Monday, May 19, 2014

The best sashimi comes from the Pearl River Delta. Period.

Raw fish is usually known outside of China by its Japanese name, sashimi. In fact, it is almost invariably considered a Japanese creation. 

However, the Chinese have been enjoying raw fish for at least 2,000 years. It is a local delight in many parts of the Coastal Southeast — including the Hakka areas, Chaozhou, and throughout the Pearl River Delta — but for some unknown reason this incredibly delicious way with raw fish has remained a secret. I am here to change all that.

My personal favorite is from the Shunde area of the Delta. As this area is a gorgeous patchwork of fish ponds, freshwater fish like carp is usually called for. The pure white flesh is then removed from the skin and bones (these are reserved for stock or congee), and the fish is cut on an angle into slices so thin and translucent that they are described as “cicada wings.” 
Fluke (L) & yellowtail

A dish this stunning is usually reserved for a banquet, and the translucent slices are arranged in a single layer, often on a frozen platter or a large bed of ice. Small bowls of condiments and seasonings then surround the main attraction, and diners mix together whatever they like as a seasoning dip for the fish. 

However, raw fish is also so simple to make that it can be easily mastered by even a beginning cook.

Excellent quality farmed carp are not yet widely available here in the States, but I have found two very good substitutes: farm-raised yellowtail (hamachi) and the flatfish known as Korean fluke (hirame). The best Japanese-style fish shops should be able to get hold of the highest-quality farmed fish for you, or else you could check out a trusted sashimi restaurant and see if you could order a couple pieces now and then.
The crunchy bits

Why do I specify that it be farmed? This all has to do with having complete control over the fishes’ environment. Raw fish must be pristine — there’s no two ways about it. The best way to allay concerns about parasites is to select the right kind of fish (no tuna, for example) and to insist on the right kind of perfect farm-raised fish.

The other concern — one that we don’t want to talk about, much less think about as relating to our food — is pollution. In addition the regular garbage that we dump into our oceans, the one we should have the most concern for at this point when it comes to eating fish, I believe, is the radiation emanating from places like Fukushima, Japan, and now creeping down the western coast of the United States.

One advantage of using farmed fish for a raw dish is that the farmer knows with certainty what the fish are being fed, how clean the water is, and how healthy his stock is. The best fish farmers and wholesalers then carefully regulate the care these fish are given from the moment they leave the ponds until they reach restaurants and retail shops. 
Gently fry garlic

My advice to anyone who wants to enjoy raw fish is to find the best fish store in the area, get to know the owner, and find out where the fish comes from. Then, rush it home in a chilled bag and stick it immediately into the coldest part of your refrigerator.

Yellowtail is very good in this dish: it is buttery and has wonderful texture. It is, admittedly, my favorite raw fish. But if I’m really being picky, I would have to go with the fluke here. The reason is that it is a leaner fish and so can be sliced much thinner. Yellowtail will fall apart if sliced too thinly and tossed. It will still taste good, yes, but the textural thrill will be gone. The fluke, though, keeps its shape, and it is firm enough to handle the onslaught of a range of condiments.

Unlike Japanese sashimi, the raw fish of Shunde are given a stellar array of complements. I have, as always, played with them a bit, but basically this is the real McCoy. I have also mixed up everything at the last minute into a sort of tossed salad. I much prefer the dish this way, since we then can easily have bits of everything in every bite. 
Ta da! Garlic chips

What you are aiming for is a perfect balance of soft and crunchy, sweet and tart, salty and nutty, fresh and dried, fried and raw. Serve the dish in little chilled bowls with ice cold beer.

My thanks to Lee of Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market for answering all of my questions and for supplying so much of the information here on fish selection.

Shunde raw fish appetizer
Shùndé yúshēng 順德魚生
Pearl River Delta
Serves 4 to 6

Seasoned ginger:
2 tablespoons finely shredded fresh, peeled ginger (young or mature)
2 tablespoons sugar
Simply delicious
2 tablespoons pale rice vinegar
1 tablespoon water

Garlic chips:
2 cloves garlic, peeled and very thinly sliced
Bowl of cool tap water
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil for frying

8 to 10 ounces (best-quality and freshest imaginable) Korean fluke or yellowtail sashimi, unsliced and completely chilled

Dry condiments:
2 tablespoons finely chopped toasted peanuts
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
½ bundle cellophane noodles, fried until puffy and broken into smallish pieces
¼ cup julienned taro root, deep fried until golden, optional
2 to 3 tablespoons finely shredded laver seaweed (nori)

Moist condiments:
1 red jalapeno pepper, seeded and very thinly sliced
2 green onions, white part only, thinly julienned
¼ cup chopped cilantro, optional
¼ cup finely sliced lettuce (like romaine)
2 tablespoons Sichuan or mustard pickle, finely chopped and rinsed
Moist condiments

2 tablespoons seasoned ginger marinade (above)
1 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 to 2 tablespoons garlic oil from the fried garlic (above)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
½ teaspoon good quality regular soy sauce, to taste

1. First make the seasoned ginger: Place the ginger in a small work bowl. Mix together the sugar, salt, and water, and microwave for about 30 seconds. Stir the vinegar until the sugar dissolves, and then pour this over the ginger. Allow the ginger to marinate for at least 1 hour.

2. To make the fried garlic chips, first soak the garlic in the water for about 5 minutes and then rinse them until they feel slippery; this steps gets rid of the sticky juice that would otherwise make the garlic clump up. Drain the garlic well and pat the slices completely dry with a towel. Heat a wok over medium heat until the sides feel hot, pour in around 1 inch (or more) of oil, and test the oil with a slice of garlic: if it immediately is surrounded with bubbles and floats, the oil is hot enough. Add all of the garlic and stir it gently with chopsticks so that the slices float freely in the oil. Have a slotted spoon and plate lined with a paper towel ready. When the garlic turns a light golden brown, start paying extreme attention to it, for it is almost ready. As soon as it is a uniform golden brown, scoop all of the garlic out with the spoon, shake off the oil, and spread the garlic out on the paper towel. Pour the garlic oil into a measuring cup and let it cool.

3. Prepare the very cold fish by removing the skin and any dark areas (unless you like the flavor of the dark meat, of course). Slice the fluke very thinly on the diagonal, which will give you nice, wide pieces. If you are using yellowtail, slice it on the diagonal into pieces around ⅛-inch thick. Arrange the fish slices on a plate, cover them with plastic wrap, and refrigerate immediately.

4. Toss the fried garlic and the dry condiments together in a small work bowl. Toss the moist condiments together in a medium work bowl and keep them chilled.
Cellophane noodle puffs

5. Just before serving, drain the ginger and reserve the seasoned vinegar. Add the ginger to the moist condiments along with the dry condiments and the raw fish. Toss these lightly together; your hands are the best utensils for this. Drizzle in about half of the vinegar and 2 tablespoons of the garlic oil, as well as all of the sesame oil, lemon juice, and about 1 teaspoon soy sauce. Toss these again as gently as possible and taste. Add whatever seasoning you think the dish needs and then serve immediately.