The Origins of Braising: Reaction Post

A commentator on the SCA Chinese research group posted an article on the origins and history of lu cai, (there are various names for it), which is a class of dishes made by braising typically meat in stock.  I'd not heard of these before, and the article was a fun read.  I thought I'd put the highlights here in English, and translate the original sources mentioned.

"滷 Lu" is the operative word and originally meant "to boil water to obtain salt, sometimes an alkali salt," and from there gained meanings around reduction by boiling in general and so can refer to sauces or gravies, as well as things like halogens.  Fun!

The article points first to Chu Ci, a collection of poems from what was then the southern kingdom of the fractious warring states period, from around 300-250 BCE.  One poem talks about the various foods one eats when returning home, and includes the line 露雞臛蠵,厲而不爽些, narrowly translating as "nectar-chicken and braised-turtle, none can contravene them!"  One scholar, Guo Moruo reportedly points to this as the first mention of this cooking style.  Perhaps!  There's not much else to go on here.

The next reference is to my most familiar text, Qimin Yaoshu.  Chapter 79 is "[this character screws up Blogger]綠 Pickled greens."  The unprintable character is fairly obscure, and the link for it gives several historical dictionaries under a claimed homograph zu defining it as variously
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Salted or pickled vegetables, fermented when fresh, and then stored at moderate temperatures so as to not go mushy (probably a lacto pickle)
  • "When finely cut, we call it 齏 ji, when whole pieces we call it 菹 zu"
  • A few meanings around fresh pond grass
They call out a recipe titled "綠肉法 Recipe for Green Meat," which they claim is a homophone for braised meat.  I'm not sure, but the recipes in it are certainly along the lines of braises or stews:

[X]綠第七十九 Chapter 79: Pickled greens

白𦵔 White Pickles


The Classic of Food reads, "White 'pickles:' take boiled goose, duck, or chicken white meat, deer bones, cloven following the rule: 3 inches long, one inch broad.


Place down into a cup, take 3-4 sheets finished green nori, salt, vinegar, and the meat broth and immerse it.


It also reads, "Put finely cut vegetables on top."


It also reads, "When ready, boil the meat broth again, and enjoy it.  A few add rice gruel.  In general, if you do not have vinegar, do not add nori.  Serve it forth.

[X]法:To Make Like-Pickles:


Take pork, sheep, or deer fat, finely-cut scallion leaves, and braise them.  Add salt, and juice from fermented and salted black beans.


Finely cut vegetables and pickled leaves, as fine as small worm silk, up to 5 inches in size, and add it to the meat broth.


Add pickle broth until it is sour.

蟬脯菹法:To Make Dried Cicada Pickles:


[source not given, perhaps the Classic of Food?] "Pound them, then fire-broil them until cooked.  Finely split/"thumb" them, and add vinegar."


It also says, "Steam them.  Finely cut fragrant vegetables and place them on top."


It also says, "Add them to boiling water, immediately take them out, split/"thumb" them, and do as the above fragrant vegetable method, with smartweed [Persicaria sp.]

綠肉法:To Make Green Meat:


Take pork, chicken, or duck meat, cut square, and braise it.


Boil with salt and fermented black bean juice.


Add finely cut scallions, ginger, tangerine peel, celery, and sand leek [Allium scorodoprasum], and add vinegar.


Cut meat is called "green meat."  Pork and chicken is called "sour"

白瀹瀹,煮也,音藥。肫法:To Make White Suckling Pig Soup:


Use a fat suckling pig.


Boil water until it appears like fish eyes, and then add cold water and mix it.  Break apart [pry open? separate?] the pig until clean, and then stop


Wipe it clean with cogongrass [Imperata cylindrica] and wormwood [Artemisia sp.] [possibly Drosera instead of these two, but that seems unlikely] leaves, and then scrape it very well with a knife.


Wipe clean a cauldron that will not overflow, for if the cauldron overflows then the pig will blacken.


Put the pig in a tabby-woven plain dense silk bag, and boil it in vinegar soured water.


Bind on small stones so that it does not float out.


When there is foam floating on top, you may take it [the foam?] out.


At the second boil, immediately remove it, and immerse the pig in cold water.


Again take cogongrass and wormwood leaves and wipe it so that it it is white-clean.


Take some flour and mix it with water to form flour broth; put the pig back in the silk bag, tie on stones, and boil it in the flour broth.


Remove foam, and do as above.


When done, remove it, and place in a basin.  Mix cold water with the boiled pig/flour broth to make it pleasantly warm, and soak it in the basin.


Then, break/"thumb" it to eat.


The skin is the color of jade, smooth and delicious.

酸肫法: To Make Sour Suckling Pig:


Use a suckling pig.


Scald it and when done, cut parallel to the bone and divide it into pieces, separated from the surrounding skin.


Stir-fry with finely cut onion-whites and fermented black bean juice, add aromatics, a tiny amount of water, and boil until soft and good.


Add polished non-glutinous rice to make a gruel.


Finely break onion whites, and again add fermented black bean juice to it.


When done, add Sichuan peppercorn, and vinegar, and it is very delicious.

These certainly look like stews in the direction of braising.  The word I'm translating here as "braise" can also mean "to roast, to dry-fry," and acquires a meaning of "boil" as the medieval period progresses but I think this reading of "braise" is more likely for this section.  It could equally be boil, however - it's not clear.  I'm not sure why this section is titled "pickled greens."

The next reference is from Record of the Dream of Rafters, a pretty disorderly text about life in the late Song dynasty around the greater Shanghai area.  The page in question talks about how everybody in Hangzhou, no matter how rich or poor, enjoys soups.  Salted fish is the main ingredient, and vast amounts of it are on sale spread out in the market and being carried about.  The author then lists a bewildering list of kinds of "famous kinds of dried fish", and transitions into "and there's also..." listing other foods that are a little unclear but include "wine river skate, wine fragrant snails, wine oysters, ..., small nail-head fish, purple fish, fish fat, arc clams, mackerel, ... " before mentioning 鹵蝦, "salted shrimp" but which our article claims is the braised shrimp 滷蝦 (remember the etymology of braising originating from salt brine reduction).  Another list follows with salted fish condiments (鮓) and jellies, and it does proceed on to "roasted" (炙) fish of various kinds, as well as steamed and stirfried white shrimp.
Gif of Bubba from the movie Forrest Gump reciting a long list of shrimp recipes
Basically this but it's all dried fish
Image owned by its copyright holder and not released under cc-sa-4

Initially I was unconvinced: 鹵 is not 滷, but when I went to look at the scanned text the character is actually 滷.  Now, this is not a slam dunk: this kind of character swap is fairly common historically and while the text appears printed that doesn't meant there are no errors.  I'm inclined to think that this is just salted shrimp, since it's not with the prepared food in the list.  Either way, we don't have a recipe - the article uses this to cite the beginning of the name 滷 for this cooking method.

The rest of the citations are from the Qing dynasty and I won't be pursuing them in this post, but Sean Chen over at Way of Eating has a recipe for Braised Chicken and Hanged Soy Braised Duck ("braised" as in 鹵) from 1792 cookbook Suiyuan Shidan.  Give them a read!

The rest of the article gives more historical background but I'm not equipped to assess it.  Enjoy the recipes!  Let me know if you try them.

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