Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shanghainese soy braised yellowtail collar

Red-braising, or hongshao, is very popular in China all the way from the Shanghai area on the eastern coast up through the north and then out west. But Jiangsu province remains the home of what I like to think of as the greatest of all hongshao dishes simply because they are done with such subtlety.

Here, for example, the hongshao sauce has absolutely no water added; the only moisture is provided by the Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce, while a slick of peanut oil gives it richness and rock sugar lends a sweetness that does not turn sour on the palate the way that regular sugar sometimes can. This is a style of cooking known as "dry braising," or ganshao.

Yellowtail collars
In this insanely delicious yet super easy dish, the sauce is reduced to a thick, caramelized syrup. Thin shards of ginger and specks of green onion become almost candy-like by the time the fish is ready -- it makes me wish that there was a candybar somewhere with such an equally lovely hit of salt to provide sensory balance and depth of flavor, a treat that lingers on the tongue like poetry, a caramel that hints of the sea.

The folks in eastern China in particular have a uniquely delicious way with fish, so much so that I've come to genuinely enjoy their methods of preparing what Westerners often think of a scraps: the head, the tail, and -- like here -- the collar, which is the area on the body right under the gills. There usually is an edge of bone called the pectoral girdle that frames these gills, and this extends a ways down the body and under the chin, which why the Chinese word for this piece is xiaba, or "chin." There are two pieces of collar on large fish, as they are usually not joined to each other.

The secret: lots of ginger
Seek out a good fishmonger and ask whether the collar of good, solid-fleshed sea fish could be saved for you. My favorite when I can find it is yellowtail collar, and this is sometimes sold by its Japanese name, hamachi kama, for the Japanese love this cut almost as much as they adore the flesh of the fish as sashimi. The Chinese name for yellowtail is youganyu (literally "oil sweet fish"), probably because it is so buttery and delectable. Some of my best sources for this cut have been busy Korean groceries, so check a couple out if you have lots of Koreans in your area, as I am lucky enough to have around here.

Serve this Shanghainese dish as an appetizer with cold beer or warm rice wine, or as a main course with only freshly steamed white rice and some stir-fried vegetables to accompany it. This is such a powerfully delicious way with fish that you don't want to upstage it with anything else. You can also make this ahead of time, refrigerate it, and gently heat it up before serving; I particularly like to broil in a few inches away from the heat so that the skin becomes chewy and even more caramelized.

Fish candy. What a concept.

Shanghainese soy braised yellowtail collar 
Hushi ganshao youganyu xiaba 滬式乾燒油甘魚下巴 
Shanghai, Jiangsu
Serves 4 generously as an appetizer or as part of a multicourse meal

4 halves (about 2 pounds) very fresh collar from a yellowtail (aka Hamachi), amberjack, or other firm-fleshed yet mild large sea fish
6 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
5 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh ginger
2 cups green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine, divided
6 tablespoons good regular soy sauce
4 tablespoons (or so) crushed rock, brown slab, or piloncillo sugar
Sear the fish with the ginger

1. Rinse the collars carefully under cool running water, making sure than all viscera and gills have been removed. Thoroughly scrape off all scales under running water; carefully go over the skin a couple of times with a paring knife to ensure that the skin is scale free, since the skin is delicious and scales would ruin everything. Pat the collars very dry with a paper towel so that they fry in the oil rather than steam.

2. Heat the oil in a large, flat-bottomed skillet over medium-high until a small piece of ginger immediately sizzles when added. Place the ginger and the collars (skin-side down) in the hot oil. Sear the fish on one side without moving it so that a light crust is formed. Shake the pan and flip the collars over; add the green onions and shake the pan so that they shimmy down under the fish. When the second side of the fish is golden too, add the soy sauce, sugar, and half of the rice wine. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and let the fish slowly cook for about 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high, and when the sauce has been reduced to a heavy syrup, gently turn the fish over and add the other half of the rice wine. Cook the sauce uncovered until it has once again has been reduced; you will be able to smell caramel as the sauce reaches its perfect state of gooiness. (The fish may be prepared ahead of time up to this point and gently reheated under the broiler in the final step.)

3. Remove from the heat and place the fish skin-side up on a lightly oiled broiler pan; scrape all of the sauce and ginger and onions onto the fish, as well. Broil the fish a few inches from the coils until the edges of the fish have caramelized and the sauce is very sticky.


Asian markets – and in particular the Korean grocery stores here in the Bay Area – have a wonderful array of fish, including varieties and cuts that Western markets often don’t offer.

If you decide to plunge in and prepare a fish head, just substitute one whole fish head for the four collar halves. Split (or have your fishmonger split) the head down the middle and remove the gills. Rinse the head carefully, scale the skin carefully, pat it dry, and proceed as with the collar.

Check with your fishmonger to see if yellowtail heads or collars can be special ordered.

Rock sugar (as well as other solid sugars like Chinese brown slab and piloncillo) is a secret to the luxurious mouthfeel of many Chinese sauces because it melts into a silky layer that does not leave a sour aftertaste.

This dish will be recognized by Chinese cognoscenti as being from Shanghai due to the copious amounts of green onions, as well as because of the sweet-salty sauce. Both the green onions and the ginger are every bit as delicious as the fish here, so be sure to enjoy them in-between bites of the fish.

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