DRIED AND TESTED

De­mys­ti­fy­ing Asia’s Dried Seafood

Wine & Dine - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS SIM EE WAUN

De­spite the del­uge of cook­ery writ­ing th­ese past 15 or more years with the rise and rise of food­ieism, look through most culi­nary en­cy­clopae­dia and you'd still be hard-pressed to find much in­for­ma­tion about Asia's dried seafood. Per­haps it is the lan­guage bar­rier that keeps the in­for­ma­tion close to their na­tive cul­tures, or that it takes some ex­tra ef­fort to ap­pre­ci­ate the use of th­ese pun­gent, less-than-pretty in­gre­di­ents. Many of th­ese dried seafood do not cross culi­nary bound­aries de­spite the wide­spread bor­row­ing and meld­ing of in­gre­di­ents and culi­nary in­flu­ences across the world's kitchens. In­deed, Asia's dried seafood re­mains, by and large, within the realms of the purist.

It is no sur­prise that the prac­tice of dry­ing came about out of ne­ces­sity. It was a form of pre­serv­ing ex­cess foods and mak­ing them avail­able over the sea­sons. Dry­ing, whether by salt­ing or air­ing, took away the mois­ture within the in­gre­di­ents, which in­ten­si­fied the flavours.

De­spite their un­ap­peal­ing ap­pear­ance, dried seafood in Asia com­prises in­gre­di­ents of in­tense flavours, of­ten used to in­ject a deeper, richer, umami flavour into a dish, giv­ing it a more sub­stan­tial taste, body and back­bone. But they are not to be tri­fled with, for a lit­tle can go a long way. Care must be taken to pre­pare them, fail­ing which they have the po­ten­tial of ren­der­ing your dish quite un­ap­petis­ing.

DRIED SCAL­LOPS

In terms of us­age, dried scal­lops must be the queen of Chi­nese dried seafood. They are greatly val­ued par­tic­u­larly in Can­tonese cui­sine for their sweet, rich, umami flavour and are con­sid­ered fine del­i­ca­cies. Ver­sa­tile and de­li­cious, they are widely used to en­rich the flavours in braised dishes, por­ridge, sauces and soups, and are the main in­gre­di­ent in the mor­eish, com­plex XO sauce. Dried scal­lops are also called con­poy, and take the form of hard, cir­cu­lar golden nuggets. To get high qual­ity spec­i­mens, head to the Chi­nese her­bal shops where you can find them ac­cord­ing to grade. The best come from Hokkaido. Gen­er­ally, there are two va­ri­eties of con­poy—river scal­lops that are milder in flavour, and sea scal­lops (ho­tate) which have a richer flavour pro­file.

Large, whole, un­blem­ished, bright golden spec­i­mens would fetch a much higher price than small or bro­ken ones. When buy­ing, choose ac­cord­ing to your needs. Small or bro­ken ones, which are less ex­pen­sive, can be used for ca­sual home cook­ing, when looks don't mat­ter as much in a dish. But for fes­tive del­i­ca­cies like poon choy or Bud­dha Jump Over the Wall where they play a pri­mary role, large whole con­poy are es­sen­tial. Whichever you need, look for bright golden, scal­lops which still have a slight moist patina on their sur­faces. Soak them in wa­ter for about an hour, then steam to­gether with the soak­ing liq­uid for 30 min­utes be­fore us­ing.

DRIED SHRIMPS

If scal­lops are the queen of dried seafood, dried shrimps are the king. They may not be the most ex­pen­sive in­gre­di­ent, but they are cer­tainly used most widely across Asian cul­tures and in an end­less plethora of dishes. You'll find them in Chi­nese clay­pot rice, zongzhi or rice dumplings, in soups and stews, in Peranakan and In­done­sian rem­pahs or spice pastes, in sal­ads across In­dochina, and much more. Fra­grant with sea-fresh aro­mas, they are ex­tremely flavour­ful and lend sub­stan­tial body to any dish, used whole or pounded. They com­ple­ment the fier­i­ness of chilli and act as a foil to high, pep­pery or minty flavours of Asian herbs. Grilled over a char­coal fire, they also make very ad­dic­tive snacks.

