I love fishballs. Boiled in soup; deep-fried and assembled on a stick; or tossed with noodles in sweet chilli ketchup (or in a chilli-vinegar-lard sauce when I got older) -- I love them all. Growing up in Asia means I've always taken them for granted. They were practically a staple of the school canteen, because all kids love them, even the picky ones who hate fish. I never thought too much of them then; they weren't exactly the height of sophistication or fine dining, so they can't exactly be that challenging to make, can they? I was so wrong.
The art of making fishballs should be eulogised and made into a book or a movie a la Jiro Dreams of Sushi . The old aunties at the wet market selling handmade fishballs should be saluted and invited to world food conventions. The little bubbles of pounded fish paste themselves deserve a much greater notoriety beyond being the casual kopitiam snack. Because these fishballs are a real bitch to make. But since moving to London and being resigned to finding perfectly spherical machine-formed ones in Chinatown's freezer section, often made with more MSG and flour than fish itself, I've made it my mission to delve into the complicated art of fishball-making.
With a few days to go before I return to London, I've finally reached the end of my mission. The tips and recipe that follow are a result of begging/stealing/borrowing from my auntie Siew Fang and the auntie at Bukit Batok wet market, and subjecting my family to a few days of rubbery/mushy fishballs.
The best fishballs here are made with wolf herring (also called ikan parang, or sai toh fish 西刀鱼) or yellowtail snapper (黄尾鱼) but you can also use the spotted mackerel or spanish mackerel. The first two have more bones, so are trickier to handle, but oh, they give such wonderfully sweet fishballs which don't smell overly, well, fishy. I don't know if it would work with other fishes, but you can give it a go. Fishballs used to be made by the poor who didn't want to waste whatever scraps of fish they had, so please save your expensive cod or seabass for steaming or something though.
What else? Some people add cornflour as filler. Some people add MSG. I don't want to, so this is the pure goodness of fish.
The mark of a successful fishball lies in its 'doink' factor. It should be bouncy and springy to the bite. And the secret to success, is hard work of course. After scraping and mincing the flesh of the fish, you gather the mixture with your hands, bring it up towards you, and slap it back down onto the board. 60 slaps later, you will be rewarded fish paste that quivers seductively when poked. This fish paste can then be shaped into balls, or in the case of handmade ones, blobs, or fried and sliced into fishcakes, or even stuffed into vegetables or tofu puffs to make yong tau foo.
HANDMADE BOUNCY 100%-FISH BALLS
makes 20-30 fishballs, depending on size
1 kg of fish (here I used yellowtail)
water (by volume, it should be about 60-70% that of the fish flesh)
1 1/2 to 2 tbsp sea salt
1 tbsp white pepper
*In true Asian homecooking fashion, everything is kind of "agak agak". I have no weighing scales at home in Singapore so I can only make a rough guess. Sorry.
1. Fillet the fish first if your fishmonger hasn't. Using a ceramic spoon (metal will be too harsh), scrape the flesh off the fish, going with the grain/ in the direction of the fish bones. Carefully feel for any bones and remove any, you don't want to get sued.
2. Mince the fish very finely with the back of a chopper, adding the water salt and pepper at the same time. Or if you're not anal about tradition like my mum is, put into a blender with the water. Add slowly so if you find the paste becoming too wet, stop earlier.
3. Now for some anger therapy action. Gather the mixture with wet hands, bring it up towards you and slap it back down, repeatedly, 60-70 times, or until it comes together and firms up. Too little slapping gives you mushy balls; too much slapping gives you toothy balls. It should wobble a bit when poked.
4. Shape into balls by squeezing the paste in between the crook of your thumb and index finger, and using a spoon to scoop the balls into a basin of cold water, while you finish the rest.
5. When ready to cook, drop into boiling water, or for a simple fishball soup, drop into stock made from the fish bones and heads from earlier (don't waste anything). The fishballs are cooked when they float to the top.
These fishballs, or fish blobs, may not look as perfectly smooth and round and white as their commercial counterparts, but I like them like that. I look at them and feel an immense urge to squish them like I do babies' cheeks. I hold them in between my chopsticks and feel an irresistible urge to bite into them (fishballs only, not babies), and when I do, they burst with the natural sweetness of the sea. My hands smell of fish and my biceps are aching, but hurrah, I've made bouncy 100%-fishballs.
And for some amusement: