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Fish Maw Revisted

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Summer Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(2)

Known by a variety of names, this air bladder is found in many but not all fish. There are several important reasons it is there, the most important is to help fish ascend or descend. Another is to regulate their oxygen supply just as lungs do in non-sea animals. A third is to control water streaming through as they swim.

To our knowledge, no animal has both lungs and an air bladder. Those fish that do have an air bladder are usually large ones. There are some that have two air bladders, and they are all impermeable to gases. The air bladder does stabilize the fish and keep it upright. Some folk call this important organ fish maw and see it as a stomach lining; but that is not accurate. These swim bladders, another name for them, are commonly found in conger, croaker, carp, pike, sturgeon, and other large fish. They are never found in any in the shark or ray families.

An important question is, how does the air bladder work? One thing for sure is that it excretes lactic acid and so the blood in these fish do lose some oxygen. The lactic acid can be pushed into the second air bladder where it produces carbon dioxide.

The Chinese call fish maw yu du, and some call it fa kua, sou yu bao, and sometimes zhu sheng. Actually, the bladder can be small or large, thin or thick, flat or rolled, curly or straight, and in a male or in a female fish. For the record, Chinese prefer those in male fish though no one can tell us why. What they do tell us is they prefer them from bigger fish and that the air bladders be curly. However, being curly is often due to how the air bladder is dried and not the kind of fish it comes from or how it was harvested. Some literature refers to these bladders as 'sea ginseng' but we could not learn why they are labeled as such.

The air bladder can look foam-like after it is deep-fried so do look for them in old fashioned Chinese grocery stores hanging from the ceiling or tied to pipes close to it that look this way, or in clear plastic bags sealed shut. Discussed in this magazine's 2004 Volume 11(3) on pages 25 - 27, readers did learn they are not new to Chinese cuisine. We know they were mentioned as a food source in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), if not before.

Those purchasing them know they can be expensive, and are best with no fishy aroma and when very white. If they smell rancid, do not to purchase them; and if already in the larder with that aroma, throw them out. Virtually all of the hanging ones are fried, though a recent purchase did say 'Baked Fish Maw' and we do doubt that because they did spell conger pike incorrectly. They were sealed in a plastic bag, the aroma came though as slightly rancid, and there was some questionable information including that the package gave the percent fat and other misinformation including that they have very little cholesterol.

That earlier Flavor and Fortune article did mention Confucius speaking of them in a dish called Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. It went on to say the fish maw can be used in soups, with pork in a casserole, to stuff in shrimp, in a sauce for spare ribs, wrap minced chicken with ham, and in a dish with dried scallops and goji berries. Later writings say they are rich in collagen and high in fat. Not naturally high in fat, but after frying and preparing them, most are just that. Air bladders are considered a delicacy and should be soaked some hours or overnight before using them. The best ones are fried then air dried, those fried a second time are less preferred. One can know that if they feel heavy. This food item is appreciated for their texture and they are used in high-end dishes.

Years ago there was a restaurant in Hong Kong called Fish Maw King. it was known for the large variety of delicious dishes they made with this food, and the many different kinds they sold in a variety of different dishes and in the ready-to-use state. However, it is no longer in existence. Many of the dishes they served were soups and stews, some touted for their health attributes.

Restaurants these days have a couple of dishes made with fish maw, not too many because of their high cost. In Singapore, we once ate a dish that was a bean curd box stuffed with diced shrimp, fish maw, fresh and dried scallops, and abalone; it was terrific. When we came home we tried to make one resembling that with the same taste and texture but we did not succeed. A few years later, we did see a picture of a tofu box with similar ingredients, but never tried to make that one. Among the books given to the Special Collections at the Stony Brook Frank Melville Library, should you wish to trace it down, that is where that recipe can be found.

Another wonderful way we recall seeing and eating fish maw is with minced turtle. That dish was served steamed and on pear halves. Poor notes and a less reliable memory are such that we do not recall where we had that dish.

One question many have is why is this food so expensive? Our guess, because fish maw is one of four sea delicacies, the others are abalone, sea cucumber, and shark’s fin. The labor needed to collect and clean them does sky-rocket their price.

