Monday, June 17, 2013

Sister-in-law Song's fish chowder: a taste of heaven

Light and delicious, this fish chowder from old Hangzhou is a classic recipe from Zhejiang, a/k/a heaven on earth. This is one of those dishes that looks terribly complicated, but actually is quite easy to put together.

First and foremost, you must have a good freshwater fish to act as the backbone, as the fresh sweetness of its flesh will act as a sparkling counterpoint to the other ingredients.

Crunchy bamboo shoots provide just the right textural component, while chewy mushrooms and ham hover with their own deep flavors in every mouthful. 

The beauty of this chowder is breathtaking when done correctly. Everything except for the fish must be cut into thin shreds so that they swirl and twist harmoniously around each other, the beige of the bamboo, red of the ham, and black of the mushrooms providing delight to the eye before their scent has even reached your nose. Tender egg-white flowers dance among these shreds, their brilliant white playing hide-and-seek with the fish flakes.

Spring bamboo shoot
As you take your first bite, you may be reminded of North China’s hot and sour soup, since this too has a good wallop of vinegar and black pepper. 

But then again, this is from Zhejiang, so it has a quieter voice, the vinegar backpedaled a bit and there along with the fresh ginger only to spark the aromas of the fish and refresh the palate between each spoonful.

Mention of this chowder is made as early as 800 years ago in the Song dynasty book Mèngliánglù 夢梁錄 by Wú Zìmù 吳自牧, so this is definitely something that has pleased generations of diners in one of the most heavenly places to eat in the world.

Sister-in-law Song’s fish chowder
Sòngsǎo yúgēng 宋嫂魚羹
Serves 4

12 ounces firm, white, freshwater fish (bass, carp, tilapia, etc.)
1 tablespoon ginger juice
½ teaspoon sea salt
5 large fresh or plumped-up dried black mushrooms
A little over 1-inch square of Chinese-style ham
½ fresh or frozen and defrosted bamboo shoot
Mushrooms, ham, & shoots
1 tablespoon fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely shredded fresh ginger
3 cups boiling chicken stock, or 3 cups boiling water plus 2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon cornstarch or water chestnut flour mixed with 3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon black vinegar, or to taste
Chopped cilantro as garnish

1. Rinse the fish, pat it dry, and remove any skin or bones. (If there are tiny bones in there, they will be easily removed once the fish has been steamed.) Place the fish in a single layer on a heatproof, rimmed dish, sprinkle it with the ginger juice and salt, and steam the fish for 10 to 15 minutes, or until it flakes easily. Discard the juices and let the fish cool down while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Remove the stems from the mushrooms. Cut the caps horizontally into 3 layers (or 2 if the caps are thin), and then cut these layers into shreds the size of matchsticks. Trim any skin or tendons off of the ham and cut it against the grain into thin slices and then crosswise into matchsticks. Do the same with the bamboo shoots. You should end up with somewhere in the area of ¼ cup each of the julienned ham and bamboo shoots. (Keep the ham separate from the mushrooms and bamboo shoot.)

Frothy egg flowers
3. Place a medium-sized sandpot on a burner and turn the heat to medium-high heat, being careful not to overheat the sandpot and thus break it. While the sandpot is heating up, place the oil and ginger in there so that you know how hot the sandpot is getting while the ginger slowly releases its fragrance. When it is starting to fry happily, add the mushrooms and bamboo shoots.  Stir these around in the hot oil, and when they start to go limp, pour in the hot stock. Bring the stock to a boil over high heat and then lower the heat to medium; let the stock and the vegetables get to know each other for a couple of minutes and then add the ham.

4. After about a minute, remove the sandpot from the heat. Lightly beat the egg whites again and then pour them through a sieve in a fine thread all over the soup. Do not mix the chowder at this point, but give the whites a chance to form delicate flowers all over the surface.

5. Return the sandpot to the heat and bring the soup to a boil before lower the heat to a simmer. Stir in the vinegar and the cornstarch mixture, stir the chowder gently until it thickens, and then add the fish before garnishing the chowder with the cilantro. Serve immediately.


  1. This sounds simple and absolutely delicious. I am going to make it for my grandma who was born in Suzhou. Just one you add the fish at the very end, after the vinegar and cornstarch mixture?

    I've been reading your blog for awhile and I want to let you know it is really a treasure. I so appreciate your depth of knowledge, diverse and authentic recipes hard to find anywhere else, wonderful stories and true generosity in sharing. I can't wait to read your cookbook!

    1. Thank you so much, and forgive me for not noticing this question earlier! Yes, add the fish at the end so that it doesn't cook through any more, but rather just gets a chance to heat up a bit. Great question, and I've edited the recipe to reflect this.

      I am so happy you are enjoying this blog. It's so much fun to write, and I am really excited that All Under Heaven is going to be published this coming year. We have two fantastic publishers involved, and they are doing an amazing job on its design. Hope you like it!