The larger they are, the more ex­pen­sive and val­ued. You'll find par­tic­u­larly large spec­i­mens in Hong Kong, Viet­nam and Sarawak. Look for lively, or­ange-pink, un­blem­ished shrimps, and take a sniff to check for their fresh, briny, sweet aroma. Avoid grey, pale or overly des­ic­cated-look­ing spec­i­mens, which in­di­cate they have been sit­ting around for too long. Leave those with­out any aroma, and def­i­nitely avoid any that smell of am­mo­nia—they would have gone bad. Al­ways store them in the re­frig­er­a­tor in an air-tight con­tainer. To use, wash away the dust, then soak in wa­ter for about half an hour to soften.

They go by the name of hae bi or har mai in Teochew and Can­tonese, kung haeng in Thai, and ebi in In­done­sia.

OYS­TERS

Called 'hou si' in Can­tonese, th­ese make their pres­ence felt par­tic­u­larly dur­ing Chi­nese New Year. They play on the homonym for 'good things', and so sym­bol­ise good luck and all things aus­pi­cious. Not to ev­ery­one's taste, they have a strong, deep and earthy flavour. Pre­pared with skill, th­ese dried oys­ters are turned into de­lec­ta­ble morsels in por­ridge and braised dishes, such as dried oys­ter with black moss fun­gus.

There are ac­tu­ally three types of dried oys­ters: dried oys­ter, sun-dried oys­ter and half-dried oys­ter. Sun-dried oys­ters come from Guang­dong in China, the best of which hail from Sha­jing. Th­ese are dried on bam­boo poles, un­til they are 80 per cent de­hy­drated. They are rec­om­mended for steam­ing and stir­fry­ing.

Half-dried oys­ters also come from Sha­jing, but are dried to 60 per cent of their mois­ture. For th­ese, choose plump, smooth spec­i­mens with a sweet aroma. Ja­panese dried oys­ters come mainly from Hiroshima, and are bright in colour with slightly dark edges. They are par­tic­u­larly strong in flavour, plump and are rich in oils. Th­ese are best suited for long, slow brais­ing. Korean dried oys­ters are smaller

than their Ja­panese cousins, with a dark green tinge, and a strong fishy smell. Th­ese lit­tle 'pearl oys­ters', as they are also called, are per­fect for por­ridge. To pre­pare, soak them for two hours to re­hy­drate be­fore use. Store in the freezer.

DRIED OC­TO­PUS

Th­ese flat­tened cephalopods are com­monly found in Chi­nese her­bal shops or the dried goods sec­tion of the su­per­mar­ket. Pro­duced mainly in Guang­dong in China, they are mildly sweet in flavour, and most com­monly added to stocks and braises to en­rich the flavour of the dish. In tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, they are known to re­plen­ish en­ergy, nour­ish the blood and stim­u­late lac­ta­tion in new moth­ers, and hence, are of­ten used in con­fine­ment cui­sine. Soak them in wa­ter un­til soft, and re­move the mem­brane be­fore us­ing. If you are plan­ning to use dried oc­to­pus in a steamed dish, im­merse it in wa­ter and steam it for 20 min­utes be­fore us­ing.

DRIED SQUID

Thin­ner and more del­i­cate than oc­to­pus, dried squid is pre­pared and used in al­most the same way, in soups and stocks. An added ad­van­tage is that it can be beaten a lit­tle to ten­derise fur­ther, and grilled over an open fire or in a toaster un­til crisp, then shred­ded or pulled into smaller pieces and eaten di­rectly as a snack. Th­ese dried squid snacks can also be found in shops around South­east Asia, sold in pack­ets. The more you chew, the more the flavour is ex­tracted. Per­fect with beer.

DRIED SEA CONCH FEET

Yes, they sound odd but cer­tainly to the point. Th­ese are the mus­cu­lar fleshy parts of the conch or sea snail, which the crea­ture uses to move it­self along the seafloor. Re­con­sti­tuted, they are sweet with an aro­matic seafood flavour and are springy in tex­ture with a sat­is­fy­ing bite. They are most of­ten used in dou­ble-boiled soups en­riched with Chi­nese herbs and other gourmet del­i­ca­cies like fine shi­itake mush­rooms, abalone and con­poy. For qual­ity conch, look for the su­pe­rior dried Red Sea conch which come from the Mid­dle East; they are quickly boiled then sun-dried, yield­ing a strong, sweet flavour. The US pro­duces dried conch as well. Larger, whole pieces are more ex­pen­sive. Soak in wa­ter for 12 hours be­fore us­ing. FISH MAW

