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Eels of China, The

by Irving Beilin Chang

Fish and Seafood

Spring Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(1) page(s): 5 and 19

Chinese love to eat things from the sea, lakes, and rivers, and they like them to be live and swimming, if possible. Go to any Chinese grocery store or one of their restaurants that specializes in seafood and you can see all kinds of fish, crabs, squid, swimming carp, and even eels for sale.

There are two types of eels eaten in China. The fresh water eel or san yu, and the salt water eel or man yu. In America, only salt-water eels are available. Therefore, if you were to travel to China, I would recommend that you taste a dish of freshly cooked fresh-water eels made either Guangzhou or Shanghai style. They are tasty and unique.

The longest and largest river in China is the Yangtze or Chiang Jiang. This river and its tributaries irrigate a vast field from which farmers grow rice, rape seeds (for canola oil), table vegetables, and other produce for daily consumption. Cotton and silkworms are also cultivated, not for food but for their fibers. In this manner, the farmers feed and clothe China's population of 1.2 billion people, one quarter of all the people in the world.

During summer months, the rain swells the Yangtze beyond its banks. In order to handle such a large volume of water, there are countless number of lakes that act as reservoirs downstream. These lakes help control the flood waters before the mighty Yangtze empties into the sea. To name a few large ones, there are the Dung Ting Lake in Hunan, the Poyang Lake in Jiangxi, the Bai Swei in Hupeh, and the Gao Yu Lake and Hung Tze Lake, both in the Jiangsu province.

There is a second crop that the farmers raise besides their regular agricultural crops, and that crop swims. They raise fish, eels, and other aquatic animals. All are kept in their flooded rice fields, ponds, irrigation ditches, and in their lakes. This secondary crop supplements the population with much needed protein, and the farmers with additional income. Eels flourish well in this environment; they are also raised and consumed by the populations in other river valleys, as well, including in the valleys around the Helung River, the Yellow River, and the Pearl River.

During the summer of 1938, I was a college student in Wuhan, in the Hupeh province. I had the opportunity to travel by boat up the Yangtze to the Dung Ting Lake. For me, this was a rare and unique experience meeting people and seeing places never before seen.

The river was at flood stage and the current was very swift. It took us many days to reach Yueh Yang, entrance to the Dung Ting Lake, approximately one hundred thirty miles west of Wuhan. This lake is the largest one in China, and when you are in the middle of it you can see no shore.

The evening that we arrived, we were informed by the river pilot that a typhoon was passing through, so we rested in Yueh Yang for the day to allow the typhoon to blow through. As students, we had only read about Yueh Yang in the classic novel called The Three Kingdoms. Many naval battles were fought in this region. The Dung Ting Lake area is known as the rice bowl of China and whoever controlls Yueh Yang controlls the riches of the area. How exciting it was to be there!

We got up early the next morning and went to the market-place by foot. The market was busy, full of vendors and peddlers of all kinds. It was situated along the bank of the lake. What caught my attention there was a fisherman who was selling eels and doing a brisk business. Once he and the customer agreed on a price, he would take out from a bamboo basket which was floating along the lake shore, squirming eels about two-feet-long and one-inch thick.

One at a time he would proceed to clean and debone them. Striding a narrow bench, he laid the eel's head on the bench and inserted a large pick (similar to an ice pick) into the back of its head and anchored it into the bench. Then he picked up a razor-sharp knife in his free hand and made a deep incision along its spine all the way down while he steadied the eel's tail with the other hand. Returning to its head, he inserted the blade beneath the triangular spine bone and pulled the blade back. The spine separated from the body of the eel and he was able to discard its head and spine in one move. He then cut out its guts and washed the meat. The filets he got from the eel were boneless and ready for cooking.

The skin of the fresh-water eel is soft and tender, therefore, there was no need to skin it. Then he wrapped the filets in some paper and presented it to his customer to take home. Restauranteurs would prefer to take the eels back alive and debone them just prior to cooking them to insure freshness.

If you ever go, or maybe I should say, when you go to Shanghai, make sure you order Fresh Water Eels in Ginger and Garlic sauce; you will not regret that decision, guaranteed!

For those who wish to try the local salt-water eels, I offer some direction. Be aware that the skin of salt-water eels is tough so first you must skin them. To do that and prepare these eels, insert an ice pick just under the head into a wooden board. Secure it well, then cut the skin around the neck just below your ice pick. With a pair of pliers, grab the skin and pull it off; it should come off cleanly. The stomach, and its head, gills, etc. are then removed. Next, cut the skinned eel into one-inch segments, or if you insist, filet the eel. Though bony, the eel is very tasty and a fine reward for those who enjoy chewing around the bones. Theirs is a just reward for meat next to the bone is the sweetest. After preparing your eels, or getting your fish monger to do it for you.
Ginger Sauce Eels
2 pounds skinned and cut up eels
2 and 1/2 Tablespoons light soy sauce
2 Tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
1 and 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
10 slices fresh ginger root
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
2 scallions, minced fine
1. Marinate the eel pieces in soy sauce, wine and sugar for half-an-hour.
2. Heat oil in a wok or pan. Add ginger and garlic and saute until fragrant and when they start to turn brown.
3. Add marinated eels and when the liquid is boiled out, add the stock, cover and simmer for twenty minutes.
4. Mix cornstarch with a teaspoon of water and add to the eel mixture to thicken.
5. Add sesame oil, if using it, and garnish with the scallions, then serve.
Be sure to serve this very hot; it tastes best then.

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