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

Book Revives Lavish Dishes that Disappeared from Hong Kong Restaurants

Bernice Chan wrote . . . . . . . . .

In 2013, a Hong Kong newspaper invited a well-known chef and restaurateur to write a weekly column about long-lost Cantonese dishes. But Chui Wai-kwan, known as “Brother Seven” and a chef for over 50 years, had no experience in writing for the media, so the Hong Kong Economic Journal hired Malaysian-Chinese freelance writer Agnes Chee to ghostwrite the column in the Chinese-language publication.

“When they contacted me I didn’t know anything about these dishes, but immediately agreed to do the project because I thought it would be a good learning opportunity,” Chee recalls.

It turned out to be such an education that she recently turned these columns into a book called Vanishing Flavours of Cantonese Cuisine, which was published just in time for July’s Hong Kong Book Fair.

When Chee began interviewing chef Chui for the assignment, she was overwhelmed by his knowledge of these forgotten dishes she had never heard of before.

“Afterwards I tried to look them up online and either there was no information, or a famous writer like Chua Lam had mentioned them in passing but said nothing about how these dishes were made or their ingredients. That’s when I realised there was no written record of these dishes,” she says.

Decades ago in Hong Kong, wealthy customers visiting high-end restaurants, such as Fook Lam Moon, would order dishes like double-boiled pig’s stomach stuffed with chicken and bird’s nest; wok-seared crab cake with bird’s nest and egg white; and wok-fried, thinly sliced giant sea conch “snow flakes” with chicken fillet and crispy Jinhua ham medallions.

They were later dropped off menus because they were very laborious to prepare, the menu price didn’t make them worth the effort involved, or they required such expertise that the chances of executing them perfectly was very low, Chee says.

She asked Chui to make the dishes he talked about so she would have a better understanding of the cooking process and their taste. This was also a learning opportunity for staff in the kitchen of his restaurant Seventh Son, in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district, since many of them had never made the dishes, or had not made them in decades.

For example, lamb cheek and knuckle soup is considered a cheaper version of snake soup and, like the latter, is eaten in winter. The lamb cheeks are braised, then hand shredded. The meat is delicious and has a very smooth texture, Chee says.

The leg bones are used to make a soup, with the cartilage thickening it. The rest of the recipe is very similar to snake soup, featuring ingredients such as sliced mushrooms, shredded chicken, wood ear fungus, and Chinese ham. It is eaten with chrysanthemum petals, kaffir lime leaves and fried crackers.

The two soups are equally laborious to make, but when a restaurant can only charge HK$1,200 (US$150) for a tureen of lamb soup that feeds six, compared to HK$3,000 for a similar-sized amount of snake soup, it is obvious which one is worth cooking.

Another dish that requires top culinary skills is wok-fried, thinly sliced giant sea conch “snow flakes” with chicken fillet and crispy Jinhua ham medallions.

“It sounds like an ordinary dish, but it was lost for a long time. When I was researching this dish online, I could only find it mentioned once, in passing, by food critic Chua Lam, who said you can’t find the dish any more in Hong Kong. There was nothing about how it was prepared,” Chee says.

It costs HK$7,000 to make the dish. Sourcing a large, fresh sea conch of good quality from Chaozhou, in Guangdong province, southern China, can cost HK$2,000 alone. Then the chef must extract the meat of the conch carefully, without wastage, and slice it evenly, ensuring the slices are just the right thickness.

Another element of the dish is Chinese ham, marinated in a honey glaze and sliced thinly so that it, the chicken and the conch slices are eaten stacked together like a mini-sandwich.

People who have read Chui’s column have requested the dish at his restaurant. “I’ve eaten this dish five or six times, and each time Chui’s chefs improve. The sea conch is cooked a fraction of a second less [each time], so the taste gets better and better,” Chee says.

She describes another dish, called wok-seared crab cake with bird’s nest and egg white, which she nicknames “Chinese bird’s nest eggs Benedict”, though there is no English muffin or Hollandaise sauce involved.