Rich in col­la­gen, mild in flavour and a joy to eat with its springy, bouncy, ten­der and smooth tex­ture, fish maw is one of the most trea­sured ocean del­i­ca­cies of Chi­nese cui­sine, along­side abalone, sea cu­cum­ber and sharks' fin. You'll find it in soups and stews such as in the much-loved dish of braised goose webs and fish maw, and even in stir-fries. The Chi­nese en­joy it for its spongy, gelati­nous tex­ture and mild flavour. Also, its high vis­cos­ity gel pro­tein and mu­copolysac­cha­ride are be­lieved to boost com­plex­ion and blood cir­cu­la­tion. It is of­ten braised with good stocks and sauces as it has a de­li­cious char­ac­ter­is­tic of soak­ing up all the flavours of the liq­uids it cooks in.

Fish maw is the swim blad­der of fish. You'll find two kinds in the mar­kets. Firstly, dried fish maw, which comes from larger fish, is hard and have a rich golden colour. The other is fried fish maw which comes from smaller fish such as eels or yel­low croaker, and is long and lighter in colour. Fried fish maw is springy with a shorter bite, mak­ing it best for stir­fries or wraps to be stuffed. Oddly, fish maw is also cat­e­gorised by gen­der. Male fish maw is thicker, longer and does not dis­in­te­grate in slow cook­ing; while the fish maw of a fe­male fish is round, flat­ter and dis­in­te­grates more read­ily over ex­tended pe­ri­ods of cook­ing.

When buy­ing, look for thick, golden and un­bro­ken spec­i­mens. Be­fore us­ing dried fish maw, re­con­sti­tute it by soak­ing in tepid wa­ter (not hot) overnight or be­tween six and 12 hours, to soften. Change the wa­ter sev­eral times to get rid of the fishy smell. Drain and squeeze out ex­cess wa­ter. Bring a pot of wa­ter to boil with gin­ger and shal­lots. Turn off the

heat, and quickly add in the fish maw. Cover the lid tightly and leave it to soak un­til the wa­ter has com­pletely cooled. Re­move the fish maw and rinse it out be­fore us­ing for cook­ing.

SEA CU­CUM­BER

Sea cu­cum­bers are also called sea slugs and beche de mer in French. For the Chi­nese— ar­dent eaters of th­ese gelati­nous wob­bly slugs—it is called hai shen, or 'gin­seng of the sea', re­flect­ing their high re­gard for its whole­some prop­er­ties.

Se­ri­ous con­nois­seurs and cooks would choose to re­hy­drate qual­ity dried sea cu­cum­ber them­selves, rather than take the easy route and buy ready-pro­cessed ones from the su­per­mar­ket. This is be­cause the lat­ter for all its con­ve­nience may have been left soak­ing too long, yield­ing a mushy, overly soft tex­ture. But re­con­sti­tut­ing them is a time-con­sum­ing process that can fill the house with a strong smell of the sea—not al­ways a pleas­ant prospect. Done well, though, the ef­fort is worth it, for sea cu­cum­bers, braised in su­pe­rior sauces with abalone and mush­rooms, or fish roe, are a treat fit for an em­peror.

Or­di­nary grey sea cu­cum­bers are smooth and ten­der, and when re­hy­drated, can bal­loon five times its dried size. The most highly val­ued sea cu­cum­bers are the 'prickly' Ja­panese sea cu­cum­bers. Th­ese dark-hued crea­tures with nob­bly ex­ten­sions all over their bod­ies— not quite 'spikes'—cook faster, are dain­tier and have a fresh neu­tral taste. The fact is, th­ese slip­pery crea­tures are en­joyed in Chi­nese cui­sine mainly for their tex­ture—the bounce of the bite, the ten­der break and the prized ver­sa­til­ity in lend­ing them­selves to all sorts of sauces and flavours. In Ja­pan, naa­mako chaburi is sea cu­cum­ber mar­i­nated in tea and served with vine­gar. In­nards are eaten as a sushi.

