Monday, February 10, 2014

Fish fluff & the fine art of shredding ginger

My late father-in-law was a master of tuna. But then again, pretty much any fish that found itself in his capable hands would be treated as if it were the crown jewels, which is exactly the right way to deal with any good ingredients. Perhaps this was due to his Hakka heritage. Whatever the reason, we certainly ate the better for it.

My husband remembers the best days of his childhood in a golden haze of sunshine and seafood when they lived on a military base in southern Taiwan near the village of Donggang, or eastern harbor. As the name implies, this was a fisherman’s haven, and every type of saltwater fish, crustacean, and shellfish would be displayed in the early morning hours near the wharves—often still flapping or desperately crawling about on the tarp—for the many customers that almost always included my father-in-law.

The cheapo ingredients
My husband’s favorites included slabs of tuna that were so fresh that they rippled with rainbows across their dark flesh. His father would get a steak or two and gently poach the fish in oil with lots of ginger, and the family would dip into it over a couple of days as a savory accompaniment to rice or congee. 

Once in a while he made fish fluff, which sounds very strange in English, but is actually an insanely good and ridiculously easy condiment. Yes, you can occasionally buy it in Chinese supermarkets, but these jars are old, the fish doused with goodness knows what kind of chemicals, and the flavor and texture pretty much on the side of blah.

But open up a couple of cans of tuna (yup, canned tuna… no need to waste gorgeous tuna steaks on this), and you will be reveling in this delectable treat in no time. I season this mainly with a massive amount of  fried shredded ginger (see the detailed directions below on how to do this), which lends a definite citrusy air to the fish, as well as a gentle heat. Toasted sesame seeds and a dash of soy sauce and sugar round out the seasonings, with the only other ingredient being the oil used to fry the limp tuna into fluffy mounds.
Shredded ginger
There are only two really ideal ways to enjoy fish fluff: either with congee or sandwiched inside of a steamed bread, or mantou. Second best—but nothing to sneeze at—are using it to top preserved eggs with bean curd, tossing it into some noodles with a dash of sauce (soup would disintegrate the fluff in an instant), or just munching on it between sips of beer.

Fish fluff
Yúsōng 魚鬆
South Fujian and Taiwan, as well as elsewhere
Serves 3 or more

½ cup hand-shredded fresh ginger (see directions below)
½ cup peanut or other oil (olive oil is great here, though not traditional)
2 cans (4 ounces each) tuna, preferably albacore or other sustainable varieties, either water- or oil-packed
Frying up the ginger
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon soy sauce (more or less)
1 teaspoon sugar

1. Peel and shred the ginger as directed below; try to make it uniformly thin so that it fries evenly.

2. Heat a wok over high heat, add the oil, turn the heat down to medium, and swirl the oil around in the pan to cover the lower half. Sprinkle in the ginger and fry it until it shrivels, smells great, and is slightly golden.

3. Drain the tuna and flake it into the wok. Toss the tuna with the ginger and oil and then turn up the heat to medium-high, tossing the tuna every minute or so to keep it browning evenly. There should be enough oil to prevent the fish from sticking, but if you need some more, dribble it around the edge of the wok so that it heats up quickly. Continue to fry and toss the tuna; you will see it start to break apart and fluff up into cottony strands. Once it turns a nice mix of brown and gold, sprinkle on the sesame seeds and toss again. Take a small bite of the tuna to see how salty it already is, and then pour in as much of the soy sauce as needed, as well as the sugar, and then quickly toss the fish with these so that the liquid evaporates and the sugar melts. When the steam stops rising, the fish fluff should be done, so taste and adjust the seasoning a final time.
Scrape downward

4. Scrape the fish fluff out into a bowl and let it cool off, which will give it a chance to turn a bit crispier. Enjoy it right away or refrigerate it in a closed container.


Use organic Hawaiian ginger, not the stuff from China, which is doused with major chemicals. If the rhizomes are not labeled, then they are most likely Chinese ginger. These will tend to be long, smooth lengths and rather fat. Hawaiian ones are more delicate and will have lots of branching (see the second photo from the top). Store your ginger in a paper bag in the fridge; prep and freeze it if you don't use it all that often. 

Don’t bother buying expensive canned tuna or fresh tuna for this; the cooking process does not justify the expense, and even the cheapo brands taste fantastic.

Season this with other things, if you like, such as garlic, ground dried chilies, or perhaps some fine shreds of nori seaweed added at the end.

How to peel and shred ginger
Peeled ginger

I don’t always peel my fresh mature ginger… that’s one of my deep, dark secrets. It all depends.

You might ask, on what? First, the freshness of the ginger and the toughness of the peel will tell you what is necessary; if the ginger is super juicy and the peel is relatively young, few people will notice if the skin is still hanging around. The only place where I always peel it is if the ginger is older or when when it is to be very finely julienned for a dipping sauce, as it then will be exposed in all its naked glory. 

Second, if I am going to toss it into a braise or soup, it never gets peeled unless I’m having company over; this ranks in importance in my world with vacuuming under the sofa, as it all hinges on upon who is showing up. If it is being juiced, then it absolutely never gets peeled, for that would be a waste of time.

So, how do you go about peeling ginger? Here is my simple guide:
Slice off one edge

First, lop off the fingers and toes on the ginger, by which I mean all those little protuberances that poke out along the edges of a nice, juicy hunk of the rhizome. The pieces smaller than half an inch can be saved for a stew or whatever. The larger pieces get peeled, though.

Second, use a short paring knife to scrape down from the tip toward the base so that you go with the grain of the ginger. The peel will come off very easily this way, and using a paring knife will allow you to nip off any less-than-perfect bits. You will be left with a light yellow hunk (or hunks) of ginger.

Grasp the knife correctly
Third, slice off a thin piece from the length of ginger so that it will rest reassuringly against your cutting board. This way the ginger won’t rock about and make you slice off your fingers. I find this important. Then, lay the ginger flat against the cutting board, with the knife in your dominant hand and your nondominant hand curled up on the ginger; this nondominant hand is doing some important work here, as it will guide your blade and also determine how thick the pieces are. So, practice this a bit, as it will come easily once you try it. Slice straight down gently and evenly while pushing the knife a bit, which allows the blade to glide through the ginger.

Notice the way that I hold the Chinese knife: I grip the handle with my middle, ring, and baby fingers while the thumb and forefinger grasp the base of the blade. This gives the cook lots of control over the blade. Try holding the knife this way and you will see that you get an incredible range of motion. (By the way, never rest the forefinger across the back of the blade, as that will wreck your finger.)
Shred the slices

Finally, once you have a bunch of ginger slices, stack them flat against the cutting board in piles of 3 or 4, and then start slicing them with the grain into thin shreds. You will encounter more resistance at this point because the grain of the ginger will be going in different directions due to the multiple slices. So, use a slightly sawing motion to quickly slice up these into thin threads.

And that’s it.


  1. It's interesting to see different fish being used to make yu-song. The commercial stuff sold in Taiwan is supposedly made from swordfish and in our house we've always made it from salmon or trout. Yuan Mei insists that the best fish for it are grass and common carp. I've always wondered if using different fish results in a dramatically different product. Have you tried fish other than tuna?

    1. I haven't tried everything, but certainly any good, firm-fleshed fish would work well here, as well as pork and chicken, of course. Yuan Mei (we're talking about the author of the Suiyuan shidan, folks) lived in Hangzhou, and so the default fish for this would have been carp. I don't think you could go wrong with anything you like as long as it's firm and has good muscle texture. (I usually used canned tuna because it's cheap and tasty.)