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Fish Maw

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Summer Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(3) page(s): 25, 26, and 27

The curly cream-colored foam-like item hanging from the ceiling in Chinese grocery stores fascinates. Many wonder what it is, where it comes from, and when was it first used in Chinese cuisine. Others ask, who uses it and why, and even how they make use of it. Not all of these questions can be answered. When or where it was first used by the Chinese has lots of folk checking out old sources, few with success. That surely, has yet to be finalized, though there is little question that it is not a new Chinese food.

When in that grocery store, what you see is fish maw; when in older literature, what you read is that this food item was mentioned in the Nan Shi or History of the Southern Dynasties and other early sources. That means fish maw existed at least during the 420 to 589 CE time frame. That particular history book was compiled/printed in the seventh century, its authorship is attributed to Li Yanshou. He makes mention of fish maw and says the Chinese Emperor of the time liked to eat a lot of it. He goes on to say that this ruler ate it in a way no longer in fashion. What he did was to first soak it in honey.

Another web-source, also not yet confirmed nor corroborated, is by Yu Ronghe, a graduate of Shandong Teachers College. He writes about a Confucian dish called Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea Gamboling Around the Arhat. Yu goes on to say that from the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) until the late Qing (which ended in 1911 CE, chefs in the Confucian mansion would prepare this dish at celebrations for the family and when important dignitaries came to visit.

We visited Qufu and the Confucian Mansion. Although we were treated like royalty, and were able to enjoy a specially prepared banquet, we were not served this particular dish. Since learning of Yu’s Confucian dish, we have not found mention of it in what was our huge culinary collection, (now the property of and residing in the Special Collections area at State University in Stony Brook, New York). We hope readers can confirm its use as early as the Yu Ronghe website purports. That would be an important historical find. The recipe on the web uses chicken breast, shark’s fin, abalone, fishbone, fish maw, shrimp, ham, asparagus, fish meat-–preferably white croaker, wine, chicken broth, ginger, greens, and lard. A similar recipe not attributed to Confucius or his abode was known in the Shanxi province many years later. It was named Special Eight. We have revised it so that it can be made at home, called it Fish Maw Rolls, and provide it for you below.

Currently, fish maw is not prepared with honey, nor with eight animal foods as in Yu’s recipe. However, it is prepared in many other ways. One can find some of these in cookbooks featuring Southern or Shanghainese foods. That is to be expected because fish maw is popular in Shanghai and south of this city. It is used less often in the rest of China.

If you ever purchased fish maw, you know it is a light as a feather and feels crisp to the touch. On close inspection. it has many air pockets sometimes called air sacks. They are clues to the fact that it was fried; its mild aroma tells that it is from the sea. When that aroma smells strong, take another package or try again in another market. Recently fried fish maw should not have a strong aroma. Books advise that fish maw is either stomach or air bladder, most often the latter, and that most often it comes from a reasonably large fish.

Rarely is this gelatinous light creamy colored vital fish component found fresh. Dry it may have darker edges, but do not purchase yours if it is very dark tan. Fish maw. when dried, looks like a large natural sponge. When cooked, this delectable item looks like a collapsed or squashed one. In a few markets in Hong Kong, we saw dozens of fish, their air bladders naturally inflated, but never did we taste it fresh then, nor since.

How is the fish maw we buy made is an excellent question. It is cleaned, then sun-dried, and finally fried until is curls and puffs-—or maybe puffs and then curls. Having never made it ourselves, nor seen and located someone who has, we are not sure of that order. We always purchase ours puffed and very crisp, then work with it from that state.

Most fish maw is from conger pike. But it can be from any number of large fish. Some literature refers to it as fried conger, and conger pike is in the family Muraenesocidae. Specifically it is Muraenesox cinereus. An adult conger pike can be six or more feet long, though most are about five feet in length. When fresh out of the water, they are silvery and shiny, with a grey or yellow sheen. This fish has lots of pointed teeth. One source refers to fish maw as coming from a dagger tooth fish; another said it resembles an eel. A third refines its source calling it a rice-paddy eel. As we are not fishing for one, neither are most of you, we can agree with the literature that it is from a fresh water fish that lives in the estuaries of rivers. We need to know that this air bladder is an important organ that helps a live fish adjust to different water pressures. This is important because large fish, in particular, swim at different water depths. The air bladder, that is in the fish, the maw, expands and contracts equalizing the water pressure.

