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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

Mentioned:

SuiYuanShiDan 随园食单

Episode 84 : Mid-Autumn Festival – Goddess Of The Moon

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It is almost the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节and for me it is one of the most romantic Chinese festivals because all the interesting myths about it. We will use two episodes to share them with you.

Mid-Autumn Festival is on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar with a full moon at night and this year it will be on the September 24th . Some researchers think the festival was originally for celebration of the harvest in the fall. Some historians think the festival was originally for the worship of the moon which was recorded in the book LiJi 礼记 since the Spring and Autumn period. The festival started from the early Tang dynasty 唐朝 when the Emperor XuanZong of Tang 唐玄宗 held formal celebrations in the palace. The festival was as important as the Spring Festival 春节, the Chinese new year since the Ming dynasty 明朝.

Today the festival is mainly about moon worship, moon gazing and family get together. I think moon gazing is the most romantic thing to do in the world and the second is star gazing. Anyways, moon gazing started from the palace among the scholars and then became popular with normal people. There are countless poems in the Chinese history about the moon and it used to be part of the Mid-Autumn Festivals traditions to write poems about the moon in the ancient time. While moon gazing, of course we need something to snack on. YueBing 月饼, moon cakes , a round desert with stuffings like salted egg yolk , bean paste is the traditional food on the festival and it goes so well with a cup of tea. Of course there are more flavors nowadays including ice cream. Fruits and nuts are always great for worship the moon and to eat ourselves. And then we are ready for the moon gazing. This is when people start to talk about stories and myths about the moon.

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We will start with story of the goddess of the moon today. Her name was originally HengE 姮娥 due to the name of the Emperor Liu Heng 刘恒 in the Han dynasty 汉朝, she was known as ChangE 嫦娥 after than. Just try to explain here, on the contrary of the western culture that people like to give the names of their kids with their own names or their ancestors’ names, in China, people actually try to avoid use the same characters in the names of their ancestors or the emperor out of respect. In the book Classics of the Mountains and Seas 山海经, it says ChangXi 常羲 and Di Jun 帝俊, of of the ancient supreme deities had 12 moons as children.

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In the book ShiJing 诗经, it says, ChangE is the daughter of ChangXi and DiJun. DiJun had a minister called HouYi 后羿 that we mentioned in our episode 3, who shot down nine suns leaving one left. HouYi is also regarded as a god of archery. DiJun’s daughter ChangE married to HouYi.

In the book HuaiNaiZi 淮南子 from the Han dynasty 汉朝, it says, HouYi got the elixir of life from Queen Mother of the West 西王母. You can check out episode 74 about Queen Mother of the West if you want to know more about her. HouYi didn’t consume the elixir right away and ChangE stole the elixir of life and consumed it when her husband wasn’t at home and flew to the moon. So she wanted to be immortal however she didn’t know she would have to fly to the moon afterwards and was forced to be separated from her husband and be alone forever.

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In the book ChuXueJi 初学记from the Tang dynasty, it says, after ChangE flew to the moon, she became a toad and the spirit of the moon. This also is mentioned in other books. Why did she become a toad. Some people say because the surface of the moon looks like the skin of a toad. Some people say it is a punishment for ChangE of stealing the elixir of life.

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But probably most people didn’t want to accept the end of the story that a beautiful woman became a toad and that’s the god of the moon. There were more stories coming up and are more widely known today. We will talk about them in our next episode.

Mentioned:

山海经 Classics of the Mountains and Seas

诗经 ShiJing

淮南子 HuaiNaiZi

礼记 LiJi

初学记 ChuXueJi

唐玄宗 Emperor XuanZong of Tang

常羲 ChangXi

帝俊 DiJun

后羿 HouYi

西王母 Queen Mother of the West

Episode 57: Dragon Boat Festival

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It is around the time of DuanWu Festival 端午节, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival. Today we are going to talk about the interesting stories about the festival. DuanWu Festival is on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar, around the summer solstice. This year, it is on June 18th.