Bird’s nest is first cooked in chicken stock to give it flavour, then combined with egg whites and fresh crabmeat before being steamed into the shape of a pipa, a pear-shaped Chinese plucked musical instrument. Afterwards it is pan-fried and served on a bed of vegetables.

“It’s so good, very fragrant and has such an elegant taste, with lots of umami from the crabmeat,” Chee says. “It’s very light and refreshing, but very flavourful.” This dish costs HK$320 and is available at Seventh Son. It was added to the menu because many readers wanted to try the dish.

For the book, she also interviewed other chefs like Leung Fai-hung of Hoi King Heen at the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong, Jayson Tang Ka-ho at Man Ho in the JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong and Danny Yip of The Chairman, Hong Kong’s lone representative in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

“Chef Leung was very happy to make dishes he hadn’t made for many years,” Chee says. “He recreated dishes that he learned when he was 17 years old and hadn’t made since.”

She says Chinese food is still underrated, with many believing dishes are quick and inexpensive to make and ignorant of the fact they can include expensive ingredients and require skilled, knowledgeable chefs to cook them.

“Many Chinese chefs can’t speak English so their cooking techniques aren’t easily shared with non-Chinese-speaking chefs, Chee says. There are plans to translate her Chinese-language book into English next year.

Source: SCMP

The Story Of Grits, A Dish Born Of Poverty

Kristen Hartke wrote . . . . . . . . .

Like many food writers, Erin Byers Murray enjoys taking a deep dive into learning the history and nuances of specific ingredients. For her first book, Shucked, Murray chronicled the year that she spent working on a New England oyster farm; her second book, Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through The South, however, led her on an unexpected cultural journey about the simplest of ingredients: ground corn.

“I was used to knowing grits only as something that came in a box from mass producers,” Murray says. “I didn’t really grow up eating them, so it wasn’t necessarily a natural fit as a topic for me.”

It was a passing comment from Sean Brock, a James Beard Award-winning Southern chef, that led Murray down the rabbit hole. “I was actually talking to Sean about vegetables, and he happened to float out this idea that grits have terroir” — whereby the local environment in which a food is grown is said to impact its flavor — “and I couldn’t stop thinking about that idea and wondered if it could be true.”

But as she started sampling small-batch artisanal grits from Southern millers such as Anson Mills, Geechie Boy Mill, Delta Grind and Original Grit Girl, Murray began to understand that this coarsely ground corn has deep roots in many cultures that, perhaps, transcend its flavor characteristics.

“Talking to people about grits started to open up all these conversations about bigger things,” says Murray. “I had just recently moved to the South, and it seemed like the people who were reviving grits as a food didn’t really match its origins. I was realizing that there was more to this than just following the dish through history.”

Interest in grits has been fueled in recent years as farmers have revived heirloom varieties of corn branded with evocative names like Jimmy Red, Pencil Cob, Carolina Gourdseed White and Hopi Blue, but it has not been lost on Murray and others that a food originally cooked in the kitchens of the impoverished has found its champions in recent decades among white male chefs leading fine-dining restaurants.

“The South has always been poor,” says Grits cookbook author Virginia Willis, “and so our food is a food born of poverty. Grits is the porridge of poor Southerners.”

Alice Randall, a novelist and cookbook author who teaches courses on both soul food and Southern food at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., sees grits as a food specifically associated with the South but not necessarily with a race or even a gender (although they were most commonly cooked by women in earlier history). “Grits are inherently Southern, so they identify as a taste of the South across cultures,” she says.

Murray theorizes that grits can be traced back much further than to the kitchens run by African American and white women in the antebellum South.

“For grits, every major pivot point in the story line involves appropriation,” writes Murray in her book. “It started with the fateful naming of the bowl of cracked maize.” It’s said that British colonists arriving in Virginia were presented by Indigenous people with steaming bowls of this maize, a dish that the colonists began referring to as “grist,” which later morphed into “grits.”

Interviews with Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota who has been preserving and showcasing Indigenous cooking through The Sioux Chef project, and William Thomas, an African American pathologist who worked with Cherokee natives Nancy and Tony Plemmons on their cookbook Cherokee Cooking: From the Mountains and Gardens to the Table, led Murray to wonder how long grits — or some version of them — had been cooked for nourishment.