Getting culinarily practical, when using the large curly pieces of fish maw, break off the amount needed and soak it in cold water. Leave it there for two to six hours. The bladder from younger fish can soften faster, in as little as an hour or two. Young or old, it is best to weight it down, a heavy plate helps to keep it submerged. Should the one you bought have a slight fishy odor, drain it after an hour and re-submerge it in about two to three quarts of fresh water, a quarter-cup shaoxing wine, and a like amount of rice vinegar.

Let that stand ten minutes, then bring this to the boil and after half minute, drain and let it cool. When cool enough to the touch, cut it into strips or whatever size pieces you want. Then squeeze out all the water, and when you do, you will hear bubbles pop. When all water is out of the cells, it will be soft and gelatinous, and ready to cook. At this point, you can put in soup or sauce and watch it sink to the bottom. Do simmer it for ten or more minutes before eating.

Called du yu, fish maw is considered a Chinese delicacy, liked and used often in soups, stews and casseroles, in dim sum items, sometimes rolled in bean curd sheets, also stuffed and refried, and any number of other ways. The Chinese adore its texture. After cooking yours, note that its cells fill up with whatever soup or sauce it was cooked with. That is its bonus!
Fish Maw Soup
1/4 pound any white fish
2 to four ounces fish maw, soaked (see instructions in article above)
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
8 shiitake mushrooms, soaked, stems removed, and quartered; reserve two tablespoons of the soaking water
1/4 pound mustard greens, stems part cut into small pieces, leaves in one-inch pieces
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon corn oil
2 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
2 slices fresh ginger, peeled and slivered
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Cut the fish into quarter-inch by two inches pieces.
2. Cut the fish maw into the same size pieces.
3. Heat the sesame oil and fry the maw for one minute, draining it on paper towels; then cool it. When cool, use the side of the cleaver and press out as much oil as possible.
4.Mix soy sauce, sugar and corn oil in a bowl, add the mushrooms and mustard greens, and marinate for fifteen minutes.
5. Heat the wok, add the mushroom water, add fish maw and mushroom mixture and stir for two minutes. Then add four cups of boiling water, half the scallions and all the ginger and fish pieces. Cook for three minutes, pour into a heated serving bowl, sprinkle the remaining scallions on top, and serve.
Pork and Fish Maw Casserole
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
6 ounces fish maw, soaked (see instructions in article above)
2 slices fresh ginger, peeled and slivered
1 egg, scrambled just until set, then cut into strips
1/4 pound pork loin, sliced
1/4 pound pork belly, sliced
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons rice wine mixed with two tablespoons corn starch
1. Heat sesame oil and fry prepared fish maw for two minutes.
2. Add ginger and egg and both kinds of pork and stir-fry for three to five minutes until pork loses its pink and get a little crisp.
3. Add the rest of the ingredients and two cups of boiling water, stir, and reduce the heat. Cover the wok or pan and allow to simmer for forty minutes.
4. Remove cover and bring to the boil, and boil for three minutes until half the liquid evaporates, then pour into a heated casserole, and serve.
Shrimp-stiffed Fish Maw
3 ounces fish maw or enough to make ten prepared pieces, two-inch by five-inch strips, soaked (see instructions in article above)
1/2 pound shrimp, minced fine or ground
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon corn starch
10 whole scallops
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 Tablespoons vegetarian oyster sauce heated for half minute in microwave oven
3 Tablespoons minced fresh coriander
1. Heat sesame oil and gently fry the freshly soaked fish maw. one minute per side. Then drain and cool. Press out excess oil with the side of the cleaver.
2. Mix shrimp, egg white, thin soy sauce, sugar, and one tablespoon cornstarch, and divide into ten equal portions.
3. Cut scallops in half and dust one side of each with cornstarch and place one fifth of one of the shrimp portions on the dusted scallop and top it with the other dusted scallop side.