In the book FengTuJi 风土记, it says “duan” in the name DuanWu Festival means the beginning in ancient Chinese. “Wu” is a earthly branch in the ancient dating system. The fifth month in lunar calendar is the month of Wu. So the name of the festival means the beginning of the fifth month. Coincidentally, five in Chinese “wu 五”  has the same pronunciation as the earthly branch “wu 午”. So you can interpret the name as the fifth day of the month.

In English the festival is called Dragon Boat festival, which a direct translation from another name of the festival LongZhou Festival 龙舟节. There are some other names for the festival related with the climate or customs too I am not going to talk about each of them. Since the festival is around the summer solstice. Can you guess what the festival is for originally?

The earliest customs about the Dragon Boat festival can be dated back to the Spring and Autumn period 春秋时 期, which is around 2500 years ago. Since it is around the summer solstice, the weather is hot and humid. Bugs and insects are active and germs grow fast. People can easily get diseases and infections. In the book XiaXiaoZheng 夏小正,it says the customs during the time around the fifth month in lunar calendar include using mugwort, a kind of aromatic plant in food and decorations for the anti-herpectic effect and cooking bean soup to prevent heat stroke.

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During Han Dynasty 汉朝, which is between 202 BC ~ the year 220 , in the book SiMinYueLing 四民月令, it says, people would Chinese medicine during the fifth month for diarrhea and heat stroke and braid silk threads of five colors and wear them on the wrists to keep bad spirits and diseases away. I definitely remembered I was wearing the braided five -colored bracelet as a kid.

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During Jin Dynasty 晋代, which is between the year 265~ 420, more customs added to the festival including a game called “Hundred – plants fight斗百草”. Children would find as many plants as possible and tag-a- war with them. Scholars would get as many plants as possible and compete each other with naming the plants in the certain format of Chinese poems.

During Sui and Tang Dynasties, which is between the year 581~ 907, Dragon Boat festival was already an important day. It was popular to give each other clothing and accessories as gifts during the festival like belts, fans especially fans which is a great tool to keep cool in the summer and drive off bugs. People would hang up pictures with the five poisonous animals including snakes, scorpions, toads, lizards and centipedes.

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During Song Dynasty 宋朝, which is between the year 960 ~ 1279, things got more delicate and complicated. Food wise, there were more well-made deserts. Accessory wise, there were little silk made bag with various aromatic plants inside to wear. There were tiger shaped decorations using different plants. The must have food for Dragon Boat Festival today is Zongzi 粽子, which was popular since that time. If you have seen the Japanese cartoon movie called My Neighbor Totoro, you would know it. It is made of sticky rice with different fillings like dates and beans or meat and salted egg yolk wrapped with different kinds of leaves like leaves of lotus and reed. It is usually boiled or steamed kind of like the Mexican food tamales.

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During Ming Dynasty 明朝, which is between the year 1368 ~1644, dragon boats started to get popular. There were dragon boats races and there were some sacrifice ceremonies on the boats as well. Some people would use the water in the dragon boat afterwards and shower with it and some plants to keep away from bad spirits.

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So origin of the festival is related with the climate of the time of the year. However, it is well known today that the festival is related with a scholar called Qu Yuan 屈原, a Chinese poet and minster from around the 340 BC~ 278 BC during the Warring States period 战国时期. He was patriotic however committed to suicide in the river to protect his life principles when feeling despair to to politics of his motherland. It is said he committed to suicide on the fifth day of the fifth month which was the same day of Dragon Boat Festival. That’s why people carry zongzi and boats to the rivers to save Qu Yuan from being eaten by fish in the river. This explanation actually was made like 50 years ago by some Confucianism scholars in modern China who tried to promote the patriotism in China. And it seems to work really well that everyone today knows the Dragon Boat Festival is about Qu Yuan.

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Mentioned:

龙舟节/端午节Dragon Boat Festival/ DuanWu Festival

屈原Qu Yuan

风土记 FengTuJi

夏小正XiaXiaoZheng

四民月令 SiMinYueLing