Delicacy in the Icy Jar
[Su Yijian] replied, "There is no definitive flavour of food – whatever suits one's taste is a delicacy. I know in my heart that pickling brine is beautiful."
Emperor Taizong smiled and asked why. [Su Yijian] said, "One freezing cold evening, I warmed the wine by the stove, got drunk as a skunk, and buried myself in layers of duvet. Suddenly I woke up with a desperate thirst. Under the moonlight in the courtyard, I saw a pickle jar covered in melting snow. With no time to call over the page, I washed my hands with the snow and drank cupfuls [of the brine]. At that moment, I thought to myself, 'Even if I had an immortal chef from the celestial world [make] simurgh jerky or phoenix fat, I'm afraid they wouldn't be as good!' I always wanted to write an 'Account of Mr. Icy Jar' to record this incident, but I haven't had the time."
Emperor Taizong smiled in agreement.
Later, when people asked for the recipe, I said, "Take some clear vegetable noodle soup and soak in some veggies – a remedy for stopping the thirst after drinking; that's it." Or perhaps not. Please ask Mr. Icy Jar about it.
*From Shanjia qinggong 山家清供 (Light offer from a mountain house) by Lin Hong林洪 (fl. 12th century)
I quite like how Lin Hong backs up each recipe with a lovely short story or literary reference throughout his cookbook Shanjia qinggong. This recipe here for a magical hangover cure, however, is a bit difficult to follow. Ji 虀 refers to finely chopped vegetables and fruits pickled in salty brine, like sauerkraut. The context (winter; a jar in the courtyard) also suggests some fermentation process was going on in Su Yijian's icy jar, but Lin Hong didn't include any of the crucial details (e.g. amount of salt, use of oil, etc.) for fermentation in his recipe. If you just leave some vegetables in noodle soup casually, it's most likely that the whole thing goes sour by the next morning. For most people, that's not a pleasant taste, but I have an uncle who has a peculiar liking for the sourness of overnight congee. So, is Lin Hong also talking about his peculiar liking here? The last sentence seems to suggest he wanted to leave it open: If you don't think this recipe is a good one, simply try and find the recipe for YOUR icy jar!
(Above) My parents' pickle jars, an earthenware widely used in southern China. The conversation between Emperor Taizong and Su Yijian might have taken place in Chang'an (modern Xi'an, Shaanxi), the capital at the time. However, we should definitely note that Su Yijian was a native of Sichuan!
Another complaint I have about this anecdote is the lack of elaboration on Su Yijian's ingenious idea of "simurgh jerky and phoenix fat." I'm wondering if anybody has picked up this expression in his/her cookbook – it would make a nice title for the poultry section. I always thought, compared to other meat, poultry doesn't have much fat, let alone the wild birds (assuming simurghs and phoenixes are not domesticated fowl). I'm not sure about the taste of bird jerky, and I've certainly never imagined a phoenix, presumably elegant and majestic, could have enough fat content for culinary adventures.
Apart from that, Su Yijian certainly had a good point about delicacies. He offered a perfect excuse for not guaranteeing any sensational gastronomic experience in my "Classical Chinese Flavours" series. You'll see experiments on recipes from classical Chinese cookbooks. I'm not sure about your taste, but I'll let you know how they fit alongside mine.
PS: Su Yijian died of excessive drinking.
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