on to do the same for Sea Cucumbers, Shark’s Fin, Abalone, Mussels, Whitebait, Cuttlefish Roe, Scallops and Oysters, followed by the same for a range of river fish.

Then there is a chapter on Pork which Yuan refers to as “such a widely used culinary animal that they can be considered the spiritual leaders of the gastronomic realm”. This chapter contains a useful section on four different ways of preparing ham hocks.

There is also a nice interplay between the translated text and comments from Chen, the translator. As a footnote to Yuan’s very brief description of White-Cut Chicken, Chen provides the following footnote:

Despite its simplicity, white-sliced chicken is indeed a food of surprising profundity. One could say it is a gustatory version of the rock garden, a meditation aid to help put things into perspective and reveal what is hidden in plain sight. Eating it, one begins to understand what the best cuisines can do for people: gently nourish their bodies, comfort their souls, and bring delight to their lives.”

Yuan’s irascible nature comes out again with his description of black carp ‘embraced’ by vinegar fished from the famous West Lake in Hanzhou.

Yuan Mei's West Lake
West Lake in Hangzhou – photo ⓒ

After providing the recipe he notes:

This dish was most famously prepared by the House of Five Willows, at Hangzhou’s West Lake. But ever since they started using an ill-smelling soy sauce, the fish served there is now inedible. What a pity!

Yuan Mei, 1792

But Yuan does more than criticize. He also offers profound comments and gives heartfelt praise where he believes that it is due.

We like his introduction to the section on Staple Food where Rice and Congee get top billing:

Congee and rice are the foundations of a meal, and all accompanying dishes are extras. And it is only through solid knowledge of the fundamentals that one can begin to walk the Way.”

Yuan Mei, 1792

Chen helpfully has put a footnote here to explain that “the Way” is a reference to a comment in the Analects of Confucius:

A noble person directs his efforts to the fundamentals, only once these fundamentals have been established can one walk the Way.”

Sean J. S. Chen, 2018

We should also mention some of the praise he metes out to people and places he has visited to sample their recipes.
We start with a dish of Bird’s Nest:

During my visit to Yangming Prefecture, Guangdong [Province], I had an incredibly good winter melon and bird’s nest. It was richly flavored with only chicken and mushroom extracts, the soft textures and delicate flavors of the two main ingredients matching each other superbly.

Yuan Mei. 1792

Notice the use of mushroom extract to add umami to the dish!

He also had fulsome praise for a sturgeon dish:

I had very good stir-fried sturgeon slices at Tang [Jinghan]’s household in Suzhou. Its preparation was as follows: slice the sturgeon’s meat, and fry it in oil with jiu and autumn sauce for thirty gun [ninety seconds], then add water and let it return to a boil. When done, plate the sturgeon slices and garnish heavily with soy-pickled cucumber, soy-pickled ginger, and finely chopped green onions.”

Yuan Mei, 1792

Yuan Mei is also an aficionado of pork as we mentioned above. He is very impressed with “The Wind-Dried Pork of Master Yin Wenduan’s Household”. After describing how to prepare it, he goes on to say:

The Yin household makes this item so well that it is often sent as an Imperial tribute item. Even the wind-dried pork of present-day Xuzhou cannot compare with it. As for how they make it so well, no one knows.”

Yuan Mei

Finally, he praises tea from some regions of China but first urges everybody to think carefully about the water they use to make the tea. He admits that not everyone will be able to source their water from Zhongleng or the Hui Spring, however he suggests collecting rain or snow water as an alternative.

When it comes to the tea leaves to be used, he prefers the Yiwu Mountain variety (this is aged Pu’Er tea from the southern China border) but is also enthusiastic about freshly harvested Longjing Tea. With this suggestion we can but agree after our fascinating visit to this region behind West Lake to spend a day with one of the regions master tea vendors. The just-picked leaves were slightly dried in a wok before the tea was made it was light, delicate, complex and delicious.

He concludes with the comment:

Other than the Longjing from the place of my birth, I would rate all other teas far beneath.”

Yuan Mei, 1792

This is a fascinating book which we return to again and again for inspiration.

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