“The evidence exists,” says Murray, “that corn was being milled in 8700 B.C. in Central America. There must have been a dish of ground corn and water cooked over heat. It’s a food product that’s not just historic — it’s ancient.”

Randall, of Vanderbilt, likes seeing the rising interest in grits. “The essence of soul food is preserving and evolving at the same time,” she says. “What we are seeing in the 21st century with grits is some distillation of that: what we learn by refining and processing, as well as what we learn by going back to milling them in the old ways. It’s an ongoing study of the evolution and preservation of a food item.”

Even while Murray was delving into the archaeology, technology and agriculture of grits while researching her book, the most consistent theme seemed to be that of nostalgia — and comfort. Murray’s conversations with cooks, farmers and millers sparked deep-seated memories. She says: “You can talk about artisanal producers and the evolution of shrimp and grits in fine dining, but when you get down to it, it’s about the memory of someone — maybe your mom or your grandma or your uncle — standing at a stove and stirring. It’s the definition of slow food.”

“I think there are people who will wonder why grits are such a big deal,” Willis, the cookbook author, says, “but grits are found all over the South at almost every meal. Even when you go to someone’s house when someone dies, there’s going to be a cheese grits casserole on the table. I call them ‘funeral grits’ because it’s pure comfort food.”

Grits, Murray hopes, will help spur more discussion about how food shapes our culture, as humble ingredients are elevated into expensive dishes even as we come to terms with long-lost, or ignored, origin stories that deserve recognition.

“The real story of the book wasn’t just this dish,” says Murray, “but how I could look at this place where I lived and get to know its people better simply by talking about grits.”

Source: npr

How the Sugar Fungus, Yeast Shaped Civilization

Menaka Wilhelm wrote . . . . . . . .

An imagined conversation between two yeast cells appears in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions. “They were discussing the possible purposes of life,” Vonnegut writes. If that’s not absurd enough, their existential discussion takes place against a weird, dismal backdrop, “as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement.” Little did they know, their little yeasty lives had an important, human-centric purpose. “Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

Besides the beverages yeast ferments, and the loaves it raises, the single-celled fungus has had its figurative fingers in all kinds of important products throughout history. Yeast matters for so many different things, says Nicholas Money, author of the newly published book The Rise of Yeast, that it ranks as “a secular deity, something to be revered as much as the warmth of the sun.”

Money points out many of those contributions throughout The Rise of Yeast: How the Sugar Fungus Shaped Civilization. Here are a few of the surprising places yeast has changed the way we eat and live:

Fermentation may have enticed nomadic communities to settle down

For a long time, humans traveled often and foraged for food, rather than growing it. And that worked pretty well, so anthropologists have long puzzled over why people started settling in a single spot. One benefit to nesting: growing grapes and grains, and staying in a place long enough to brew beverages for weeks or months, as beer and wine require. “Some posit this as the reason that civilization began in villages surrounded by golden fields of barley and rows of grapevines on the hills,” Money writes.

In its day, beer foam helped raise a few loaves of bread

It’s not totally clear how the first-known leavened breads, in Egypt, began to incorporate yeast. Wild yeast will grow on its own if a dough sits long enough, the way sourdough works. In Roman times, though, Pliny the Elder wrote about bread dough incorporating beer froth for lightness. Some early commercial yeasts in Europe relied on beer byproducts for microbial help, too, but baker’s yeast today consists of separate, specialized strains.

Yeast elevates chocolate and coffee

Both cocoa and coffee beans undergo a fermentation step after their harvest, where yeasts munch on sugars surrounding the beans. Bacteria also play a role in this process, and the yeast leaves behind flavor compounds that make it into the final coffee and chocolate. Researchers have found that cocoa beans in yeast-free fermentation are left with an acidic, off flavor, and that certain yeasts can lend coffee caramel notes.

The riot of microbes that ferment kombucha includes more than one kind of yeast

“Fission yeast, Saccharomyces, other yeasts, and accompanying bacteria occupy a slimy slab called a zoogleal mat that sits atop the fermenting tea,” Money writes. Another name for that zoogleal mat, SCOBY, stands for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.”

