Yuan Mei’s Menu

Selected and translated by T.C. Lai 賴恬昌

No account of Nanking would be complete without reference to Yuan Mei’s Yuan Mei shidan 袁枚食單. Now much reprinted. The following extract from T.C. Lai’s Chinese Food for Thought first appeared in Renditions, no.9 (Spring 1978): 47-61. For more on the prodigious writer, translator and artist T.C. Lai, and an oral history interview with him, see Lingnan University Digital Commons, here: http://commons.ln.edu.hk/oh_cca/18/. The site also features a bibliography of T.C. Lai’s writings, translations and criticisms. For more translated work by T.C., visit the Renditions site here: http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/rct/renditions/index.html. — The Editor


The best way to a man’s heart—or a woman’s, for that matter—is through the stomach. This lesson has certainly been taken to heart by the Chinese, whose fine cuisine conquers the world, from Peking to San Francisco and from London to Tel Aviv. Names like Szechuan and Hunan are today bruited about by Westerners, not as the native provinces of this or that political leader but as the homes of dishes like hsiang-su ya 香酥鴨 and ma-p’o tou-fu 麻婆豆腐, and every time you wave a chopstick a new Chinese cookbook makes its appearance on the bookseller’s shelves.

No modern matron or restaurant owner has written on food and the preparation of it like the two Ch’ing dynasty authors, Yuan Mei and Li Yü. Men of parts and devotees of the fine art of living, Yuan Tsu-ts’ai 袁子才 has written about his own exquisite garden and Li Li-weng 李笠翁 discoursed equally knowledgeably on painting, women and the theatre. Gourmets both, they have written with wit and wisdom, and the authority of a master chef, on the subject closest to their hearts. The following passages are taken from a forthcoming book, Chinese Food for Thought by T. C. Lai, who is well known for his own discriminating tastes in cultural subjects, epicurean and otherwise. — The Editors, Renditions

Yuan Mei (袁枚, 1716-1798), poet, literary critic and essayist. Devoted to literature from childhood, he began to compose verse at the age of nine. He briefly joined government service but retired at the early age of thirty-three to live in Sui-yüan. There he led a life of dignity and leisure. He made a good living as a writer. His generous patronage and hospitality brought to him friends and students from all parts of the country, and many of them he elevated to public recognition by commenting on or editing their works. He stressed the importance of the free expression of natural emotions in life, and did not hesitate to affirm that sexual love plays an important role. In his attitude toward women, Yüan Mei broke away from the traditional view that ‘absence of talent in a women is synonymous with virtue’ and insisted that women should be given opportunity to develop their native intelligence. Disregarding harsh criticism and the epithet ‘libertine’ hurled at him by reactionary scholars and stern moralists, he encouraged many women in their efforts to write poetry. He received them as pupils, and published their works.

Yuan Mei 袁枚: A Gourmet’s Do’s and Dont’s

Every ingredient has its own special qualities just as different persons are differently endowed. If a person is abysmally stupid, even a Confucius or a Mencius will not be able to improve him. If an ingredient is poor, even a chef like Yi Ya[1] will fail to make it palatable.

Generally speaking, pork should be thin-skinned and should not have an unpleasant smell; chicken should be tender and not too old or overly young. A bream should be flat and white-bellied, the dark-back species is quite unwieldy; eels caught in a lake or a mountain stream are the best—those caught in a river have a bony feel in the mouth; ducks fed on grains are white, sleek and fat; bamboo shoots from fertile soil are sweet and not full of joints or knots. The best ham is as far removed from the ordinary as heaven from earth; one dried salt fish may be as different from another as ice is from charcoal. For a good meal, the cook counts for six points out of ten, and the purveyor four points.


Ingredients are like a woman’s raiments and ornaments. Even as great a beauty as Hsi Shih[2] will look drab if she is clothed in rags. A good cook uses soya sauce for salt but he would taste it first to ensure its good quality; for oil, he uses ‘sesame oil’ but he should be able to distinguish between raw and treated oil; for wine he uses fermented rice, but he would throw away the dregs; for vinegar he uses rice vinegar but he chooses that which is clear and sharp. Besides, there are clear or thick sauces; animal or vegetable oil; sweet or dry wine; new or old vinegar—they should not be confused. Other things like spring onion, pepper, ginger, cinnamon, sugar, salt should be of top-grade- you do not use large quantities of them. In a Soochow store, soya sauce is graded top, middle or lower; vinegar from Chenkiang 鎮江 though nice in colour is not sour enough and misses the point of being vinegar. Pan P’u 板浦 vinegar is best, followed by that of P’u K’ou 浦口.


