Sean JS Chen, a medical engineering PhD in North America, chose to translate the classical Chinese text by Yuan Mei, Recipes from the Garden of Contentment, out of personal intrigue.
The result is that one of China’s most important culinary building blocks, replete with wisdom and humour, has been made accessible for the first time to an English-speaking audience.
Yuan Mei’s work was published in 1792 in the middle of China’s Quin dynasty, when cuisine was about opulence, quantity and presentation (the largest meal to be recorded was the 1714 Manchu Han Imperial Feast – 108 different dishes eaten across six banquets in three days). Yuan Mei thought the events “vulgar and unwholesome”. He wrote: “One must understand that even the best calligraphers will fault if they overextend themselves in writing… how can we expect much of the food if a chef had to throw together enough to cover a banquet table?”
Yuan Mei’s cuisine focused on flavour and minimalism, often calling for dishes to be crafted around single ingredients. He argued that colour and fragrance should be the authentic results of ingredients, without unnecessary additions.
His approach does not put him far away from today’s food trends and the book is often cited as the first step towards modern Chinese cuisine.
There are similarities with Louis Saulnier’s Le Repertoire de la Cuisine – a guide to flavours, combinations and techniques, but not a standardised recipe book. Much is left to the imagination; few quantities are mentioned and many ingredients need adapting to the modern day: autumn sauce is a treatment of soy sauce made during the autumn months, and jiu is an alcohol similar to rice wine.
Chen’s translations offer their own insights. Each page has the original text and the English translation side by side; footnotes outline double meanings or simply bring out the poetry of a dish. The book provides a window into the development of Chinese culinary techniques. For chefs it offers something simultaneously ancient and new, an invigorating approach to cuisine punctuated by Yuan Mei’s wit and poetry.
Recipes from the Garden of Contentment
Yuan Mei, translated by Sean JS Chen (Berkshire, £95)
• Read Yuan Mei’s four ways with chicken recipes here