How do you tell if the fish you wanna buy is fresh? (a) It doesn't smell fishy. (b) The eyes are bright. (c) The gills are red. (d) It feels firm. (e) The skin is shiny. (f) All of the above. If you choose 'f', then sorry, you're wrong . . . mostly.
20 years ago, 'all of the above' would have been the correct answer. These days, the fish may feel and look fresh because it's preserved with formaldehyde, the stuff used by embalmers. Nice, eh?
So how do you tell if the fish is fresh or embalmed?
If the fish is cheap, such as ikan kuning, ikan selar or some farmed fish, it's probably safe from chemicals added postmortem. The more expensive stuff, like large white pomfret and large sea prawns, are more likely to be preserved. Without a lab test, you can tell if it's fresh only by eating it. If it looks and smells fresh but it's tasteless even though it's wild, not farmed, then you've been had.
When you've NOT been had, fish porridge is an absolute delight. It's full of the sweetness of fresh fish and, the way my mother did it, dried prawns, dried squid and 冬菜. It is light, with no fat at all other than a few drops of garlic or shallot oil, but it's totally delicious.
The special ingredient in my mother's fish porridge is dried squid which must be: (1) cut lengthwise into very thin strips; (2) soaked till it's completely soft; and (3) very lightly blanched in the porridge, just enough to make the squid curl. The dried squid lifts the umaminess of the porridge to a higher level but if you don't follow the three steps, you'll think there're rubber bands in the porridge. You have been warned.
I wouldn't say I'd eat fish porridge every day because there isn't anything I could eat every day. But I'd eat Teochew fish porridge maybe once a week. That's the biggest compliment possible from me.
|TEOCHEW FISH PORRIDGE (潮州鱼粥)|
(Recipe for 2 persons)
20 g dried prawns
rinse and soak 10 minutes or longer in just enough water to cover10 g dried squid body, quill discarded, at room temperature
with scissors, cut crosswise about 3 cm long; cut 10 g lengthwise into thin strips about 1 mm thick; rinse and soak in just enough water to cover till soft, about 20 minutes200 g white fish fillet
rinse and slice bite size 3-4 mm thick; mix evenly with 1 tsp light soya sauce; sprinkle with ½ tsp cornflour or tapioca starch and mix again120 g long-grain jasmine rice
800-900 ml boiling water
1 tsp light soya sauce
1 tsp 天津冬菜 (Tianjin/Tientsin pickled cabbage)
1 tbsp fried garlic or fried shallots
1 tbsp spring onions cut 3-4 mm thick
ground white pepper to taste
Fish porridge should be made with a mild tasting white fish that has a fine, smooth texture, such as ikan tenggiri papan (spotted Spanish mackerel), ikan tenggiri batang (barred Spanish mackerel), white pomfret, or ikan kurau (threadfin).
Prepare dried prawns, dried squid and fish as detailed above.
Put kettle on. Wash rice till water runs clear. Add dried prawns, along with soaking liquid, and 750 ml boiling water. Bring to a boil. Stir thoroughly to prevent rice from sticking. Keep rice boiling rapidly for 10 minutes, checking and stirring from time to time to make sure rice doesn't boil over.
Top up with boiling water if necessary, depending on how thick or thin you like your porridge. Continue boiling rapidly till rice is just soft but surface is still smooth without any sign of turning mushy, another 5 minutes or so.
Season porridge with 1 tsp light soya sauce and 天津冬菜. Add fish and stir through gently. Turn off heat once porridge returns to a gentle simmer. Add dried squid, along with soaking liquid, and stir through. Remove pot from stove.
Quickly taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Immediately transfer porridge to serving bowls to prevent fish from overcooking. Sprinkle with spring onions, fried garlic and ground white pepper.
Serve immediately with light soya sauce or light brown taucheo (fermented soya beans) as a dip, with lime juice and/or thinly sliced bird's eye chillies added if you like, to bring out the sweetness of the fish. Fish porridge is best eaten steaming hot.
If your mother-in-law is Teochew and you want to impress her, add a pinch of very finely julienned young ginger next to the spring onions. If you want to knock her off her chair, add a piece of toasted Chinese seaweed (in addition to the young ginger), and make your porridge with white pomfret.