Thursday, December 27, 2012

And you thought miso was only for the Japanese...

Miso is usually introduced as a Japanese invention, but this is something that has also existed in China for hundreds of years as part of its beautiful spectrum of fermented bean sauces. 

Called mianchi 麵豉, this is one of the three fermented condiments referred to in Chinese as chi. In addition to Cantonese miso, there are also the very familiar fermented black beans (douchi 豆豉), as well as Cantonese fermented olives (lanchi 欖豉), which are dearly beloved in the Guangdong area but rarely used anywhere else. (We'll talk more about fermented olives in a future post. I should also add here that the Cantonese call dried oysters haochi 蠔豉, sort of straddling the line between condiment and the more hefty ingredients.)

Chinese miso
The Cantonese village of Gulao in near the city of Heshan is believed to have been where mianchi was first made, and as this place was already very famous for its soy sauce, the people there probably didn’t require too much of a stretch on imagination to expand into making miso. Both soy sauce and miso are created by inoculating steamed soybeans, allowing them to mold, and then mixing them with salt before they are left to ferment for months. The secrets to great sauces of any kind – and there always are secrets – are the proportions, the strain of molds, the other ingredients added to the mix, and how they are fermented.

The miso of China looks, smells, and tastes quite different from the Japanese version. For one, the Cantonese manage to create a fruitier, more alcoholic aroma, one that an American friend recently described as reminding him of mincemeat. Mianchi is also more liquid and loose with puddles of the juice gathering around the more solid islands. It also is distinctly full of beans, with shards of soybeans shimmering darkly against the mahogany-tinted mixture, and it is kept at room temperature, where the sauce has a chance to continue fermenting and changing and becoming more fragrant with the passing weeks.

It is only recently that Chinese miso has hit my local Chinese grocery store, and I pounced upon it with whoops of delight, scaring the ladies pushing kids and carts around me into allowing me a wide berth. Once I had tasted it, I immediately went back and bought more, happy in the knowledge that it will continue to evolve and ferment quietly on my kitchen counter. 

Beautiful Chilean sea bass
This dish calls for Chilean sea bass, which when cooked this way turns into possibly the nearest approximation of fish-flavored butter imaginable. Yes, sea bass is expensive – count on between $8 and $10 a person here – but it’s worth every penny. I love watching my guests take a first bite, thinking it’s nothing more than an everyday piece of fish, and then enjoying how their eyes pop out as they quickly snag another bite.

For this reason, I portion out the fish onto individual plates. It prevents all of the fights that would otherwise ensue.

Broiled buttery sea bass 
Yānjú lúyú  醃焗鱸魚
Serves 4 to 6

1½ pounds (more or less) Chilean sea bass
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons Cantonese miso (mianchi, see Tips)
3 tablespoons rice wine (mijiu)
1 tablespoon sugar
Spray oil
Olive oil

Ginger, sugar, mianchi & wine
1. Start this recipe 3 days before you wish to serve it. Scale the fish and rinse it under cool running water. Pat it dry and cut it into 4 to 6 even slices (depending upon how many people you wish to serve).

2. Use a resealable container for marinating the fish. Place the ginger, Chinese miso, rice wine, and sugar in the container and mix them together. Add the fish and coat each piece thoroughly. Cover the container and refrigerate it for 3 days, turning the fish over twice a day.

3. Heat the broiler to high and place the rack about 5 inches below the coil. Spray a broiler pan with oil. Lightly rub some olive oil over the skin side of each piece of fish and place them skin side up on the broiler pan. Broil the fish until the skin is bubbly and brown. Turn the pieces over and dribble any remaining marinade on top of the fish. Broil the fish again until the flesh side is browned on top and almost black along the edges. Remove the fish, plate it, and pour the hot sauce over the pieces. Serve hot.

Marinated fish


If you cannot find Cantonese miso in your market yet, use red Japanese miso instead. It’s not perfect, but all in all a good approximation.

Other fish might work well here as long as it is very meaty and juicy. But I have never tried anything else, as the sea bass is just so insanely delicious cooked this way.

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