Yuan Mei, Food Network star

As  Yuan Mei’s Garden of Accord Food Book is now available in English translation, I have been reading the whole thing. One of the things that strikes me is how well it fits in with contemporary food culture. In the Qing Yuan could do no better than being a poet, official, scholar, and pubisher. Today he  could almost host a show on Food Network.

As you might expect he has the whole food as religion thing down

In Taoist alchemy, after nine rounds of cooking down, cinnabar becomes elixir. Confucians concentrate everything, avoiding excess and deficiency, and finding the center. When a chef knows fire and can correctly and carefully manage it, he has the Way of cooking. When the fish is put on the table, its color is as white as jade, and without dryness it keeps freshness and deliciousness.  If  the fish is white like powder, and its meat is loose, it  looks dead. A beautiful shining fresh fish, cooked till it seems long dead, is a really hateful thing for me.

He also both embraces and rejects food and eating as social one-upmanship. He criticizes “Ear Banquets” where the host is trying to show off by using a lot of fancy, poorly cooked ingredients. He also criticizes an “Eye meal” with too many dishes. There is a limit to how many dishes you can do well, and if you go past it you are  asking for trouble. After attending one “eye meal” hosted by a merchant and had to go home and make some congee (稀飯) to satisfy himself.  So, food is about your belly and its satisfaction not social status and showing off.

Except, of course, that it -is- about social status. All these people are inviting Yuan Mei to their house to eat, and he is constantly holier than thou about the poor quality of their food as opposed to the simple elegance of his own cooking.

In Chang’an, there’s a very hospitable person who can’t seem to manage to serve tasty food. One of his guests asked him:” Are you and I good friends?” He answered: “Of course!” Then the guest kneeled down, and  said: “If so, I have one request, and you must say yes before I get up.” The surprised host asked: “What can I do for you?” The guest said: “In future, if you want to invite friends for dinner, please don’t include me.” Everyone laughed.

A bit cold between friends, but it would fit fine on one of those competitive cooking shows.

Of course Yuan Mei himself is not the cook. He hires a cook and supervises the whole thing. This is, I think, more or less what a modern restaurant chef does, although he treats his cooks more like servants and less like employees

Cooks are persons from the lower classes. If for a day they are not duly rewarded or criticized, in that day they will be lazy and casual. Their cooking will be bad because of lack of timely attention.  If we eat that food anyway, then tomorrow they will cook even worse food. Continuing with this, the food becomes trash, their job not performed well.  I say that one needs to reward or criticize them strictly and at the time. A cook who has done well needs to be praised, with details of how his cooking is good.  A cook who has done a bad job needs to be told straightforwardly why it was a bad job and how he can correct it. When cooking, seasoning must be performed well, not too plain or too salty; cooking time must be enough but not overlong. Lazy cooks who don’t love their cooking, like eaters who don’t care about the food, are problems for one who is dining and does care. Studying thoroughly and thinking through details are the keys to success in a scholar. Similarly, guiding in culinary theory and learning from each other are the duties of teachers. For cooking and diet, shouldn’t it be the same?

So being a good host is like being a good garden designer. You are the impresario of the show, but not the actual performer. Also like with gardens, you may emphasize the simplicity of what you do, but no matter how much you call yourself a hermit it is still a social display.

The book itself is not that helpful as a cookbook, since it really is aimed at people who are giving general directions to cooks, and good cooks at that. A good cook apparently knows how to translate

Lamb Soup

Slice the cooked lamb meat into the size of small dice. Stew it in chicken broth with bamboo shoots, black mushroom and Chinese yam.


Water Chicken (Frogs)

Get rid of the frogs’ torso; keep only the legs. First fry the legs in oil, then add soy sauce, sweet wine, melon and ginger, then remove from the wok. Or get the frog meat to stir-fry.  The flavor is the same as chicken.

into good food. This is actually not all that different from today, when some cookbooks seem to be convinced that their readers can already cook and a lot of stuff can be glossed over. That is of course true. There is a limit to how much a book can teach you if you are starting from nothing.  This principle actually applies particularly well to things like TV cooking or those endless dish descriptions waiters sometimes give. If you have no idea what fermented black beans taste like how can you guess what the dish on TV tastes like? (well, there is always this.) Yuan Mei’s is an insiders book aimed at people who already have definite ideas about food, so I am not sure how well a translation would sell as a cookbook, but it is fun to read.

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