4. Oil a plate for use in the steamer, and prepare a steamer with two inches of water in the bottom; and start to bring it to the boil.
5. Take one of the shrimp paste amounts and spread it evenly on one side of one fish maw. Put the stuffed scallop in the middle, and bring the ends up to cover the scallop. Place it seam side down on the oiled plate. Repeat until all scallops are stuffed. The fish maw slices spread with the shrimp mixture, and they are wrapped around the scallops.
6. Steam the fish maw covered scallops over boiling water, with the steamer covered, for five minutes.
7. Remove the plate with them on it, then put them on another plate. Drizzle with vegetarian oyster sauce, sprinkle the coriander on this, and serve.
Stewed Spare Ribs with Fish Maw Sauce
4 ounces fish maw, soaked (as indicated in article above)
1 pound spare ribs, separated and each one cut in half
2 Tablespoons corn oil
4 slices fresh ginger
2 scallions, tied together
3 Tablespoons mushroom soy sauce
2 Tablespoons rice wine
2 Tablespoons rock sugar, crushed
2 Tablespoons cornstarch in one tablespoon cold water (optional)
1/2 pound Chinese broccoli or another green, steamed just before use, for three minutes.
1. Cut prepared fish maw into quarter-inch squares.
2. Cook the spare ribs in four cups of water for five minutes, then drain on paper towels and set aside. Discard the water.
3. Heat oil and fry ginger and scallions for one minute, then add fish maw and fry for two minutes.
4. Add spare ribs and continue to fry for another two or three minutes until they are browned on the outside.
5. Add soy sauce, wine, and sugar, and three cups of boiling water. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for one hour. Remove the cover and continue to simmer for another ninety minutes, stirring every fifteen minutes.
6. If sauce appears thin, bring to the boil and add cornstarch mixture and boil stirring, for half minute or until thickened, then serve on steamed greens.
Fish Maw and Vegetables
1 Tablespoon corn oil
4 slices fresh ginger, peeled and slivered
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
10 shallots, peeled
2 ounces fish maw, soaked (as indicated in article above)
2 dried scallops, soaked for two hours, then steamed for one hour
3 cups chicken broth
3 Tablespoons wolfberries or dried cranberries
1/2 pound pea shoot leaves
10 pea pods, strings removed and slivered
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Heat oil and fry ginger, garlic, and shallots in a wok or heat proof casserole for one minute.
2. Add fish maw and scallops and fry one minute more, then add chicken broth, bring almost to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for one hour.
3. Add wolfberries, pea shoot leaves, and pea pod slivers, and bring to the boil, then add half the cornstarch liquid and stir, then the rest of this mixture and stir for one minute, then serve in casserole, or preheat one and pour contents of the wok or pan into it and serve.
Fish Maw Rolls
1 cup soaked fish maw (see soaking instructions above), cut into sixteen one-inch strips
1 whole chicken breast
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten
3 slices fresh ginger, minced
2 scallions, minced
3 Tablespoons Yunnan or Smithfield ham, minced
2 black mushrooms, soaked, stem removed, and minced
2 cups chicken broth
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Cut six of the strips of fish maw in half, and set aside. Mince the rest of the fish maw.
2. Mince chicken breast.
3. Heat half the oil and fry egg on both sides, cut into half inch strips. Reserve six strips, and cut then in half. Mince the rest of the egg strips.
4. Oil a plate that can go into a steamer. Mix minced chicken and egg, scallions, ham, and mushrooms, and spread on the ten fish maw strips. roll them, and place on the oiled plate and steam for eight minutes.
5. Place the egg and fish maw pieces that were set aside decoratively on a serving plate (triangle shapes around the outside works well). Then place th e fish maw rolls decoratively on this design.
6. Heat chicken broth. Mix cornstarch with one tablespoon cold water and stir it into the broth. Add rice wine and salt and stir until thickened, then pour onto the fish maw platter dividing it evenly over the fish rolls, then serve.

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