Swallow’s nest should be cleaned by taking away the feather; bêche-de-mer by taking away the mud; shark’s fin by taking away the sand; deer’s tendon by getting rid of its rank-smell; meat is made tender by scraping off the muscular fibre ; a duck’s gizzards should be cleaned by peeling off the ‘inner wall.’ When a fish’s gall-bladder is punctured, the whole dish will taste bitter; when the saliva-like substance of an eel is not taken away the whole bowl smells fishy. Spring leek should be shorn of its sheath, keeping the white flesh; the heart of the cabbage emerges when its outer coating is taken off. There is a common saying: ‘If you want fish to taste good, you should wash it till the “white veins”[3] appear.’ That explains it all.


The way to prepare a dish depends on the ingredients. Sometimes both water and wine are used at the same time; sometimes only wine is used; sometimes only water. Sometimes only salt is used, sometimes only sauce, and sometimes salt and sauce together. Some materials require treatment by ‘shallow-frying’ to rid it of its fat; some need a spray of vinegar to take away its fishy-smell. ‘Rock sugar’ is used to bring out the freshness of certain materials. Some are best baked dry so that the good taste can penetrate into the food-for instance, a sauté dish. Some taste best with a great deal of juice or gravy; for instance, a steamed dish.

[Fig.1. ‘Marketplace at Night’, a Ming Dynasty Woodcut.]

Mixing of Ingredients

There is a common saying: ‘The right girl for the right husband.’ The art of cooking follows the same principle. No single ingredient is self-sufficient. The clear or pure should be matched with the clear or pure; the dense or thick should be matched with the dense or thick; the soft or tender should be matched with the soft or tender; the strong or sharp should be matched with the strong or sharp: this is the way to harmony. Some things go with either meat or vegetable: like mushroom, bamboo shoot and winter melon. Some only go with meat, not vegetable, like spring onion, spring leek, aniseed and garlic. Some only go with vegetable, not meat, like celery, lily flower and broad bean.

I have often seen people mix crab-meat with swallow’s nest, and lily flower with chicken and pork. It is like having King Yao 唐堯 sit face to face with Su Tsun 蘇峻 —a most unnatural situation. Sometimes, however, a normally wrong mixture comes out a winner: for instance, using a vegetable oil to stir-fry a strong smelling vegetable[5] or using animal fat to stir-fry a non-smelling vegetable.

Things That Do Not Mix

Things that have very strong and heavy taste should not be mixed. They are, for instance, eels, turtle, crab, shih-fish 鰣魚, beef and mutton. It is difficult enough to make these palatable, having to enlist the combined strength of a variety of spices and condiments in order to cover up their unpleasant qualities. It will be plain folly to try to do two things when one is difficult enough.

People of Ginling 金陵 (Nanking) like to mix sea-slug (bêche-de-mer) with turtle, and shark’s fin with crab-meat. I frown upon such combinations. The tastes of turtle and crabmeat, rich as they may be, are not rich enough to be shared by sea-slug and shark’s fin; whereas the undesirable properties of the latter are easily absorbed by the former.

[Fig.2. ‘Fish’, by Hsu Wei of the Ming Dynasty]

Heat and Time

Some recipes require the use of a brisk (武) fire, as in shallow-frying (a weak fire ‘tires’ them). Some recipes require a gentle (文) fire, as in stewing (a strong fire soon dries things up). Sometimes a dish should be cooked with a strong fire and then finished off with a gentle fire as when you ‘simmer’ the soup. For certain things, if you are impatient you may burn the outside without cooking the inside.

Some ingredients become the more tender the longer they are cooked, like kidney and eggs. Some become untender when they are barely cooked, like fish, clam and other kinds of sea food. If meat is overcooked, it turns from red to dark. Fish overcooked has its ‘lively’ texture turned ‘dead’. If the wok’s lid is opened too often the flavour vanishes. If a dish is reheated it becomes rancid and tasteless. Cooked fish which is white like jade and which is resilient is fine (lively texture); that which is white like powder and which seems to have disintegrated is poor (dead texture). To make fish that is fresh into something which tastes unfresh is nothing short of criminal.

