Monday, April 14, 2014

Homemade Cantonese food at its best: the salted fish pork patty

This is one of the homiest Cantonese dishes of all, and variations on this simple meat patty are found throughout the region, as shown in the Tips. 

Sometimes sold in mom ‘n pop restaurants in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere, this dish is probably best when you can weasel an invitation to dinner at a friend’s house, where an auntie or grandma will make this according to some ancient recipe that has been passed down through the generations like a culinary heirloom. At least, that is where I fell in love with it.

In Cantonese families, this dish usually has a strip of salted fish on top of the seasoned pork. What this fish does is work as a seasoning, with all of those rich, savory flavors working down into the crevices in the pork and insinuating themselves into each lovely mouthful. 
Savory home cooking

Salted fish can be pretty overwhelming on its own, but when it is just a small piece that is steamed in pork juices, it loses some of its considerable funk and mighty saltiness, turning into a condiment of sorts. I prefer the fish in whole pieces on top, as I like to savor it in between bites of the pork. My husband, however, prefers it when I first steam the fish separately and flake it; this way all the bones are gone and the salted fish gets mixed up with the raw pork mixture before it is steamed. It's all a matter of personal taste.

When I lived in Taiwan, the preferred garnish for this dish was not fish but salted egg yolks, while other families mixed in some chopped pickles. The main aim in each version was simply to contrast the rich pork flavors with something salty and very savory, making this inexpensive dish a family favorite all over the Coastal Southeast.
Supple = fresh

Steamed minced pork with salted fish
Xiányú ròubĭng 鹹魚肉餅
Serves 4

1 pound ground pork (15% fat or so)
3 green onions, trimmed and chopped
2 to 3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce OR 4 tablespoons finely chopped pickled mustard with 1 tablespoon of the juice
8 or so water chestnuts (fresh or frozen), coarsely chopped, optional
3 tablespoons rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
2 tablespoons shallot oil
1 slice (2 ounces, or so) salted fish (see Tips)

Frozen water chestnuts
1. Place the pork in a medium work bowl and mix in the green onions, garlic, ginger, sugar, mushroom seasoning, soy sauce/pickled mustard, optional water chestnuts, rice wine, and shallot oil. (Your hand is probably the best bet for this.)

2. Shape the meat into a patty and pack it into a shallow bowl that fits easily into your steamer. Smooth down the top of the patty and squish the salted fish into the center. Place the bowl into a steamer and steam the patty on high for about 35 minutes; insert a chopstick into the center of the meat, and if the juices run clear, it’s done. Serve hot with steamed rice.


Use ground dark turkey meat instead of pork, if you like.

Pickled mustard
If you are in a older Cantonese-style Chinatown, stay on the lookout for baskets full of good dried fish. My favorite for this and most other dishes is called "three-tooth salted fish," or sānyá xiányú 三牙鹹魚, a smallish variety of croaker that has been cured and then air dried. 

Check for freshness by covering your hand with a plastic bag and then gently squeezing the fish. If it has the “give” of the ball of flesh between your thumb and finger, the fish should still be fresh. Smell it carefully and reject any that have a distinctly fishy or unclean aroma, as these should give off only the scent of the sea. These salted croakers are never at their best when dried to a hard texture; rather, you should be able to bend the fish into a U without it breaking.

Prepare salted fish by first cutting off however much you want to use. Scrape off any scales and dark areas, and then rinse it well and pat dry. Refrigerate the rest sealed up in a plastic bag.

Oil-packed salted fish is often available in Cantonese grocery stores, but I’ve become a bit leery of the quality of both the fish and the oil. And so, proceed to the next tip:

Vacuum-packed plastic bags that contain fillets of salted yellow croaker (or the three-tooth salted fish mentioned above) are good starting points for this dish. I then stick these fish into a medium canning jar, cover them with fresh oil, and then steam the jar covered in foil for about an hour. Pluck out a slice of the now nicely funky fish and store the rest in the fridge for next time. (These fillets can be found in the refrigerated section of Cantonese grocery stores near all the other dried and preserved meats.)

My family gets very possessive about this dish when I stick the raw yolks from brined eggs all over the top instead of the fish. You can use as many as you like; I tend to figure on 2 yolks per person to avoid fistfights from breaking out at the table.

Chopped Taiwanese huagua pickles or something similar are great in here, too. Just add some of the liquid from the pickles to the mix instead of the soy sauce.


  1. Awesome! Chinese steamed pork patties are some of my favorite things to eat with rice. Given that salted fish is almost impossible to find where I live, do you think I could dot the top of the patty with some dried shrimp?

    1. Sure, but I probably would soak and chop them finely, perhaps even mix them into the pork.

      Have you ever tried salting and drying fish yourself? I'm thinking of doing that soon to see how hard it would be and how delicious the results.

  2. Yah, I might use my mortar and pestle to pulverize the shrimp into little bits. That seems like a better idea. I've never salted and dried fish myself. I live in a fairly warm, dry area with a good breeze, so I could probably do it, but I think the neighbors would probably give me dirty looks. :P

    1. Warm, dry area with a good breeze = perfect place to dry fish. Just keep the cats at bay...

  3. 鹹魚肉餅! Oh goodness YES YES YES, and more yes! This was a favourite of my family's when I was growing up - we also did these patties with mei chai, zha chai or even tung chai. I still make this when I'm at a loss to know what to cook for dinner. Sometimes my grandmother would add some minced shrimp to the 肉餅, she said it made it more toothsome, more 'xuang'. I've even had this with nam yu before and /that/ is really good too.

    Seeing this recipe makes me so happy I could do backflips. A lot of these are home cooking recipes, handed down rather than written down - that's how I learned mine - and just /seeing/ it in print is wonderful.

    1. You're making me grin from ear to ear! Your enthusiasm for some of my favorite foods truly echoes my own. Try salted egg yolks on the patty next time - totally amazing!

  4. I will, now that I am old enough to appreciate salted egg yolks! So many of these dishes are things I grew up with - apparently my father's side of the family assimilated a loooot of different Chinese cooking styles that we didn't even really know about. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; there is so much cross-culture going on in my part of the world. Some of the simplest recipes are actually the hardest to do well - savoury steamed egg custard would be one of those, the 'sui dan'. We'd have it with minced pork and green bean threads sometimes, or even salted egg yolks or century eggs - but the best was plain, with a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce drizzled on top of a smooooooth egg surface. Overcook it and it'd be all pock-marked, which wouldn't affect the taste but it'd be less creamy and custardy and my grandma would complain!