The recipe was not my invention. According a legend, about 4000 years ago in China lived a man who was supposedly lived over 800 years¹ and was respectfully called Peng Zu, meaning the ancestor of the Peng clan. He had two sons. His youngest son liked swimming in the river and he was furious about it as he worried about his son’s safety. One day Peng Zu was out. His son went to swim in a river and caught a big fish. He took it home and asked his mother to cook it. Just then Peng Zu was back. To hide the fish, the mother threw it into the cauldron in which she was cooking the lamb. When the dish was ready, the mother brought the lamb to the table. When Peng Zu tasted the lamb meat and soup, he immediately noticed the difference in flavor and it was extremely delicious. He asked his wife why the taste of the lamb was so different then before and how was it cooked. His wife told him that the lamb was cooked together with a fish.
So here the fish and sheep meet. The marriage of the two not only created a spectacular dish but also formed a special Chinese word XIAN (鮮). Look at the seal script of top left: fish on the left and sheep on the right. A perfect combination! Xian is one of the most beautiful words in the Chinese culinary language and defies all direct translation into English.
Over thousands of years, xian has been of paramount importance in Chinese cuisine. Professional chefs, home cooks and housewives, all have kept pursuing it through their cookings and with various ingredients. But what is xian?
Many English writings on Chinese food translate xian as “fresh” or “savoury” . These are partly true. Modern western food science now added “umami” to the taste list and make it the fifth taste. But for Chinese “xian” is more than that. The English food writer Fuchsia Dunlop in her book “Sichuan Cookery” wrote: “It expresses the indefinable, delicious taste of fresh meat, poultry and seafood, the scrumptious flavour of a pure chicken soup, the subtle magic of freshly-redered lard. Xian describes the most exalted flavours of nature; it is the Chinese cook’s muse, the essence of flavour itself."
Unlike the fundamental taste of sour, sweet, bitter and salty, xian is very personal and subjective.Many years ago I cooked prawns for my partner’’s family. They live in a village in Northern China where people are used to food cooked with lots of soy sauce and salt. It was no surprise that the family of my partner did not like the prawns I cooked. They thought it tasteless and a bit of “fishy”. On the contrary, the same dish won a high appraisal from my family who thought it very tasty and “xian”.
In some parts of Eastern China, there is a very popular dish - the smelly fish. The dish smells a little bit of unpleasant odour. For people loving it the dish tastes absolutely delicious. They believe it has a special scent and “xian” which fresh fishes do not have. However, many people from other parts of China just cannot bear the smell.
To me, “xian” is a flavour which exits in all kinds of food. The question is how it can be released through cooking. “Xian” is a sense of taste which comes from the memories of one’s eating history and preference. “Xian” is all about taste but is beyond 5 fundamental tastes (4 in Western culinary terms) which fills your taste buds with an indescribable flavour. My mother always uses “xian” or not “xian” to judge whether a dish is good or not. When she really likes a dish, she would say: “It’s very ‘xian’!"