When cooked, these air bladders have soft gelatinous textures, some say marshmallow-like. They are great for picking up flavors of things they are cooked with, usually from a large variety of foods of the sea. For those who want to prepare some, do soak them overnight, squeeze out any water so as not to thin the final sauce of the dish to be prepared.

The Chinese believe fish maw is good for the lungs and a cure for a persistent cough. Some say they provide many nutrients, replenish the blood, act as an anti-aging agent, and help heal wounds. Said to improve skin texture, particularly in pregnant women; eating fish maw they say makes for lovely skin, some reports indicate they increase blood circulation and improve general health happens, too. One TCM practitioner said, "this food is warm in nature, tastes bittersweet, and is most nourishing." He told us it is also used to a component in making glue and for making isinglass to clarify beer. Some is used to make varnish and some paints, and other related uses. Seems odd to us that this expensive food item is used in these ways.

We have only three fish maw recipes we have ever used in our files. Do enjoy them, and if you find others you deem great, please share them with us.
Crab and Fish Maw Soup
2 ounces fish maw, soaked overnight, then cut into one to two-inch pieces
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
4 to six slices fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a cleaver
4 cups fish or chicken broth
1/4 pound crab meat coarsely chopped, cartilage removed and discarded
2 Tablespoons wood ear fungi, soaked until soft and then coarsely chopped
2 dry shiitake mushrooms, soaked until soft, then squeezed of any water, and cut into quarters or smaller, if preferred
3 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with six Tablespoons cold water
2 Tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1. Drain then squeeze water out of the fish maw.
2. Heat oil and stir-fry the ginger for one minute, then add the fish maw and stir-fry another minute, then add the broth, bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for ten minutes.
3. Add the crab meat, wood ear fungi, and the shiitake mushrooms and simmer this for three more minutes. Then bring the soup to the boil and stir in the cornstarch mixture, vinegar and ground pepper, and stir until thickened, then serve.
Sweet and Sour Fish Maw
1 cup fish maw, soaked overnight, then squeeze out its water and cut into one to two-inch pieces
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3 Tablespoons minced onions
2 Tablespoons minced peeled fresh garlic
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and chopped fine
2 ounces hand-chopped pork
2 ounces raw shrimp
2 Tablespoons tomato sauce
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1. Put fish maw into a deep fry pan and dry-fry it for one minute, then add the oil and stir-fry another two minutes, then remove it to a small dish.
2. Add the onions and garlic and the chopped pork, and stir-fry another two minutes, and add the chili pepper pieces. Return the fish maw to the pan and add the tomato sauce and paste and one-quarter cup cold water and stir and simmer for five minutes.
3. Stir in the sugar and salt, and serve.
Bean Curd Boxes with Shrimp and Fish Maw
1 pound soft bean curd, cut into two to three inch squares two to three inches thick
1 cup vegetable oil
5 Tablespoons soaked fish maw, then dice it into small pieces
4 fresh shrimp, peeled and veins removed, then minced
2 Soaked shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and discarded, and coarsely chopped
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon oyster sauce
1/2 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
1 teaspoon sesame oil
10 small pieces of coriander
1. Drain the bean curd squares between several layers of paper towels topped with a plate and a book on top of that.
2. Heat the oil and deep-fry half the bean curd squares until they are crisp on the outside, carefully turning them until all sides are tan and crisp. Then drain them on fresh paper towels and repeat until all are deep-fried.
3. Cut a quarter-inch top off each one and set aside. Then, using a small spoon, remove some of the inside of each box leaving a quarter-inch of bean curd on each side and the bottom, and save this for another use.
4. Take one tablespoon of the oil and put into a wok or fry-pan and stir-fry the minced fish maw for five minutes, then add the shrimp and the mushrooms and stir-fry another two minutes before adding the broth, oyster sauce, and the soy sauce and boil until the broth is reduced by half.
5. Add the cornstarch mixture and the sesame oil, and continue boiling and stirring until thick, then put this mixture into the bean curd boxes, cover each one with the top of its box, and put on a steam-proof plate and into a steamer over boiling water.
6. Steam for six minutes, then remove the plate from the steamer, top each box with a small piece of coriander, and serve.

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