Episode 206: Chinese Cuisine Story 1 –West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy

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Chinese cuisine is one of the most important parts of Chinese culture and of course there are stories behind the food. We will start a new series of stories about Chinese cuisine.

Today we will talk about a famous dish called 西湖醋鱼West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy, a traditional dish of Hangzhou 杭州, where the West Lake 西湖 is in Zhejiang Province 浙江, in the southeastern China. The dish is a boiled grass carp or perch, sugar and vinegar gravy on top. The fish is fresh and tender with special crab flavor. The ingredients are simple but the fish is important. The freshness and the weight of the fish is closely related to the time and heat control to make it tender.




There are different versions of the history of the dish and story. One theory is that the dish is based on a dish called CuLou fish 醋搂鱼from the Qing dynasty 清朝 and the recipe of which can be found in the book SuiYuanShiDan 随园食单from the 18th century. One of the most well known folklore about the dish goes like this, it says a long time ago, there were two brothers from the Song 宋 family. The local villain Zhao 赵 saw the beauty of Mrs Song, the wife of the elder brother, and killed the husband in order to marry her. The villain Zhao had cooperated with the local government that, Mrs Song and younger brother had no way to fight against him. Mrs. Song helped the younger brother to escape out of the town. Before they separated, she cooked the fish with sugar and vinegar as the last meal. She explained the sweet and sour flavor would remind him the ups and downs in life today and hope he would worked hard for his future. This is actually a well-known metaphor in Chinese that the life is like the meals with five flavors: sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, salty. It is true that bitter is a kind of flavor in Chinese cuisine. One bitter ingredient I can think of right away is bitter melon. Like the name, it really just tastes like bitter melon. It is used in stir fires, soup, herbal tea and so on. It is also used in cuisines of Japan, India, Thailand and other Asian countries.

The younger brother left the town and he joined the army and became a famous general. He visited his hometown and punished the villain Zhao who killed his brother but couldn’t find Mrs. Song. One day, he was having lunch in a restaurant and tasted a fish dish just like the fish cooked by his sister-in-law. And luckily found out Mrs. Song worked in the kitchen. The family finally reunited.




How to cook this dish? There are different ways. The older way was to fry the fish and eat it with the source. The modern way is the boil the whole fish after the water is boiling with soy source, ginger, rice wine, sugar, vinegar. After it is cooked, put on the juice thickened with starch water. The key of the dish is the freshness of the fish, the size of the fish, the timing of the boiling and so on. People used to cook half of a fish and eat the other half raw as sashimi. While since the economy of China wasn’t great for decades around the 50s and 60s, it couldn’t guarantee the safety of raw fish, people stopped eating this dish with half sashimi but cooked the whole fish instead.



SuiYuanShiDan 随园食单

Episode 205: Koan 2 – Poison or Honey

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A Koan 公案 is a story, dialogue, question or statement which is used in Zen practice. Today we will start a new series in our podcast of koans.

I am not a Buddhist, and by no means I understand the world or have more life experiences than anyone who is listening. But hopefully by sharing these koans we can all have some inspirations and understand ourselves better.

The koan today is from the the Buddhism script JiuZaPiYuJing 旧杂譬喻经from India. The Earliest Chinese translation from the original Sanskrit is from the Easter Han dynasty 东汉, between the year 25 ~ 220.

This is a story told by the Buddha to the King ShengGuang 胜光. It says, long long ago, there was a person walking in the wilderness and all of a sudden a ferocious elephant started chasing after him. The person was panicked and he saw a dead well where he could get down to by climbing along the roots of the tree next to it. So he held the tree roots and hid inside the well.

When he thought he could take a break, two mice a white and a black started to chew on the roots in the meanwhile there were four vipers appeared next to the well and an evil dragon at the very bottom of the well looking upwards. The person was scared too death by the vipers and the dragon and worried about the mice would keep chewing the roots and he could get out the well.




At this moment, five drops of honey from the beehive on the tree not to the left nor to the right, fell right into the person’s mouth. Maybe this is due the the mice chewing on the roots and the tree started to shake a little bit. Tasting the honey, he suddenly forget all the fear, all the worries and just enjoyed every bit of the flavor of the honey. Since the tree was shaking, the bees were startled and stung the person. And out of nowhere, a fire burned downed the tree.

