Fish paste – from offal to Chinese haute cuisine

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.

FishBalls

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.

FishPaste

Fish paste like this can be prepared in larger quantity and frozen in portions big enough for one dish.

Dishes

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.

StuffedPepper

Instead of fish balls, you can make fish sausages, still using more or less the same stuff.

Industrial production

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;
  • separating;
  • washing and rinsing;
  • refining;
  • dewatering;
  • mixing;
  • filling;
  • freezing;
  • packing;
  • 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.

Ingredients

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.

Boli

Nutritional value:

Item per 100 gr
Energy (kcal) 323.85
Hydrocarbons (gr) 57.00
Fat (gr) 2.75
Protein (gr) 16.75

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.

FishAspic

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.

Eurasia Consult has recipes for all products mentioned in this blog and many more. We also have detailed information about the producers of fish paste.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

 

Crab Roe Flavoured Seed Kernels – a fine example of Chinese food engineering

While celebrating Chinese New Year where it should be celebrated: in China, a saw a friend nibbling on a product that I had never seen before. As a Chinese food blogger, I had to taste it and study the packaging. The list of ingredients was impressive.

Crab Roe Flavoured Seed Kernels (fried type)

Anhui Zhanshi Food Co., Ltd.

Ingredients: sun flower seed kernels, vegetable oil, glutinous rice powder, corn starch, modified starch, salt, crystal sugar, crab roe seasoning (glucose, shrimp powder, squid powder, crab roe powder, soy sauce powder, MSG, dextrin, yeast extract, spices), food additives: ammonium bicarbonate, citric acid, tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), aspartame, disodium 5’-ribonucleotide, food flavour

Nutrition information

Energy

2120 kj

Protein

13.6 g

Fat

29.1 g

Carbohydrates

46.7

Sodium

860 mg

IMG_20150219_102750

This blog combines a number of story lines. Chinese food and culture is obvious a leading theme. Frequently recurring themes include: adapting traditional Chinese foods and beverage to the age of modern mass production and consumption, novel foods Chinese style, fusion foods and drinks combining Chinese and Western concepts.

If we compare these story lines with warps in weaving, than the wefts are a number of technical issues related to those topics. A major weft is the use of additives to reach the goals of the food technologists. To adapt the recipe of a traditional food for economic scale industrial production, additives are often needed to retain the traditional flavour, colour and texture of the food. This is obviously not a typically Chinese problem, but it appears to be more prominent in China.

Chinese are demanding consumers when it comes to traditional foods. Where many Westerners would settle for a generic sandwich to still an upcoming pang of hunger while on the run to an appointment or waiting for our plane at the gate of the airport, Chinese would prefer a steaming bowl of noodles, spiced to perfection, with condiments, succulent chunks of meat, and topped with a pinch of chopped spring onions. Who is going to cook that for you? Just try to imagine one of those noodle vendors that you can see on almost any Chinese street corner setting up shop in an airport!

So this is why Chinese supermarkets have such an astonishing number of different types of instant noodles on their shelves. You open a pack, place the dried noodles in a bowl, tear open the bag with dry seasoning and poor it over the noodles, open the additional pack with wet seasoning past, dried beef, or dehydrated vegetables and add it all to the noodles. Then infuse it with boiling water and let it all soak for a few minutes. Now you are ready to eat. And yes, this cannot compare with the noodles you regular get from Boss Wang who runs a mobile noodle cookery near the subway station, but it is better than a bland cold sandwich.

Modern instant noodles are gems of modern-day Chinese food engineering. No time or effort, or ingredient, is spared to re-create the experience of road side noodles.

These same drivers motivate Chinese food technologists in inventing new traditional foods like the product that has lent its name to the title of this post.

Chinese love to nibble on seeds. Melon seeds, sunflower seeds, pine seeds, all kinds of nuts, form an important subgroup of the typical Chinese food category of leisure food, that has been the topic of an earlier post in this blog.

EatingMelonSeeds

The seeds are often flavoured to give the product of a certain manufacturer a less generic touch. So you can buy ‘cream flavoured melon seeds’, or ‘garlic flavoured peanuts’.

The product I want to introduce here, however, has taken the process of creating a unique nibbling experience to a new level.

The main raw material are the kernels sunflower seeds. The hulls have been removed by the manufacturer. Actually, Chinese like to do that themselves using their teeth, but in this case it would be hard to add the flavoured coating to the hulls, so the manufacturer has taken the risk of invoking criticism and removed the hulls in the plant. Indeed, the Chinese friend who showed me this product was a little disappointed that she had been deprived of the pleasure of chewing on a seed and spit out the hull.

The kernels are fried in vegetable oil. The manufacturer does not specify the type of oil used.

