Monday, March 31, 2014

Balancing act: dried fish with chicken gets fabulous

One of the hallmarks of China’s many cuisines is the combination of dried and fermented ingredients with fresh foods. In fact, most of this country’s dishes feature this contrast to varying degrees. 

Soy sauce—or any other fermented bean or grain or seafood paste—is the usual suspect on the savory side of the equation, as they provide a luxurious sense of depth and xianwei (aka umami). This in turn balances out the vibrant fresh flavors of whatever vegetable or protein is being used.
In addition to sauces, though, many dried and salted ingredients season China’s dishes. Particularly in the southeastern quadrant—including Chaozhou, Southern Fujian, Taiwan, and the Hakka areas—things like dried shrimp and scallops, tiny sundried anchovies and large flattened squid, salted and fermented mustard, and cured radishes—give the region many of its distinctive aromas. And then to the north and south of this area, the Yangtze River Delta and the province of Guangdong lovingly sandwich the southeast and offer a plethora of their own unique takes on xianwei.
Cut the soaked fish shards

As you might expect in the Yangtze River Delta, where foods tend to be much more subtle than just about any other part of China, pungency is rarely treasured. In fact, the further you travel toward the Pacific Ocean, the milder foods become. And so, when dried fish shows up on the menu around here, it is there usually as a suggestive seasoning rather than an overt one, as well as a textual counterpart to whatever happens to be juicy in that dish.

That is exactly what happens here, one of our favorites from the days when we ate regularly at the restaurant called Fuxingyuan in downtown Taipei. Bits of dried fish were soaked until soft and then quickly tossed with chunks of chicken. It was that wondrous contrast of fresh/dry, tender/chewy, and land/sea that drew us back time and again.

I have never been able to locate a good recipe for xiangkao ji, and so I have re-created it from memory with some adjustments to fit the reality of living on the wrong side of the Pacific. My main problem is that dried whole fish tends to be offered in uneven states of quality and freshness on these shores.

Korean bonito strips
The happy resolution is that I’ve come to rely on something that is a nice substitute: dried bonito. This is not the shaved bonito that is used in Japanese cooking, but rather the large strips that are sold in Korean stores. Clean and for the most part boneless, this dried fish is easily plumped up and turns into something bouncy, rather than chewy, which I find quite pleasant and a nice addition to this Shanghai classic.

Serve this to people who understand that there might be tiny bones to look out for, which means not feeding the fish, at least, to diners such as little children.

Chicken with dried fish
Xiǎngkǎo jī  鯗烤雞
Serves 4 to 6

2 ounces shredded dried bonito (see headnotes)
Tap water to cover
1½ pounds (or so) boneless, skinless chicken thighs (around 6 thighs)
5 or 6 green onions, trimmed
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
A Shanghai favorite of mine
¼ cup finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons light soy sauce (see Tips)
4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1. Start this recipe at least 4 hours before serving. First, place the dried fish in a medium work bowl and cover it with cool tap water. Poke the fish down every once in a while so that all of it gets a chance to sponge up the water. After it has soaked for around 3 hours and is light and springy, drain the fish well. Run your fingers down each strip and pull out any tiny bones with kitchen tweezers, and then use kitchen shears to cut each strip into pieces about 1 inch long.

2. Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the chicken into pieces around 1 inch square. Cut the green onions crosswise in half so that you have half white onions and half green leaves. Slice the whites and greens into 1-inch lengths, but leave them in separate piles (see Tips).

Fry the chicken in ginger oil
3. Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat, and when it starts to get warm, add the ginger. Swirl the ginger around in the oil until it is bubbly but not browned. Turn up the heat to high and immediately add all of the chicken. Toss the chicken in the hot oil, and when it has completely lost its pink color, add the whites of the onions, the rice wine, and the soy sauce, as well as the drained fish. Continue tossing these all together over high heat, and when the sauce has reduced to the consistency of maple syrup, taste and adjust the seasoning. Then, at the last minute, toss in the onion greens and sesame oil. Serve immediately.


Light soy sauce is used here because it is pale and has a milder flavor than regular soy sauce. A good alternative, I’ve found, is Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. It has a nice taste and, while not precisely the same thing as soy sauce, ends up tasting pretty authentic in dishes like this. You can find it in most health food stores.

Store the extra dried fish in a clean, covered jar; it will keep well for months. For longer storage, freeze to keep it from possibly going buggy.
Separate piles for the onions

Like spinach and Swiss chard, a green onion is composed of two distinct parts that can be treated differently, if you like. The white part that grows under the soil has a pronounced onion flavor that mellows with heat; it can overpower certain dishes if served raw, so here you see it tempered with the quick stir-fry. The greens, on the other hand, are more delicate and dissolve if allowed to cook too long, so in many of the dishes on this blog you will see that they are added at the last minute. They can then be cooked briefly, as here, to play down their onion nature a bit while preserving their brilliant emerald hue, or left raw to add more bite.

Green onions can be cut straight across into 1-inch lengths or at an angle, whichever you prefer.

Notice how all of the main solids end up approximately the same size. This is an important principle in most of China’s cuisines and gives you a dish that is not only visually pleasing—the shapes harmonizing with each other while the subtle color differences providing contrast—but also beautifully tasty, as each bite will easily include a shard of fish and onion with a chunk of chicken.

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