In get­ting to know your food, sea cu­cum­bers are fas­ci­nat­ing crea­tures. They have no brains, they hi­ber­nate in sum­mer, and when needed, they can eject and re­grow their in­testines. Most enig­matic of all, when they die at the end of their av­er­age lifes­pan of about 10 years, their bod­ies re­lease a chem­i­cal that dis­solves their car­casses, leav­ing no trace of their ex­is­tence.

Ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, sea cu­cum­bers are nu­tri­tious foods high in pro­tein and low in fat and choles­terol. They are good for those with high blood pres­sure, heart disease and are a good health booster for the el­derly.

To pre­pare th­ese cu­cum­bers, bring a pot of wa­ter to the boil and add them in. Boil for another 20 min­utes over medium to low heat, and leave them in the hot wa­ter for 12 hours, al­low­ing the wa­ter to cool com­pletely. Drain the cu­cum­bers, soak them in fresh wa­ter for a cou­ple of days, chang­ing the wa­ter oc­ca­sion­ally. When the cen­tre of the cu­cum­ber is soft and giv­ing, and the sur­face is slip­pery, they are ready to cook as your recipe re­quires.

ABALONE

Fi­nally, no talk about dried seafood is com­plete with­out a word or two on abalone, the mother of all dried Chi­nese seafood, a sta­tus sym­bol for the host who serves it, and an es­sen­tial ad­di­tion to any im­por­tant feast. Smooth, springy to the bite, and with a meaty tex­ture some­where be­tween squid and mat­su­take mush­room, abalone is val­ued by the Chi­nese as the best caviar is to Western tables.

Abalones are avail­able frozen, canned and dried. While many pre­fer to use canned abalones re­quir­ing lit­tle more than to slice the mol­lusks, dried abalones re­quire much more skill and ef­fort to pre­pare. The lat­ter is the choice of con­nois­seurs who be­lieve the dry­ing process con­cen­trates and in­ten­si­fies the abalone’s flavours. Dried abalone comes from the Mid­dle East, South Africa and Ja­pan. With their ex­act­ing tech­niques in pro­cess­ing abalone, it is no sur­prise that Ja­pan pro­duces the best qual­ity abalone. Three are note­wor­thy. The ami­dori abalone comes from the Ao­mori pre­fec­ture in Ja­pan. It is a large, light-cof­fee coloured va­ri­ety, with broad rough edges and a thin pow­dery white patina on its sur­face. It yields a chewy tex­ture with a strong flavour. Yoshi­hama abalone, aka kip­pin abalone, comes

from Iwate pre­fec­ture, sport­ing a vis­i­ble line down the mid­dle of its oval body and red­dish-gold in colour. When its ap­pear­ance is par­tic­u­larly clear, it is con­sid­ered a top qual­ity abalone. Fi­nally, the oma abalone, also from Ao­mori, is the finest of them all. They have a thin short body, smooth soft tex­ture and a de­light­fully rich flavour. You can distin­guish them by the holes on the sides, where fish­er­men had hung them out to dry with sea­weed.

Abalones are cat­e­gorised ac­cord­ing to 'heads’—the big­ger the abalone, the smaller the num­ber (ie. one head be­ing the largest avail­able). This sys­tem is based on the num­ber of sim­i­lar sized abalones re­quired to make up one 'jin', or about 500 grams. The larger the num­ber (eg. 12-head abalone), the smaller each mol­lusk. When choos­ing, look for smooth, un­blem­ished ones with rich, golden hues. They should be whole, with­out any cracks on the edges, and weighty.

To pre­pare dried abalones, rinse away the dust and soak the abalones fully im­mersed in wa­ter for two to three days. Store them in the fridge dur­ing this process and change the wa­ter ev­ery 12 hours. It is im­por­tant to keep them sub­merged to fully re­hy­drate them and pre­vent them from ab­sorb­ing the smells of other foods around them. Once soft­ened, clean the abalones thor­oughly and cut away the hard 'beak'. Steam or sim­mer for two to three hours, be­fore us­ing the abalones ac­cord­ing to your recipe. Mean­while, re­tain the liq­uid in which the abalone had cooked in as it is also nicely flavoured with the mol­lusc. Add it to your gravy or soup.

Op­po­site

page Dried squid snacks are a favourite in South­east Asia

Be­low In tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, dried oc­to­pus are used to nour­ish the blood

Op­po­site page Sea cu­cum­bers

Above Dried abalone, a sta­tus sym­bol in Chi­nese feasts

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