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