Monday, January 27, 2014

Happy Year of the Horse: have some savory fish candy

This Friday is the first day of the new lunar year, and for all of us who love China's cuisines, no better excuse exists for making a whole lot of good food and inviting a whole lot of good friends over to eat.

A great thing about this Chinese celebration is that it is not relegated to one big day. You get to start out with the night before, called Chūxì 初夕, when you put up new strips of red paper around the front door with lots of good omens written on them, light some firecrackers, and indulge in whatever is available.

If you come from a fractious family, an especially wonderful thing about the ensuing two weeks is that there can be no arguing or less than happy words, as these will bring about bad luck. So have your in-laws over and feel the bliss!

You also are not supposed to cook or use knives or scissors, which can be a bit of a bother as the food starts to run out after a couple of days (some Chinese friends combat this with day after day of the same hotpot), but if you do some advance preparations, this is a great excuse not to toil away for too long in the kitchen.

Gorgeous dried filefish
And so, I like to have stuff cooked and ready for the steamer, ingredients prepped and frozen for soups, bags of jiaozi stuffed and stashed in the freezer, and a bunch of containers stacked in the fridge filled with appetizers and bar snacks so that we can have tasty things on the table in a matter of minutes.

This is an especially good idea if you have lots of Chinese friends, because now is also the time of year when they will show up on your doorstep laden with food and drink and flowers, and you need to have something to offer them in return. A pot of tea and a big batch of sugared almonds is a terrific way to make them feel welcome at these times, and if they linger on toward dinner time, pull up an extra seat or two to the table and start flinging things into the steamer and soup pot.

One bar snack I like to make that is pretty much effortless is this, something I call “fish candy.” Made from a type of pufferfish called a “filefish” that has been completely boned, flattened, and dried, this is flavorful without being too smelly, and chock full of savory notes that are deftly balanced with a touch of sugar, salt, and sesame.

This is really popular in Taiwan’s beerhouses, as well in Korea... I am not sure where it started, to be truthful. All I know is that it is ridiculously easy, super tasty, and just the right thing to set before your friends alongside some cold beer or hot rice wine. After all, it does offer not only the prospect of happy taste buds, but also wishes for a prosperous new year (niánnián yŏuyú 年年有餘[])!
The ingredients

Fish candy
Kǎo dānjítúngān 烤單棘魨
Taiwan, Korea, and elsewhere
Serves 4

Half a package (2.5 ounces or so) of dried, pressed filefish (see Tips)
Spray oil
Sweet soy sauce
Unhulled or white sesame seeds

1. Heat a toaster oven to broil, with the rack set about 3 inches from the heating element. Rinse the tilefish and pat dry. Use kitchen shears to cut the discs into ½-inch strips.

2. Spray a small broiler pan with oil. Arrange the strips of dried fish on the pan so that they are in a single layer and barely touch each other.

3. Use a pastry brush to dab sweet soy sauce over all of the fish strips, and then sprinkle the sesame seeds evenly over the fish.

The package
4. Broil the fish until it is lightly browned and the soy sauce has turned sticky. Remove from the oven, arrange the fish on a platter, and let it cool for a few minutes, as this will give it enough time to turn from soft to chewy or crunchy, depending upon how long they were cooked. Serve with cold beer or hot rice wine.


Filefish is usually found in the refrigerated section of Korean and Chinese grocery stores near the other dried seafood. I prefer the Korean brands, as they have always been of excellent quality.

I do not speak or read Korean, but the package is often labeled as being jwipo (쥐포).

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