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Fish Lips, Fish Cheeks,and Fish Air Bladders

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Fall Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(4)

Fresh and dried, the above three items are Chinese delicacies. The Chinese call fish yu; and they are loved by almost everyone, as are many of their special parts which are unusual to most non-Chinese. An important question is how to handle them, and not many people, Chinese or not, do not know how to.

We like to purchase ours frozen. That way, they are always available when we want to prepare them at a moment’s notice. We simply put them in a bowl of warm water, and in about half an hour, after several changes of that water, they are ready to use.

FISH LIPS are called yu sun and they do have a following. Our fish monger says they are in small supply. We wish they were less expensive, but that is the only negative we see. In the marketplace, most are from large fish and not limited to any one species. Several chef’s tell us the ones they love most are from fish with very fleshy lips. We do like to purchase ours frozen, sometimes they are available dried. Most Chinese markets rarely have them fresh because as one man told us, upscale restaurants have standing orders for them.

Dried ones need to soak them in cold water, preferably for a day or more, changing the water two or three times every day until they are very soft to the touch. Then one needs to simmer them until all bones can easily be taken out not tearing the flesh, then they need to be discarded. After that, we cut them into small pieces, an inch and a half is our preferred maximum size. Some chefs who have other size specifications. Then, we like to marinate them for a day in wine with some minced fresh ginger and some ground white pepper. At that point, we rinse them well and simmer them for an hour or so before any final quick-cooking a recipe might require.

Good chefs tell us they heat a tablespoon or two of oil, toss them in it for a minute, add a shot glass or two of Chinese wine, a boneless chicken thigh, perhaps a piece of ham, two slices of fresh ginger, and a knot or two of scallions, then simmer them for an hour on very low heat. One said to check the texture every five to ten minutes thereafter, and when very tender, add more pepper, as needed, and a couple of tablespoons of thin soy sauce. Now they agree they are ready to eat or it is time to add them to any other dish they are needed for. For the record, these same chefs said they have little taste and excellent texture. They all said that those sun-dried are best.

One common recipe for fish lips is to blanch frozen ones for two minutes, add fresh ginger and slivered scallions, and a cup of boiling water from soaking Chinese black mushrooms, their stems removed and set aside for a soup stock. One adds Chinese rice wine in that simmering pot and cooks his for only for half an hour.

Not many Chinese people we spoke to prepare their own fish lips. Those that do add them to another dish they are making at the last minute. Several chefs said they are particularly good with poultry, barbecued duck seems to be a favorite. We have never seen a recipe for them in a cookbook, but do have one we have prepared, though not recently, probably because we have not found any recently. Fish lips can be ordered in advance, but many a fish monger did not have them as promised. One recipe for them, made with duck that was given to us by a chef, is at the end of this article.

FISH CHEEKS sit on both sides of the head of many large fish including cod, grouper, halibut, monkfish, pike, snapper, and other large ones. They are in the pocket just under the eye and just behind the boney structure under it. They are somewhat outside and above where the gills are. A small knife is best to extricate them, leaving fish skin, bone, or cartilage behind and/or discarded when so doing.

we once told a fisherman friend about them and he laughed and brought a big fish head saying “OK smarty, show me where and how to take them out." Must confess, I was sorry I did because before that he often brought me large fish heads thinking I would make him a fish head soup; and I often did. After my demonstration that included dusting them with salt and pepper and frying them quickly in my best virgin olive oil with a small amount of chicken fat or butter added, we rarely got any big fish heads again. But when I did complain loudly at another dinner, things changed because his wife wanted a recipe for one of my fish recipes. Then and there, we made a deal, frequent cheeks for that recipe. After that evening, he did bring them often, but never told his fishermen friends why he was collecting all the big fish heads when they were being gutted and made into fillets.

In Chinese, we have never found the correct term for this part of the fish. When we were in a Chinese fish store, we ask for Mi>mian jia and the fish monger did understand. Once we asked for mian pi and did get them then, as well. But when those chaps spoke English, they told us another word which we were never was able to understand and repeat. Their garbled word may have been Mandarin, Cantonese, or some another dialect, we never were sure, nor were we ever able to repeat it and be understood.

FISH MAW is called yu to for most Chinese. These are the air bladders of fish which some call swim bladders or gas bladders. Most are found in large bony fin fish. There they are one of two gas-filled sacs that control the fish’s ability to go up or down in the water. They are controlling its buoyancy and expand and contract according to the water’s ambient pressure.

Fish maw are a pair of organs that inflate when the fish goes up, and deflate when it goes down. They introduce gas into these sacs and excrete lactic acid and produce carbon dioxide to help them do so. One chap told us they were their stabilizing agents. We know they are a delicacy in China, and when I was little, I often found them hanging on wire hangers from pipes near a market’s ceiling.

