Saturday, 22 September 2012

How to make bouncy 100% fishballs

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.

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:

Friday, 14 September 2012

6 am on a Saturday Morning

Every Saturday morning, I hop out of bed at the crack of drawn-- ok, who am I kidding, I slam the alarm button off, snooze for ten more minutes, then very grouchily drag myself out of bed and go into a mad frenzied rush-- and make my way to Pimlico farmer's market. As horrible as I make it out to be, I actually really do love my Saturday mornings running the market. I remember a few years ago, looking for a part-time job outside of school to earn myself some pennies, and turning to all the random restaurants I've heard of but couldn't afford in the hope that they feed their waitresses well, and even being quite desperate enough to apply for retail jobs in the fashion high street stores (which give me a headache. I know, I'm not a girl.) It was absolute brilliance when I found my job as a farmer's market manager. I was the happiest girl on earth. The smell of fresh bread, the sight of all those (edible) purples and greens and orange and yellows and reds, and most of all, the banter with people who similarly love their food and where they come from.

Now that I'm back in Singapore, I'm afraid my Saturday morning starts at ten am, and lazily begins with  a plate of fried noodles that my mum has made, with fresh vegetables bought earlier this morning (and the madwoman has probably also begun the cooking for dinner). Perhaps it's a sense of guilt, or perhaps I actually miss waking up at 5am, or perhap because like all cooks, I love being in touch with the source of my food, I found myself doing that snooze-drag-rush routine again this morning.

And so I found myself, rather out of place, in a world of haggling aunties and hollering uncles, with cries of "Only $4 for one kilo!" and whispers of "I think the stall at the other end cheaper. My mum navigated the chaotic sea of people and gossip with the seasoned strides of someone who has been doing it for her whole life, stopping to say hi to the stallholders and friends, and driving bargains with unabashed charm. I just trailed behind making embarrassed smiles on her behalf.

Wet markets are called that for a reason. Unlike the pretty stalls and signs and prettily packaged produce you find in a farmer's market, the place is, well, wet. The stallholders slosh around in their oversized rubber boots, happily chopping away on the spot to get you your fresh fish or meat, not bothering very much about the chaos and mess around them at all. I poked at everything and pretty much annoyed my mother and amused the fishmonger with all my questions. Fresh is key, so think blinking crabs and (certain) fish still swimming in tanks of water.

Vegetables are huge parts of dinners at home, not simply relegated to the role of a side dish. Leafy greens, especially, go beyond the usual spinach and kale; we all know the bok choy, but there's also chye sim, kai lan, kang kong, all wonderful just stir-fried with lots of garlic or lots of sambal. One aunty is bent over huge rattan baskets, sorting through and plucking beansprouts; and another, weighing the bittergourds and luffah. Into my mum's shopping basket, goes many bunches of spring onions and coriander-- asian essentials-- shoved her way after a cheeky "I buy so much, nothing free ah?"

We all know the banana and pineapple, but there are some tropical fruits that probably looked too weird to make it to overseas shores. Pity. Rambutans-- red golf-ball sized fruits with thick curly hairs sprouting from it,  and a fragrant sweet white juicy flesh inside. "Dragon's eyes", or longans- black shiny seeds and translucent soft flesh a la eyeballs. And that thorny monster, durian, called the king of fruits and with a huge fan base sitting in front of their calendars counting down to this year's durian season, and an equally huge hate group pinching their noses at its very acquired stench.

We left, our bags loaded with goodies, my mum all pumped with ideas for dinner, and me, well, yawning. I love Saturday mornings at the market.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Old-fashioned Barley Water

I do love Singapore, but sometimes this love withers in the sun. Now that I'm finally back home in a country where the over-enthusiastic sun shines the whole year round and temperatures hardly dip below 30 degrees (air-conditioned malls not counted), I find myself actually wishing for a dose of grey London chill. It doesn't really help that I live on top of a hill, and that the bus stop is at the bottom of the hill, and that  the driving school refuses to recognise my driving talent. It's no wonder I feel cross, bagged, sweaty, thirsty, hot, and very heaty.

No I didn't just mean to type hot twice. Heaty is a very different concept from hot. I think it's a very exclusively Asian concept, because I only meet with perplexed stares and confused frowns from non-Asian friends when I try to explain why I'm drinking a 'cooling' cup of hot tea in summer. The notion of cooling and heatiness is related to the balance of yin and yang. Growing up, I've always been taught to see food as medicine. We don't run straight to the doctor's when we've got a tickle in the throat, we drink some herbal tea instead, or maybe some pears double-boiled with almonds. These random nuggets of wisdom are so ingrained into our culture that even my local GP tells us to avoid 'damp-producing' oranges for phlegm-accompanied coughs, advice that probably will seem queer to those unacquainted with traditional Chinese 'hocus pocus'.

Barley water is an oldie but a goodie for a hot summer's day, or in Singapore's context, a hot day. It cools your internal 'fire', so it not only soothes a parched throat, but all heat-related signs, raging irritability and pimples included. I read that it's apparently a very old British tonic drink too, once prescribed for the ill and infirm, so I guess it doesn't matter which school of thought you subscribe to. You can change it up and add a squeeze of lemon for a zesty burst the English way, or add wintermelon for a traditional Chinese detoxifying treat. Or make both since it's so freaking simple.

makes about 2l
1 cup barley*
2l water, more or less depending on how thick you want it
raw local honey or rock sugar, to taste

some variations
juice of 1 lemon AND/OR
handful of torn mint leaves OR
1/2 cup of candied wintermelon (reduce above sweetener) AND/OR
bundle of pandan leaves

*The pearl barley is most common, but there's also another grain called the "Chinese barley", or Job's tears, which I prefer (below, left). It gives a less glue-y barley water, and when cooked, reminds me of popcorn with a soft but nutty bite in the middle rather than a smooth chewiness. It's also gluten-free so it might be a better option for the gluten-sensitive.

1. Rinse barley. If using Chinese barley, soak for a couple of hours.
2. Bring water and barley (and candied wintermelon, if using) to a boil in a saucepan and then reduce the heat and let simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, until the grains are cooked and softened. Add more water if needed.
3. Strain the liquid and add honey/ rock sugar and lemon/mint, to taste. Chuck into the fridge and enjoy for the next 3 days or so.

Tip: My mum discards the barley but I find it a pity. Save it for cheat risottos or stews or salads, or just leave it in the barley water to turn it into a tong sui (sweet soup dessert), in which case you can also add ingredients like jujube dates/ dried longans/ white fungus.

Such a humble tiny grain, so tiny it's not even pea-sized, but so wonderfully cooling and cleansing for the body. For those of you who may not have tried barley water before, it tastes kind of neutral, with the light flavour of those grains, and can be as creamy or mild, and as sharp or sweet, as you like it. I know it doesn't sound very exciting. I know barley's old-fashioned. But I'm old-fashioned. And this is the most refreshingly old-fashioned thing to let run down your throat when you're feeling the heat.