Recipes from the Garden of Contentment – a Chinese Gastronomic Guide from 1792

Susan Jung wrote . . . . . . . . .

Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (2018) is the first bilingual (Chinese and English) edition of Suiyuan Shidan (1792), a work on gastronomy by Qing dynasty poet and scholar Yuan Mei. However, its translator, Sean J.S. Chen, is neither a classic Chinese scholar nor a chef in a high-end Chinese restaurant looking for inspiration; rather, his field is science and engineering.

A “research scientist and algorithms dev­eloper for computer-assisted minimally invasive surgery”, Chinese-Canadian Chen started translating Yuan’s work after failing to find a transla­tion of it, and published his efforts on his blog, Way of the Eating.

Translating the book wasn’t easy, Chen writes. “Classical Chinese is a written language of its own, quite different from modern written Chinese that is used today in daily life. For the untrained reader, Classical Chinese appears as a disconti­nuous mask of characters glommed together on a grid typically without any punctuation to guide the reader. Reading through the Suiyuan Shidan in Classical Chinese brought back those feelings of inadequacy I felt while grinding through the Middle English version of The Canterbury Tales in university.”

It wasn’t just the translations that troubled Chen – he also found that there were different versions of Suiyuan Shidan. For an accurate translation, he needed access to the original text, and found two copies of the 1792 volume – one at the Harvard-Yenching Library, the other at Princeton University Library.

Yuan wasn’t a cook – his household staff included a chef (and several concu­bines). But as a food lover, he had strong opinions about recipes, as well as the preparation of ingredients. In the chapter “Essential Knowledge”, he states, “It is better to use more of an expensive ingredient in a dish and less of the inexpensive ones. If too much of an ingredient is pan-fried or stir-fried at the same time, there would be insufficient heat to cook them through; meats done this way are especially tough […] If one asks, ‘What if there isn’t enough to eat?’ I say, ‘If you’re not full after you’ve finished what’s there, just cook some more.’”

The chapter titled “Objectionables” is especially entertaining, and Chen’s annotations are just as opinionated. “What are ‘meals for the ears’?” reads the original text. “Meals for the ears exist only for bolstering name and reputation. By boasting the names of expensive and coveted ingredients, flaunting one’s wealth to esteemed guests, such meals tease one’s ears but confer no satisfaction to one’s tongue.”

Chen adds, “Sadly, dishes for the ears, or ‘ear meals’, are a mainstay of gastronomy, be it Eastern or Western cuisine. Foie gras is fantastic, but if a restaurant serves it too thin (less than five millimetres thick) just to be able to mention it in a dish, that’s an ear meal. White truffle oil (usually containing no truffle shavings whatsoever) in your pasta? Ear meal. ‘Kobe beef’ hamburgers? Yet another ear meal.”

The recipes are brief, leaving out a lot of detail. The recipe for mutton soup, for instance, reads, “Take some cooked mutton and cut it into small pieces, about the size of dice. Braise the meat in chicken broth. Add diced bamboo shoots, diced shiitake mushrooms, diced mountain yam, and then braise until done.” The recipe for radish cooked in lard reads, “Stir-fry the radishes in rendered lard, then add dried shrimp and braise them until completely done. When one is about to plate the dish, add chopped green onions. The radishes should be translucent and red like amber.”

Other recipes include roasted suckling pig, red cooked pork, white cut chicken, smoked eggs, eight treasure tofu and homestyle pan-fried fish.

Source: SCMP