Monday, May 12, 2014

Chinese olive redux

Chinese olives are a completely different species from the Mediterranean olive. In both China and Southeast Asia all the way down to India, the fruits of the Canarium album tree do look an awful lot like olives, hence the name. 

In spite of that, they do not taste the same—the Chinese olive has an unusual fragrance and is not as oily—but oddly enough East and West get along remarkably well, especially in dishes like this.

Olive corners
The people of South China use preserved ones as a seasoning, with the flesh of the halved and pitted fruits squashed flat into what are called olive corners. I like to cook the olives first in oil and sugar to tame their slight astringency. After that, they can be refrigerated in a jar and used to season things like pork patties, fried rice, and congee.

Chaozhou, it seems, is the capital of olive love here in China. Whole olives are cooked in sugar water until their flesh has candied, turning them into oddly flavored Chaozhou-style tea treats that can be quite delicious once you get used to them. Another unique way with them is to stew the chopped olives with mustard greens, oil, and seasonings to form a black paste called olive vegetable that is perfect for seafood dishes such as this one, since each tiny strand of the sauce packs a wallop of flavor.
Olive vegetable

Hong Kong has adopted many of Chaozhou’s ways of cooking seafood, but the former colony tends to put a unique spin on everything that comes out of its kitchens. Here, for example, the traditional seasonings of cured Chinese olives and olive vegetable are joined by the decidedly Western ingredient, virgin olive oil. They complement each other so well that the name “olive” suddenly seems to be an apt name for this distant Chinese cousin.

Together, this trio gives the fish a sublime aroma. Since all three are oily, and there is salt in two of them, I like to use a relatively lean fish here. Flatfish are terrific, and you can use either whole ones or just the fillets. However, feel free to substitute something else, like salmon, which is also delicious. I have also added a bit of lemon juice to lend a touch of tartness to all of these mellow flavors.

Start this recipe at least an hour ahead of time so that you can prepare the preserved olives. The rest comes together in a flash. Serve with hot rice to soak up the luscious sauce and flash-fried greens cooked with no salt, as the sauce is savory enough.
Decorative seasonings

Steamed fish with three kinds of olives
Sānlǎn zhēngyú 三欖蒸魚
Hong Kong

Serves 4

Preserved olives:
4 ounces (or so) olive corners
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon ground ginger

1 pound (or so) mild fish fillets or 1½ pound whole fish (see Headnotes)  
½ teaspoon sea salt
6 preserved olives (from the above recipe)
1 tablespoon olive vegetable, chopped
1 tablespoon finely shredded peeled ginger
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil
½ red jalapeno pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
Juice of half a lemon

1. First prepare the olive corners: Place them, including any broken bits and pieces, into a sieve and rinse them well under tap water. Shake the olive corners dry and place them in a small heatproof bowl. Toss them with the olive oil, sugar, and ginger. Steam the olive corners for around 45 minutes, tossing them with a spoon every 15 minutes. Remove the olive corners from the steamer, cool, and refrigerate in a covered jar until needed.
Olive corners in steamer

2. Prepare the fish about half an hour before you cook it. If you are using a whole fish, scale and gut it, remove the gills, and peel out any dark lining inside the cavity. Cut slashes horizontally through the thickest part of the fish’s body so that it cooks evenly. For both whole and filleted fish, rinse them and pat dry. Place the fish on a rimmed heatproof plate and rub the fish with the salt. Just before you proceed to the next step, pour off any water that has accumulated on the plate. Prepare a steamer and bring the water in it to a full boil.

3. Select about 6 of the olive corners and chop them roughly before placing them on top of the fish. Arrange the olive vegetable, ginger, and red pepper down the top of the fish so that it has an attractive pattern of black, white, and red. Drizzle the olive oil all over the fish. Place the fish in the steamer and steam fillets for about 10 minutes, whole fish for about 15, or until the fish is just cooked through. Squeeze the lemon juice over the fish and serve immediately.
Soft & luscious olives


Chinese olive corners can usually be found in Cantonese-style markets and dry-goods stores. They are available either in plastic bags or in jars on the counter, where they are sold by the ounce.

Olive vegetable is often sold in the sauce aisle of Chinese grocery stores. Be sure to chop it before you use it, as there often are whole pits hiding inside.

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