That suffocating “in their own excrement” that Vonnegut mentioned? It caps the alcohol content in wine and beer

Behind every adult beverage, there are strains of yeast that toiled, breaking sugars down and producing alcohol. For yeast, alcohol is more than a tipple — it’s a waste product, and a protection against other microbes that can’t tolerate spirits as well. Take palm wine, Money says. It’s made from palm sap left out in the open, so airborne wild yeasts do all the fermentation. At first, a circus of different yeasts hops into the sap and ferments their hearts out, gorging on the sap’s sugars and releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol. Different yeast strains tolerate different levels of alcohol, so the yeast with the highest alcohol tolerance, a strain of Saccharomyces, soon wins out. “It clears the field, and ensures that it has special access to the sugar,” Money says. But even those winners eventually succumb to their own booze, so the alcohol level plateaus.

For humans, that means any beverage above around 15 percent alcohol requires distillation, or genetically engineered yeasts, which can tolerate higher levels of alcohol. With slightly more time to discuss their life’s purpose, what those new superyeasts talk about is anyone’s guess.

Source: npr

Why Flat Beer Makes the Best Desserts

Danish Chef Mads Refslund is the co-founder of Noma, one of the most prestigious restaurants in the world, but his first cookbook is about trash. “I had in my brain that my first cookbook would be a restaurant cookbook,” he admits, but his friend and co-author, forager Tama Matsuoka Wong, convinced him to pen something about cooking with wasted food instead. The result is Scraps, Wilt & Weeds, which shows you how to turn things like vegetable juice pulp and coffee grounds into pastas and panna cottas.

“I have always cooked with things no one tends to use because I always thought it was stupid to throw it out,” Refslund explains. “It is money that you are throwing away.” As a chef, he felt it was his responsibility to teach others how to use up foods — like cauliflower cores and fish collars — that are typically tossed without thought. “I think people throw these [perfectly edible] foods away because of a lack of knowledge — they just don’t know how to cook with them,” he says. Leek roots, for example, are trimmed off and binned, but Refslund believes if people realized that the roots could be turned into something delicious, they wouldn’t want to throw it away.

Paired against stark facts — nearly 1 billion pounds of uneaten lettuce goes into the trash each year — the book is filled with ways to turn what you definitely think is garbage into elegant dishes fit for a dinner party. Case-in-point: Refslund’s recipe for a satisfying dessert crafted from old, dried-out bread and stale beer. Yes, stale beer.

The dish is based on the classic Danish porridge known as ollebrod. Back in the day, farmers tended to live off of mainly rye bread and beer, he explains. “When the bread got a little bit old, they would soak it in beer, boil it, and add sugar. If you could afford it, you would eat it with milk. If you really had means, you would eat it with whipped cream.” Refslund’s version of the dish is gussied up with a bit of chocolate and salted caramel ice cream. Count it as breakfast or dessert.

Refslund says that you can use any bread you have lying around, but he prefers dark rye bread for its flavor. As for the beer, he is adamant you use one that is well past its prime. “I realized that when you boil beer to make any recipe, it becomes flat — so why not just use flat beer from the start?”

Flat Beer and Day-old-bread Porridge


1 pound stale rye (or other) bread, torn into small pieces or crumbled (5½ cups)
2 cups flat beer, preferably dark beer or ale (less than 2 bottles)
1-3/4 cups sugar, half granulated/half brown
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup dark chocolate chips
apple balsamic vinegar, for serving
salted caramel ice cream, for serving


  1. In a medium pot, combine the bread, beer, and sugars over low heat and cook, stirring gently, for about 20 minutes, until the bread is softened and the liquid is absorbed. Add the cream and cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes more, until it starts to thicken. Finally, add the chocolate chips and stir until melted. Remove from the heat and cool. Store in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled, at least 30 minutes (or up to 2 days).
  2. To serve, spoon into individual bowls, drizzle with apple balsamic vinegar, and add a scoop of caramel ice cream.

Recipe from Scraps, Wilt & Weeds.

Source: Thrillist