Fe­ro­cious fish, de­li­cious dish

Editor's Note: Tra­di­tional and fu­sion cook­ing styles, re­gional and in­ter­na­tional in­gre­di­ents and a new aware­ness of healthy eat­ing are all fac­tors con­tribut­ing to an ex­cit­ing time for Chi­nese cui­sine. We ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

China Daily European Weekly - - Front Page - By PAULINE D LOH paulined@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Our lit­tle vil­lage mar­ket has sev­eral ven­dors that sell live fish and prawns. Since we are far away from the coast and at least 2,000 me­ters above sea level, these are fresh­wa­ter or farmed fish.

The most com­mon of­fer­ings are the carp. The smaller carp are bony and tend to be deep-fried whole and cooked into a milky-white soup. They are also pick­led in lots of chili and pounded ginger and en­joyed like salted fish.

The big­ger carp, full of fat in the belly but just as bony, are cooked in a spicy hot­pot us­ing chili, Sichuan pep­per­corns and lo­cal ginger. The heavy spices get rid of any muddy taste.

But the stars are kept apart in shal­low basins, the long sin­u­ous snake­heads, or heiyu, sim­ply known as black fish. They are fresh­wa­ter, too, but un­like the carp, they are val­ued for their sweet, firm flesh that is rel­a­tively free of lit­tle bones.

The snake­head is an an­cient fish, and they have been around since di­nosaurs were still stomp­ing around. That they are still pro­lific to this day speaks of their tenac­ity for life.

They live in the bot­tom of ponds and wa­ter­ways, where they eat up any­thing that comes their way. Their om­niv­o­rous habits are fa­mous, and they have been known to prey on other fish, prawns, snails, frogs, in­sects and even their own young.

They are very hard to kill and have a dis­tress­ing habit of still wrig­gling around on the chop­ping board. For this rea­son, fish­mon­gers usu­ally stun them quickly with a hard whack on the head be­fore clean­ing them up.

They can sur­vive out of water for a few days and are known to mi­grate over land to deeper waters if their own pond dries out.

It is this vi­tal­ity that makes them so pop­u­lar as a “su­per­food”.

Snake­head is re­garded as an ex­cel­lent tonic for those re­cov­er­ing from ill­ness. Car­ing rel­a­tives would cook snake­head fish soup for a re­cu­per­at­ing pa­tient to help their wounds heal faster.

In fact, some tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine doc­tors tell pa­tients not to eat snake­head im­me­di­ately af­ter op­er­a­tions in case it en­cour­ages the for­ma­tion of raised scars, or keloids.

Snake­head meat is tight and firm and is fil­leted and sliced for stir-fries. Their meat glis­tens with a rain­bow sheen when cooked, and they do not have the usual musk­i­ness of most fresh­wa­ter fish.

Be­cause they are so hardy, they are farmed wher­ever Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties con­gre­gate. Un­for­tu­nately, this has re­sulted in the snake­head be­com­ing an in­va­sive species in cer­tain coun­tries, and they are es­pe­cially de­struc­tive con­sid­er­ing their fe­ro­cious habits.

All I can say is, it is for­tu­nate that the Chi­nese have equally fe­ro­cious ap­petites for snake­head and they are eaten all over China, from the south­west­ern prov­inces to the north­east.

The snake­head’s firm tex­ture makes it ideal for the strongly fla­vored stews beloved in the north. In the south, the fish is cooked in stir-fries, light soups and a host of other recipes.

My grand­fa­ther’s fa­vorite dish was a whole baby snake­head cut up into rough chunks and dou­ble-boiled with ginger juice and Chi­nese wine. The re­sult­ing milky broth had golden glob­ules of oil float­ing on it, as the fish gave up its ren­dered fat in the long slow cook­ing.

Larger snake­heads are made into a spe­cial dish that was pop­u­lar with the whole fam­ily. The col­lar and the ten­der belly cuts of the fish were first flash-fried and set aside.

The bones were also fried with lots of ginger and scal­lions and then boil­ing water was added.

Be­fore long, a fla­vor­ful fish soup was ready. Ten­der young mus­tard greens and the fried fish chunks went back into the pot. Some­times thick rice ver­mi­celli noo­dles were added to make it a one-dish meal.

In our fam­ily, the snake­head slices were but­ter­flied. Thick slices of the fil­let were shaved into halves again, leav­ing the con­nect­ing skin.

These were first mar­i­nated with salt, pep­per, corn­starch and a lit­tle Chi­nese wine. Then a pile of crisp green onions and ginger was pre­pared. Ev­ery­thing was then rapidly tossed over high heat for a clas­sic stir­fry.

We also like snake­head slices blanched in a fish stock. It sounds sim­ple enough, but it’s a dra­matic dish.

First you make the soup out of the fish bones and a chicken.

Wafer-thin slices of raw fish are then care­fully laid out at the bot­tom of an at­trac­tive bowl. Some­times, shred­ded let­tuce or gar­land chrysan­the­mum shoots are added for color. By the side, there would be deep-fried shal­lots, youtiao crou­tons and fresh co­rian­der leaves ready for gar­nish.

When ev­ery­one is as­sem­bled, the boil­ing soup would be poured into the bowl, in­stantly cook­ing the fish, and the slices would float up like huge snowflakes.

Of course, the Chi­nese are very good at mak­ing full use of na­ture’s re­sources, but the prob­lem oc­curs when they try to change na­ture, by bring­ing the snake­head to ecosys­tems where they don’t be­long.

Here are a few recipes to con­tain their num­bers.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Snake­head is val­ued for its sweet, firm flesh that is rel­a­tively free of lit­tle bones.

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