Most of the other ingredients are used for the crab flavoured coating. We see a number of flours and starches for the coating material. The follows a list of ingredient in the compound ‘crab roe seasoning’. The term that I translate here with ‘crab roe’ is xiehuang, which refers to all edible parts of the crab other than the meat. Interestingly, shrimp and squid powder are apparently needed to enhance the flavour of the crab, like lemon juice can intensify the flavour of strawberries. A whole army of taste enhancers is called upon to make the crab flavour even more prominent. Most of these are well known. Soy sauce powder is typically Chinese product that is obtained by spicing up and drying soy sauce.

The way to indicate the ingredients of the compound ‘crab roe seasoning’ using brackets is part of the labelling regulations. It is likely that Zhanshi Food is buying the compound from a flavour company, so not blending it in house. The flavour houses are such a major group of food ingredients in China, that the annual Food Ingredients China (FIC) trade fair has set up a dedicated hall for flavour suppliers.

The single food additives are indicate by the word ‘food additives’ followed by a colon and the list of additives. This shows, e.g., that glutinous rice powder is an ingredient, but not recognised as an additive.

The use of TBHQ as an antioxidant is interesting, because it has not been very popular in China lately.

So, what is the final verdict about the total eating experience of these seeds? They are tiny morsels of coated kernels. You take out a few, put them in your mouth and chew on them. They are definitely crunchy and have a distinct seafood flavour, although I would probably not have been able guess that it was ‘crab’ without seeing the pack. The small pack is finished quickly, especially because the hulls have already been removed.

Perhaps it could be served by airlines to accompany the pre-dinner drinks. My KLM has been serving almonds for as long as I can remember, so this could be an interesting alternative. However, the ingredients list of these kernels is considerably longer than that of KLM’s almonds. The question is do we want stuff like TBHQ or nucleotides to accompany our drink, regarding how low the dosage rate? I will leave the answer to my readers.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

 

What on earth are . . . dumplings?

What do Chinese eat, when they have something to celebrate: dumplings!

Dumplings are small round sheets of dough (flour + water) filled with minced meat + condiments + vegetables. After a piece of filling has been placed in the centre of the dough, the latter is folded into a shape that vaguely resembles a horn, in particular that of a cow. This shape is the origin of the Chinese name: jiaozi. Jiao is ‘horn’ in Chinese and jiaozi means something like ‘small horn.’ Later, the link between dumplings and horns eroded and as dumplings became an important part of Chinese cuisine (in particular in the Northern part of China), a special character was coined for this food.

Dumplings

Dumplings are an old food, as is shown by various archeological finds. According to an archaeologist from the Museum of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, the three dumplings unearthed in the region’s Turpan area were determined to have been made during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589). Archaeologists also found two complete dumplings made during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in Turpan. The dumplings were 5 cm long, 1.5 cm wide and resembled the new moon in shape. Further research revealed the dumpling wrappers were made from wheat flour and the stuffing was meat.

According to legend, during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 22 – 220), there lived a famous physician of Traditional Chinese Medicine, named Zhang Zhongjing, who introduced dumplings. Once, the “medical saint” was returning to his ancestral village after a long period of absence. During that winter, a febrile disease was turning into an epidemic. Many poor people were submitted to the cold weather because of the lack of warm clothes and sufficient food and suffered frostbite, mainly around their ears. Seeing their condition, Zhang was determined to help them rid of the frostbite. He cooked lamb, black peppers and a few medicinal herbs, shredded them and wrapped it in the scrape of dough skin. He shaped them like ears and boiled them. Everyone sick person was given two ‘ears’ along with a bowl of warm soup. After a few days, the frostbite was gone and the epidemic was under control. Since then, most people begin imitating Zhang’s recipe with additional ingredients like vegetables and other kinds of meat to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Already in traditional Chinese cuisine, some variation was applied in the preparation of dumplings. While pork was the main type of meat for the filling, beef and mutton were also used, combined with different vegetables. In Southern China seafood, especially shrimps, were used as filling as well. Vegetarian types of dumplings with, e.g., eggs, cucumber slices and glass noodles, etc. were known as Three Delicacies Dumplings.

Dumplings have developed into a Chinese type of fast food and special small restaurants only serving a wide variety of dumplings can be found on street corners of Beijing and other Northern cities.

Industrial production

The dramatic change in life style of the past two decades has had a great impact on dumplings. While making dumplings (preparing the filling and the dough, folding the dumplings and, of course, eating them) used to be the number one family occupation during the weekends in the North, the quickening of the pace of life has decreased the interest in this time consuming preparation. It has not, however, tempered the love for dumplings of the Chinese. Towards the end of the 20th Century, a number of food manufacturers started experimenting with the industrial production of quick frozen dumplings (one of these, Sanquan, already ranks among China’s top food brands), to cash in on the increasing pace of life of Chinese consumers. the current production is approximately 15 mln mt p.a., with 100 – 150 kt exported.

