Fish paste is a good example of a Chinese food ingredient that is widely used, but disproportionally little known. The best known product made from fish paste is the fish ball, shown in the picture, that is an indispensable part of the southern Chinese hot pot. However, it can be used in many more dishes of which I will introduce a few examples later in this post.
Fish paste used to be made at home by chopping a piece of fish by hand. For beginner, try to get a small size fish (approx. 600g) as it is easy to handle. Mackerel is popular material for fish paste. Choose one with some dots on the skin.
- Remove head and all the internal organs. Clean the fish and pat dry. Slice both side of the fish, making sure that the flesh does not contain any bones;
- Use a spoon to scrape the flesh, including the flesh that may still be on the bones; Chinese do not like to waste any food;
- Prepare 1 tsp salt;
- Sprinkle 2/3 tsp salt and dash of white pepper powder on the flesh;
- Add water to the remaining 1/3 tsp salt;
- Use the back of the knife to chop the flesh evenly; remove (pieces of) bones that you may spot in the flesh;
- Add the salted water during the chopping process. A little bit at a time. You will find that the flesh will become sticky and make the chopping getting harder.
This gives a basic paste that can be placed in a suitable container to ferment for a number of days. The natural enzymes in the flesh will break down part of the protein to give the past a strong, almost pungent, fishy smell. As this picture shows, it is hardly recognisable as something made from fihs.
Fish paste like this can be prepared in larger quantity and frozen in portions big enough for one dish.
For making fish balls, starch is added to the fish paste, after which you can make balls in a similar way as you are used to make meat balls for your soup.
The same starchy fish paste can be used to stuff pieces of bell pepper or bean curd, to prepare ‘stuffed pepper’ (see picture) or ‘stuffed bean curd’, famous dishes of Cantonese cuisine.
Instead of fish balls, you can make fish sausages, still using more or less the same stuff.
The industrial production of fish paste is big business. The current annual demand in China about 1 mln mt, with 200,000 mt produced domestically. This means that there is ample room for increase of production. Virtually all offal of the processing of any aquatic product can be used to make fish paste. In this respect, you might conclude that the production of fish paste in China is analogous to the production of pulverised chicken meat that is used to make products like chicken mcnuggets. Your first reaction when you learn about the details may be ‘yuck’, but it makes sense to reduce waste to a minimum. It can add valuable protein to any food.
The stages of the industrial process are
- heading and gutting;
- washing and rinsing;
- storage and delivery.
This is industry has become big enough to make it worth the effort for machine makers to develop dedicated equipment for the production of fish paste.
The industrial recipes include a number of ingredients for protecting the paste against frost damage (e.g. sucrose, egg white, sorbitol), texturisers (calcium salts, hydrocolloids) or humectants (phosphates), and of course various flavours.
Apart from from fish, main additional ingredients of fish paste are:
- (Modified) starch; fish meat contains 72-80% water. Starch or modified starch is needed to bind some of that water to improve the texture of the fish paste. An ingredient particularly mentioned in the Chinese literature is low cross-linking esterified starch.
- Vegetable protein/egg white; this improves the elastic properties of fish paste.
- Oil/fat; to improve the flavour and organoleptic properties.
- Gelatine; to get smooth jelly-like past.
- Sugars; Sugars have a number of effect on fish paste. One is that it removes some of the fishy flavour that is too strong for many Chinese. Insiders recommend sorbitol as the most effective in this category.
Innovation and haute cuisine
These new processes enable the development of a growing range new products like fish noodles, shrimp cake, fish beancurd, fish strips (look like noodles, but mainly consist of fish paste, unlike the fish noodles that are noodles flavoured with fish paste), fish cubes, fish ham (no pork used!), fish sausages, fish filling for dumplings, or fish aspic.
Boli brand fish strips come in two flavours: natural and spicy.
|Item||per 100 gr|
Ingredients as indicated on the label:
Fish paste, starch, sugar, salt, pepper, potassium sorbate.
Fish aspic includes hydrolysis of the proteins using the enzyme neutral protease. As the picture shows, this ingredient extracted from fish can then presented again in the form of a fish. This is the ultimate goal of haute cuisine Chinese style: creating an improved form of the original raw material. A good place to taste it is Beijing’s Duyichu Restaurant.
Another interesting variety is mixing fish paste with small cubes of vegetables or mushrooms of various colours, shape that into a large sausage shape and wrap it in a sheet of fried beancurd. After boiling, you can serve slices of this sausage as a fancy fish paté.
I am sure that more ‘fishy’ products will appear in China in the near future and I will keep you abreast about those developments by updating this post.
Fish paste forum
Fish paste is becoming such an important ingredient, that this year a special International Forum will be organised around it in Xiamen (May 19 – 20, 2016). Topics discussed will include applications like surimi.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.