Smell and Look

The eyes and the nose are neighbours to the mouth and act as middlemen. A good dish strikes the nose and the eyes first. Sometimes, it is clear like autumn clouds and beautiful like amber. Its flowery flavour tells the secret before being tested by the mouth and tongue. Crystal sugar helps to give an attractive look. Do not, however, rely on spices for flavour. Once you do that, the essence of taste is destroyed.

Quick and Ready

It is best to invite friends at least three days ahead so that things can be properly prepared. But if some friends drop in unannounced and you have to do something about it, or when travelling abroad and a quick meal is desired, can you use the water of the sea in the east to put down a forest fire in the south? Thus you should always have something up your sleeves in case of need. Stir-fried sliced chicken, stir-fried shredded pork, stir-fried shrimps and bean-curd, wine-sauce fish and good ‘tea-ham’ can be used with advantage.

[Fig.3. ‘At Dinner’, a Ming dynasty woodcut after a drawing by Ch’en Hung Shou.]


Everything has its own taste and does not tolerate indiscriminate combination. The ancient sages did not treat every pupil the same but tried to draw out the best qualities of each and perfect them. I have seen, however, some vulgar cooks boiling chicken, duck, pork and goose together. The result is abominable, needless to say. I am sure that if the chicken, duck, goose or pig were endowed with a spirit, they would certainly litigate against the offender in the netherworld. The good cook should have many woks, bowls, grills, and such utensils so that each material can have its proper place and the cook will have a sort of leisurely feeling and deal with each according to its special capabilities.


It is well said by the ancients: ‘Good food is as good as the crockery that contains it.’ But the porcelainware of Hsuan Teh 宣德, Ch’eng Hua 成化, Chia-ching 嘉靖 and Wan Li 萬曆 are too expensive and the fear of breakage weighs too heavily on its user. The present Chien Lung Imperial kiln should be elegant enough. But bowls and plates should be used according to the foods for which they are intended to contain. There should be a variety of sizes. In general, use larger containers for more expensive dishes and smaller containers for cheaper dishes.

When and What Dishes to Serve

Generally speaking, the more salty dishes should come before the bland; the heavy dishes should come before the light; dishes with soup in them should come before those without. Of course there are other tastes than mere saltiness. When your guests show signs of satiety, you may stimulate their appetite with something ‘hot or pepperish’; when your guests have had too much to drink you may revive their palate with something sweet-and-sour.


A good rule is to be liberal in the use of expensive ingredients and to skimp on the cheaper ones. In ‘shallow-frying’ or stir-frying, if too great a quantity is used the heat will not penetrate sufficiently to give the meat a good texture. Therefore, do not use more than half a catty of red meat in any dish which requires ‘shallow-frying’. If too much is used, the meat will not be tender. And not more than six taels of chicken or fish. If you ask what happens when more is demanded, I will reply, ‘Repeat the performance after the dish is consumed!’


The knife that has been used on onion should NOT be used to cut bamboo-shoot. Vegetables take on an unpleasant smell if wiped by a piece of unclean cloth or cut on an unclean board. Similarly affecting the goodness of vegetables are tobacco ashes, sweat on your forehead, ants and flies and chips of charred left-overs in the wok.

Use of Ch’ien or Thickening

Starch or bean paste is used for thickening, called ch’ien 縴 (which originally means the rope used in towing) because it is an agglutinative agent. The purpose of this is to thicken a gravy or a soup or to serve as a protective film for meat when subjected to frying.

Some Distinctions

‘Being rich and concentrated’ in taste should be distinguished from ‘being greasy’; ‘being fresh and clean’ from ‘being insipid’. These fine distinctions should be well observed. It is better for a dish to want salt than for it to taste too salty. The former can be corrected by the addition of salt, but it would be wrong to dilute a dish in order to make it taste less salty. In the same way, it is better for fish to be undercooked than overcooked.