The latest news (October 2014) is that China’s top fruit juice producer, Huiyuan, is considering to invest in the production of quick frozen dumplings. This is a clear sign that dumplings are perceived as a lucrative business.

Apart from the quick frozen mass production, there are also machines that produce dumplings for use in restaurants and other types catering business.

DumplingMachine

This video shows part of the production of quick frozen dumplings at Sanquan.

Formulation

This development has created exciting new challenges for ingredients suppliers (see my blog on the Quick Frozen Tradition). First of all, do the manufacturers of frozen dumplings buy their own raw meat, vegetables, etc., or do they purchase minced meat and chopped vegetables. Especially for the meat, it seems more appropriate to have meat processing companies supply ready-to-use minced meat. Other ingredients used in the fillings include: flavours, taste enhancers, and dehydrated spices. The dough poses challenging opportunities for suppliers of enzymes. To mention one example:  fungal α-amylase can lower the viscosity of the of the gelatinized starch, generating dextrin and a small quantity of glucose and maltose, which will make the dumplings softer and not stick to the teeth.

Here is a recipe for quick frozen dumpling skin that I picked up from a food technology site.

Ingredient Volume (gr.)
High gluten flour 100
Modified potato starch 20
Wheat Gluten 6
Sodium hexametaphosphate 0.26
Sodium tripolyphosphate 0.14
sodium pyrophosphate 0.05
Sodium bicarbonate 0.2
CSL-SSL 0.3
Salt 1.5
Water 35
Guar gum 0.3
Shortening 4

Special seasoning

The booming industrial production of dumplings and the resulting increased consumption has also triggered developments in related industries. A typical example is the appearance of ‘dumpling vinegar’. Dumplings are traditionally dipped in rice vinegar before consumption. China’s top vinegar brand Hengshun is now also available in a convenient table top packing. The label clearly indicates the motivation for this variety.

Innovation

Haibawang in Shantou (Guangdong) has launched innovative dumplings in September 2014 are ‘fish skin dumplings’. The wrapping of these dumplings contains 40% fish meat (probably in the form of fish paste). This makes them highly transparent. Highbawang has clearly stated that it intends to challenge the top producers of frozen dumplings like Sanquan with this novel product.

dumplings-HaibawangFish

 

A month later, in October 2014, Sinian (Zhengzhou, Henan) has launched a new range of dumplings with well known Chinese dishes like Sichuan Pepper Beef or Lime Beef fillings. Until this launch, the fillings of dumplings, whether home made or produced commercially, consisted of minced meat and a type of vegetable as the main ingredients, with spices and seasoning as added to finish the flavor. Stuffing a complete dish in a dumpling is revolutionary.

The mackerel dumplings of Hongye Food (Shandong) received the status of ‘traditional Chinese delicacy’ in February, 2020.

Dumplings for children

Children are a major market segment for the Chinese food and beverage industry. Although a second child is a possibility now, for parents who are themselves single children, most children in China are still the ‘little emperors’ of the household who are doted on by parents and grandparents. Producers of quick frozen dumplings have also developed dumplings for children. They are marketed as more nutritious than the regular product and the skins are often coloured (typically red or green) to appeal more to the young. Sanquan‘s ‘King Shrimp Dumplings’ ended first in a taste panel test organized before Children’s Day (June 1), 2017.

Vegetarian

Although minced meat is the typical main ingredient of the fillings of dumplings, vegetarian dumplings exist as well. For home cooking, they do not pose a particular problem. However, the transformation to industrial production of vegetarian dumplings has its particular problems, the most prominent being the dehydration of the filling. Jiajiamei Seasoning (Zhoukou, Henan) has developed a seasoning mix specially formulated for vegetarian dumplings to deal with that problem.

VegDumpling

(Towards) organic

Another way of distinguishing yourself in the growing mass of industrial dumpling makers is going for high quality, getting rid of unnecessary additives, perhaps going for organic in the near future. Such a company is Chuange (Qingdao, Shandong). Founded in 2009, it produces a range of hand-made seafood dumplings. It markets its products as an industrial reproduction of traditional seafood dumplings eaten by the local fishermen. Its product range even includes sepia dumplings, marked by its distinct colour, not unlike the sepia noodles from Italy, or sepia paella from Spain.

Spin-off products

Dumplings are such a popular food, that it has lead to the development of various products related to the making or eating dumplings. E.g., many producers of vinegar or soy sauce have developed special products for dipping dumplings. Some chefs have started making dumplings using other cereals, like the oat dumplings of the restaurant chain Xibei Youmian.

Eurasia Consult’s database of the Chinese food industry includes 10 producers of dumplings., industrial recipes, and more.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.