The Buddha said, “the person represents every normal person. The elephant represents the unpredictable. The well represents the safe island. The roots of the tree represents our lives. The black and white mice represent the night and the day. The mice chewing on the roots represent our life clock is ticking every second. The four vipers represent the four elements in the nature, earth, water, fire and wind. The five drops of honey represent our five desires money, lust, fame, food and rest. The evil dragon represents the death and the fire represents aging and diseases. My king, we should always be alarmed and not be swallowed by our desires.”



旧杂譬喻经 JiuZaPiYuJing

Episode 204: The Cricket

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Today we will talk about a story of cricket saving people from the book YouMingLu 幽明录 from the Liu Song dynasty 刘宋 around the 5th century.

In the book, it says, a person was involved in a crime and locked in the prison. He didn’t do anything outlaw just being unlucky. In the cell, he saw a cricket crawling and said, “if you have magic power, pleas help me get out.” Then he fed the cricket with his own food. The cricket ate the food and disappeared in a small hole.

After a while, the cricket came back and looked a little bigger than before. The person thought it was interesting and fed him more. Day after day, the cricket was the size of a piglet. On the day of the execution, the pig sized cricket dug a big hole on the wall and the person escaped.

It reminds me of an Italian tale from the book Pentamerone or The Tale of Tales by the author Giambattista Basile between the year 1566 to 1632 called the Flea. The beginning of the story goes like this “’The king of High Mountain was once bitten by a flea, and when he had picked it off with great dexterity and saw how beautiful and solidly built it was, it seemed a shame to him to execute it on the block of his fingernail. And so he placed it in a carafe and, feeding it daily with blood from his own arm, it grew so quickly that at the end of seven months, when he had to change its quarters, it was bigger than a lamb. On seeing this, the king had it skinned, and when the skin had been dressed he issued a proclamation: whoever was able to recognize to which animal the hide belonged would be given his daughter in marriage.”

It is interesting to see the similarities of the two stories that a cricket or a flea can grow to the size of a pig or a lamb..




幽明录 YouMingLu

Episode 203: Swapping Feet

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Today we will talk about a story of swapping feet from the book YouMingLu 幽明录 from the Liu Song dynasty 刘宋 around the 5th century.

In the book, it says, one day a person suddenly died. The god who in charge of human lives 司明神 checked his record and found out this guy died earlier than he should be. So the god let some assistants to send this guy back to the human world.

However, this guy’s feet started to hurt and couldn’t walk. The god thought for a while and said, “there is a barbarian just died and waiting outside. His feet are totally fine. How about let them change the feet.”

This guy was told his feet would be changed. He didn’t want to because he thought the barbarians’ feet were ugly. The assistants threatened him that, “if you don’t swap feet, you have to stay here for ever.” So the guy swapped feet with the barbarians’ and walked back home.

When the guy woke up, he was lying in his bed like just had a dream. But his feet were for sure from the barbarian since they were hairy and stinky. The guy liked to play with his feet and hands sometimes now he had no desire doing so. Although he came back from death, he felt worse than being dead.

The guy had a friend who knew the barbarian who he was alive and told him the barbarian hadn’t been buried yet. The guy went to see the barbarian’s dead body and saw his own feet on the body and couldn’t help crying.

The son of the barbarian really missed his father. Every festival, and special occasions, he would come to this guy’s house and hold his father’s feet crying. Even sometimes when they encountered on the street, the son would kneed down holding his father’s feet and crying. The guy had to ask people the guard the gate and in case the barbarian’s son came and cry.

The guy himself though really despised the ugly feet he had and even in the hot summer, he would wear long clothing to cover them.



幽明录 YouMingLu

Episode 202: Not here

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Today we will talk about a story from the book YouTaiXianGuanBiJi 右台仙馆笔记, from the Qing dynasty 清朝 around the 19th century. The story is from a Japanese friend of the author YuYue 俞樾 and he wrote in the book.

It says, Japanese people like to eat unagi, which is freshwater eel. However, they also are afraid of them because they think unagi have spirits. Many people wouldn’t kill unagi themselves but to buy in shops. Most izakaya, Japanese pubs would keep live unagi for customers.




One night, a few drunk guys knocked the door of an izakaya. It was midnight and the staff were already sleeping. Nobody responded. So the drunk guys asked, “hi! Do you still have unagi?” This time, they heard all the live unagi in the water answered together, “not any more.”





右台仙馆笔记 YouTaiXianGuanBiJi