In restaurants, they are often found in soups and stews. In the past, one fellow told us they were a source of collagen, used as condoms, used to make water-resistant glue, and as isinglass for beer. No longer are they used for most of these purposes. Charles Darwin said that for fish they are similar to lungs in other animals. Millions of years ago, cartilaginous fish had them, now many lack them. Other than the Chinese, we know of no other culture that considers them a delicacy or even uses them. Do you?

A Chinese friend said she likes to purchase hers labeled ‘dry-fried.' She also told us they come from large bony fish such as big sturgeon, and were so labeled as to which fish they came from years ago. Recently, we have not seen any so labeled. Maybe they are in Chinese, but we do not know that.

One chef, when we asked what he knew and could educate us about, said the bladders are thicker and larger after soaking. Another told us that was bunk. We are not fish experts and must confess the ones we have purchased a couple of months ago were simply labeled fish maw. They did get bigger after we soaked them, but then they collapsed when we took them out of that water. Both chefs said they no longer braise them, and they said not to purchase them if they smell fishy and only buy the whitest ones in the batch.

One chef said to tell our readers to purchase theirs only when light in color, and to bring them to a boil with a bamboo mat in the bottom of the pot. Must admit we have never done that, we just soak them, bring them close to the boil, cover the pot and simmer them for half an hour, then remove the pot from the heat source. In an hour or so, they are tender and ready for use. Since speaking to one of those chefs, we now always sniff the plastic they are wrapped in, and have not bought any since as every one did smell fishy. That may be why when I was a kid, they were not wrapped, just hanging on what looked like wire hangers from the store’s overhead pipes. A reader did once ask where to get them when we were together in a Chinese supermarket. My reply was "look up." A grocery clerk nearby heard my response and told me they must be wrapped these days so no longer hang there. He also said they are fried and look whitish or tan and bubbly, and should not smell rancid.

