Friday, August 19, 2011

Shandong's fish napped with wine lees

Yesterday we took another look at making Fermented Rice. Now that you have a big jar of it  staring at you meaningfully from a kitchen shelf, I've come to the rescue with a terrific fish recipe from the northern coastal province of Shandong. 

The story I've heard is that Fish Napped with Wine Lees dates back at least to August 1894. On the night before Chinese and Japanese fleets first exchanged fire in the First Sino-Japanese War, famed chef Lü Wenqi was in charge of preparing meals for Viceroy Li Hongzhang, who directed the Chinese forces. Chef Lü made this refined dish for the viceroy, who was so impressed that he asked for it many times during the war. Later on, the great city of Yantai in Shandong became renowned for its version of Fish Napped with Wine Lees.

Viceroy Li
Delicate in texture and gentle in both taste in aroma, this simple contrast of black and white is every bit as beautiful to look at as it is to eat. The magic of this dish lies in the contrasts of the pillowy fish with the crunchy bamboo shoots and the bouncy wood ear mushrooms, as well as the undercurrents of wine and gentle aromatics. This is a great dish to start off a banquet with, because it tantalizes the tongue and prepares the appetite for more good things to come. Of course, it is also unbelievably good as a main entree over rice with a brilliantly green side of fresh vegetables.

You can, of course, use storebought fermented rice (jiuniang), but be aware that it often is sweeter than homemade. So, taste it before you use it. If it is decidedly sweet, use half the amount recommended below and make up the amount with an unsweetened, neutral rice wine, like mijiu or Japanese sake.

If you have never tried wood ear mushrooms (mu'er) before, this is a great place to start. They make up for their plain taste with a squeaky texture and deep hue that contrasts brilliantly with the fish and bamboo shoots here. You can always find them dried in any Chinese market, and if you are in an area with a sizable Chinese population, you often can find packages of fresh wood ears. Use the rest of the package for something like the Four Happiness Braised Gluten from a few months ago.

Wood ears with friends
Two cooking techniques are highlighted here. The first is using a Chinese spider over a bowl to capture your fried foods. Professional Chinese kitchens use this a lot, and it is a great idea. You fry whatever it is you are frying, and as each piece is done, you scoop it out to the spider, where it drains into a bowl. Then when the last of the food has been fried, the rest of the oil can be dumped into the bowl through the spider, leaving you with a relatively clean wok.

Second, when you cook very fragile foods like sliced fish, you have to be extremely careful that you don't break them apart. That is why fish is rarely stir-fried unless it has a very firm texture like shark, or is covered in a cooked batter. The secret is to move the food around by swirling the wok. As with this recipe, everything is already cooked, the vegetables are hot, and all you need to do is heat up the fish slices in the sauce. By the time you plate this dish, they will have naturally mixed together.

On a final note, if you are a student of Chinese, the character liu here is often used in northern and eastern coastal dishes to mean that the ingredients (usually seafood or freshwater fish) are first cooked and then "sauced."

Fish napped with wine lees 
Zaoliu yupian 糟溜魚片 
Serves 6 to 8 as one of many entrees, or 2 to 3 as a main entree

Fish and marinade:
1 pound wild-caught flatfish fillets (such as sole or flounder)
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ large egg white (2 tablespoons), lightly beaten
1 tablespoon cornstarch
About 2 tablespoons dried wood ear mushrooms (mu'er), or about ¼ cup packed fresh
1 winter (large) bamboo shoot, fresh or frozen
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil 
1 tablespoon finely minced peeled, fresh ginger
2 tablespoons finely minced green onions, white parts only
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
5 to 6 tablespoons salted stock (chicken or fish), or filtered water with ½ teaspoon powdered boullion
2 teaspoons cornstarch 
½ cup Homemade Fermented Rice (mainly the rice, with a couple tablespoons of the liquid), or ¼ cup storebought fermented rice plus ¼ cup plain rice wine (mijiu)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1. Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the fish into squares about 2 inches all around. Place the fish in a small work bowl with the rice wine and salt and allow it to marinate covered in the refrigerator for about an hour; drain off the liquid. Then, add the egg white and cornstarch and toss the fish until it is evenly coated.

2. While the fish is marinating, cover the dried wood ears with boiling water, and then drain clean and trim them as soon as they are plump; if you are using fresh wood ears, trim off the hard areas, rinse, and pat dry. Tear the wood ears into pieces about the size of a quarter; if you have only sliced dried wood ears, then there's no need to cut them any further. Clean and trim the fresh bamboo shoot as described earlier; defrost the frozen bamboo shoot if you're using that. Then cut the shoot into quarters lengthwise before slicing the shoot as thinly as possible.

Spider setup
3. Just before serving, heat the oil in your wok over medium heat until a bamboo chopstick inserted in the oil gently bubbles around the edge (around 300 degrees F). Place a Chinese spider over a work bowl and a serving platter next to the stove (see photo on right). Gently fry the fish one handful at a time so that the slices gradually turn opaque in the center and pale gold around the edges, stirring and turning them over gently with a wok spatula as they cook. Use a wok spatula to remove the fish to the spider, and let it drain into the work bowl while you cook the next handful of fish. Then, empty the spider onto the platter before you scoop out the next batch of fried fish. Continue in this way until all of the fish has been cooked. (If you cook the fish in small batches this way, they won't stick to each other and the oil temperature won't drop fast when you add the cold fish; this allows the fish to cook evenly and quickly.)

4. When all of the fish has been cooked, drain out all but about 1 tablespoon of oil in the wok. Raise the heat to high and add the ginger, onions, and garlic. Rapidly stir-fry the aromatics for about 10 seconds before adding the wood ears and bamboo shoots and 2 tablespoons of the stock. Stir-fry them for a few minutes over high heat until the bamboo shoots are no longer raw but still very crisp; you can tell the bamboo shoots are ready when they start to bend easily. Mix the cornstarch with the rest of the stock and place it next to the stove.

5. Pour the fermented rice and salt into the wok, bring the sauce to a boil, scoot the vegetables up the side of the wok, add the cornstarch mixture to the sauce, and mix until it thickens. Quickly toss the fish into the sauce at the bottom of the wok. Since the fish slices are extremely fragile at this point, layer the vegetables on top of the fish and then merely shake the wok around to mix things up. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then immediately plate on your serving platter.

Photo of Viceroy Li courtesy of Wikipedia