What Not to Do

  • Do not add oil to a dish after it has been cooked. This is an offence commonly committed by restaurant cooks. They do it even to as clear a soup as swallow’s nest. It is a disgusting practice.
  • Do not ‘dine with your ear’. This phrase applies to those whose taste is determined by the high costs of certain ingredients or by a slavish subservience to other people’s tastes. For instance, to consider swallow’s nest as necessarily better than bean-curd is an instance of ‘ear-dining’. I have witnessed a wealthy official serving bowls of boiled swallow’s nest which was quite tasteless. But his adulators were high in praise of the dish. I did not care to spare their feelings and said: ‘I came to eat swallow’s nest, not to buy or sell it. What is good about it if it is tasteless? For that matter why not serve instead a bowl of pearls; that would impress more.’
  • Do not ‘dine with your eyes’. ‘Eye-dining’ means the spreading out of a great number of dishes just to impress. One should realise that even a great calligrapher commits faults when he writes too much. A great cook cannot be expected to produce more than four or five dishes a day if he is to do them well. I have been to parties where scores of dishes were offered. The hosts usually beamed over their own generosity, but I usually went away with an empty stomach.
  • Do not let cooked dishes ‘stall’. A good dish should be eaten as soon as it is cooked and put on the table. It is a poor practice to have all dishes served at the same time. I have witnessed impatient hosts wanting their servants serve in such a manner, with the result that the dishes were first cooked and kept warm in steam and served as soon as ordered. This is murder.
  • Do not waste. There is something good about every part of a fish or fowl. I have seen people using only the ‘skirt’ of the turtle, and only the yellow of preserved eggs, not realizing that the goodness of turtle and eggs are found in other parts too.
  • Do not drink excessively. Only people who are wide awake can tell right from wrong. Similarly, only those who are wide awake with a keen sense of taste can appreciate good food, not those whose palate is dulled with drinking. In the same way, people who are over fond of finger-games at table can hardly be expected to know the taste of good food , which is wasted on them.
  • Do not force food on guests. Guests should be given the liberty to choose what morsels they like to pick up. Some may prefer fat, some lean, some bony pieces. They should not be treated as if they were children or shy brides or village bumpkins. There was the case of a Changan merchant who loved to entertain but was indifferent as a gourmet. Once a guest asked him : ‘Am I considered a good friend of yours?’ The host answered, ‘Of course you are.’ Whereupon the guest knelt down and said: ‘If you are good to me, I have one important request to make and I will not rise until it is granted.’ This being agreed to, the guest said: ‘Please promise not to invite me again when you entertain in the future.’

[Fig.4. ‘Taro and Green Cabbage’, by Chin Nung of the Ching dynasty.]

Yuan Mei’s Recipies

Swallow’s nest

Swallow’s nest is an expensive article and should not be lightly used. When used, every bowl should have a quantity of about two taels (2 ½ ounces) (hydrated). It should be prepared by steaming in chicken stock, with ham and mushroom added, until the ‘nest’ turns into the colour of white-jade.

Swallow’s nest is a very ‘clear’ thing and should not be mixed with grease. It is wrong to mix a dish of swallow’s nest with shredded chicken and such things. However, winter melon does mix well with bird’s nest. Both of them have the same ‘clear’ quality.

Sea-slug (Bêche-de-mer)

It has a neutral taste with a slightly fishy smell, It should first be thoroughly cleaned and then boiled in thick chicken broth. It may be mixed with fungus and mushroom. In summer, it may be consumed cold, shredded and taken with chicken stock and mustard. It also goes well with bean-curd and mushroom.

Shark’s fin

Shark’s fin must be boiled for two days before it is tender. One way is to cook it with a good ham-and-chicken stock, with a small quantity of bamboo-shoots and rock-sugar. Another way of preparing it is to boil it in chicken soup until the ‘needles’ are separated, and add parsley in long, slender slices so that they become indistinguishable from the shark’s fin.

Pig’s Knuckles

Boil a pig’s knuckle till tender and throw away the water. Add one catty of good yellow wine, 1/10 tael of dried tangerine peel, four or five red dates and boil till tender. Throw away the tangerine peel and dates. Put contents in wok. Add some spring onion, pepper and more wine. Serve.

Pig’s Lung

The lung should be thoroughly cleaned by passing water through it under pressure. After a quarter of an hour or so it will be ready for boiling. Boil it for several hours until it becomes milk white. Use chicken stock or ham stock as base and cook till it is very tender.

Pig’s Kidney

It is difficult to have it well-prepared by stir-frying because if it is overdone, its texture becomes wooden and if underdone, it is unsafe to eat. The best way is to cook it till tender and add spiced salt to taste. Kidney has a rather strong taste of its own and does not mix well with other things.