Many big fish have air bladders. When we soak ours, we put a can in a plastic bag, close it with a rubber band to weight it down, then keep them submerged until soft. After they are, we boil them in fresh cold water, and keep them weighted down in that pot. After a quarter of an hour, they are soft, and we use scissors to cut them into the desired sizes, then squeeze out any water, and discard it. We simply add them to the soup or stew we are preparing, and let them cook in it for fifteen minutes more. Fish maw is rarely eaten alone. Many recipes in older cookbooks call for some. Most often they are used in soups or stews, sometimes in braised dish, and once we did see a few recipes for stuffing them, but not recently. We have never done so, perhaps because those recipes called for bigger pieces wrapped around smaller ones and he ones we had were not very big. We have also seen recipes saying to wrap them around minced foods; have never made those either. Below are recipes for all three of these unusual ingredients.
Plain Pan-fried Fish Cheeks
1 Tablespoon flour
salt and pepper, to taste
20 fish cheeks
3 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons chicken fat
1. Mix the flour, salt, and pepper and dust the cheeks with this and set aside for ten or fifteen minutes.
2, Heat a wok or fry pan, then add the oil and fat, and fry the cheeks for two minutes, turn them over and fry for one minute more, then remove them to paper towels to drain. Put them into a bowl, toss with the cilantro, and serve.
Fish Cheeks, Pan-fried with Black Beans
1 pound fish cheeks, each one cut in half
1 cup bread crumbs
salt and pepper, to taste
2 Tablespoons chicken fat
4 fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans, crushed
2 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced on an angle
1. Toss fish cheeks with the bread crumbs and set aside for fifteen minutes to dry somewhat.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the chicken fat, and when it is hot, add the garlic and stir-fry for one minute, then toss in the black beans and stir fry a half minute more, and then add the fish cheeks and stir-fry tossing them gently for three minutes.
3. Add the scallion slivers, toss once or twice, then serve.
Fish Lips and Barbecued Duck
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3 sliced fresh ginger, peeled and slivered
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced thin
2 scallions, angle sliced, half the greens set aside for garnish
5 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked, then discard their stems and slice them thinly
1 carrot, peeled and slivered, then simmered in half cup of Chicken or fish stock
1/4 barbecued duck, chopped into one-inch pieces
½ pound frozen fish lips, or fresh ones prepared as discussed above, and cut into one- to one and a half-inch pieces
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
½ teaspoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons cornstarch in one-quarter cup cold water or stock
1. Heat oil, and when hot, add the ginger, garlic, and the white part of the scallion and stir-fry for one minute until very fragrant.
2. Add the sliced black mushrooms, carrot slices, and the duck pieces, and stir well for one minute; then add the fish lips and stir for another minute or until they are hot.
3. Next add the salt, sugar, soy and oyster sauces, and the sesame oil, and stir well before adding the cornstarch and water mixture. Bring this to the boil and stir until thickened, then serve in a pre-heated bowl.
Fish Cheeks, Lips, and Maw
up to 2 pounds of fish cheeks, lips, and/or maw
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
6 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided if needed
1. Prepare cheeks, lips, and/or maw cut into one- to two-inch pieces.
2. Dust the cut pieces with part or all the cornstarch, as appropriate.
3. Heat wok and divide the oil if frying more than one kind of fish part, and fry it for two minutes. Then drain on paper towels, and fry another fish part. When all are fried and drained, mix then together and serve.
Fish Lips with Vegetables
2 pounds fish lips, cut into one-inch pieces, then blanched in boiling water for one minute before dipping them into ice water for another minute
4 dried Chinese black mushrooms, soaked in half cup of boiling water until soft, stems discarded, then slivered, the water saved
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
½ cup soup stock
3 Tablespoons Shao Xing wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with same amount of the mushroom water
1 teaspoon molasses
1. Heat wok, then add the mushrooms and the vegetable oil and simmer for five minutes.
2. Now add soy sauce, stock, and the wine and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and add the fish lips and simmer for ten minutes before adding the cornstarch mixture and simmer until thickened.
3. Now add the molasses, stir, and then pour into a pre-heated bowl and serve.
Fish Maw with Eggs
1 to 2 ounces fish maw
2 slices fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
2 scallions, one knotted, the other slivered
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
4 eggs, beaten
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
dash ground black pepper
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1. Soak fish maw for one hour in tepid water, then squeeze out the water and discard it.
2. Bring three cups of cold water to the boil, add the fish maw, ginger, and the knotted scallion, and the fish maw and simmer for five minutes, then squeeze out the water in a wet towel. When cool, mince the fish maw or cut it into small pieces with a scissor.
3. Mix the fish maw and the cornstarch, then add the beaten eggs, and the sesame oil, the pepper, the chicken bouillon powder, and the soy sauce.
4. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the vegetable oil, then stir in the egg mixture, pouring it into the wok or fry pan and stirring it until it barely sets. Then move it to a preheated bowl, add the minced scallion, and serve.
Fish Maw Braised with Pea Shoots
1 pound pea shoots, rinsed and cut into two-inch pieces, then blanched for two minutes, and next put in cold water
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
2 slices fresh ginger, slivered
1 scallion, tied in a knot
2 ounces roast duck, shredded into thin strips
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon mixed light and dark soy sauce
½ pound fish maw, boiled for five minutes, then slivered
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ cup chicken broth
1 coriander sprig, chopped
1. Heat wok, add half the oil and the pea shoots, ginger, and the scallion knot, and stir-fry for two minutes, then remove this from the wok to a large bowl, and discard the scallion knot.
2. Toss the cornstarch with the pea sprouts, then add the duck pieces and toss again, and then add the oyster sauce, rice wine, and the soy sauces, and stir once again.
3. Heat the other half of the oil, and stir-fry the fish maw for two minutes, then add the sesame oil and the broth, and toss well, then return the pea shoot mixture to the wok and toss well.
4. Add the sesame oil, and stir, then return everything to the bowl, put the minced coriander on top, and serve.
NOTE: This recipe can alternately be made with spinach in place of pea shoots, and can add three or four soaked Chinese black mushrooms, stems discarded, caps slivered. These should be tossed in with the duck pieces or substituted for them.
Stuffed Fish Maw
1 large fish maw, about half pound or ten by five inches, soaked for half an hour or until soft, then boiled until soft
2 slices fresh ginger, smashed
2 scallions, each tied in a knot
½ pound shrimp, shells and veins removed and discarded, then minced
salt and pepper to taste, or up to 1/4 teaspoon each
2 teaspoons mung bean flour
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ cup vegetable oil
optional: 2 Tablespoons hoisin sauce mixed with the same amount of warm tea
1. Squeeze out water from the fish maw, and put it in a pot with three cups fresh cold water, the ginger, and scallion knots. Bring to the boil for five minutes, then drain, cool slightly and squeeze out as much water as possible, then cut the maw into pieces two inches long and two inches wide.
2. Squeeze out any water still left in the fish maw, then dip those pieces in a mixture of salt and pepper, mung bean flour, sugar, egg yolk and the sesame oil.
3. Now add minced shrimp to any egg mixture left, and spread the shrimp mixture on the pieces of fish maw, then roll them up, and set them on the seam side down to dry, about ten to twenty minutes.
4. Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or fry pan, put fish maw pieces in the oil their seam side down, and fry until tan (or steam them for five minutes) and then serve on a pre-heated platter plain or with the hoisin sauce mixture on the side.

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