Red-Braised Pork

Cut pork into cubes. Add soya sauce or plum-sauce. Add salt to taste. Add wine. Cook till meat turns red and tender.

White-Braised Pork

Use one catty of pork and boil it in water till seventy percent cooked. Pour water into bowl. Add ½ catty wine, ½ tael of salt to pork. Pour ½ of the water back to the meat and, using slow fire, boil till the soup gets slightly thick. Add spring onion, fungus and other things as desired. Boil and serve.

Steamed Pork

Cut meat into small cubes and put it in a deep dish; add sweet wine and soya sauce (no water); seal dish and steam for half an hour.

Dried Sliced Pork

Slice pork into thin pieces and dry in sun. Shallow-fry it with salted cabbage.

Rice-flour Steamed Pork

Cut half-lean, half-fat pork into cubes. Roast some rice flour in wok till it turns light brown. Mix with pork. Add plum-sauce. Put white cabbage underneath. Steam. This is a Kiangsi delicacy.

Smoked Braised Pork

Braise pork with soya sauce and wine. When this is cooked, smoke it. But not for too long.

Eight-Precious Meat Paste

Mince some half-lean, half-fat pork. Mix it with some vegetables such as mushroom, cucumber, bamboo-shoots and ginger all cut up into bits. Add starch. Put into container. Add rice wine and soya sauce. Steam.

Bamboo Shoots and Ham

Cut winter bamboo shoots and ham into cubes. Add water and boil. After a while pour off water to get rid of excess salt in ham. Add crystal sugar and water. Boil till tender.

Braised Ham with Tientsin Cabbage

Take away fat from ham. Use chicken stock to boil ham. Add cabbage, honey and wine. Boil for hours till both ham and cabbage are tender. They melt in the mouth.

Honeyed Ham

Cut ham (with skin) into large cubes. Boil it in honey and wine till tender.

Chicken Slices

Boil chicken in water (not too much). Slice into thin pieces with skin, and serve.

Stir-fry Sliced Chicken

Mix sliced chicken with soya sauce, sesame· seed oil. Add oil and pour meat in. Stir, add ginger slices and spring onion. For best result, use only about six ounces of meat for an ordinary-sized wok.

Steamed Chicken

To tender chicken add soya sauce and sweet wine and mushroom. Steam in covered wok.

Chestnut Chicken

Cut chicken into pieces and fry in three ounces of vegetable oil. Add one cup of wine, two tablespoonful of soya sauce and one cup of water. When 70% cooked, add boiled chestnut and bamboo shoots till fully cooked. Add a pinch of sugar.


Jellied chicken-blood sliced and cooked in chicken broth, with a pinch of starch. Good for elderly persons.

Braised Chicken

Stuff about thirty stems of spring onion into hollow of chicken, add 2/10 tael of aniseed, one cup soya sauce. Boil for half an hour. Add one pint of water. Boil slowly till about one cup of gravy remains.

Shredded Chicken

Mix shredded chicken (cooked) with soya sauce, red vinegar and mustard; if possible add sliced bamboo shoots. A very appetizing recipe from Hangchou.

Mushroom Chicken

Mix one pound chicken, one pound sweet wine, pinch of salt and sugar, and stew for half an hour. Add mushroom and boil for five minutes. No water added.

Steamed Duck

Take away bones from duck; stuff it with mixture as follows: one cup rice wine, some ham, cloves, mushroom, bamboo shoots, soya beans, spring onion. Add chicken broth and steam till tender.

Tea-leaf Egg

Boil eggs in tea-leaves (adding a pinch of salt) for a quarter of an hour. Crack shell of eggs and continue boiling for another quarter of an hour.


Cooked bean-sprouts can be used as garnish for swallow’s nest and other delicacies. White cabbage can be mixed with bamboo shoots and cooked in chicken broth with slices of ham.

Winter Melon

This is a versatile vegetable and mixes well with ham, swallow’s nest, pork, etc.


A Scholar of the Han Dynasty said that salt was the supreme commander of all food. I hold that rice is the foundation of all tastes. Before cooking, rice should be washed till it has no trace of powder. Rice should not be treated as an inferior item in the menu.

A Biographical Note on T.C. Lai 賴恬昌 


Source: http://commons.ln.edu.hk/oh_cca/18/ nyhn       nyTg