Monday, February 2, 2015

Taiwanese capers, for real

The first time I visited the village of Wulai in the mountains outside of Taipei, I had only been in Taiwan for a couple of months. This was a local tourist destination famous for its hot springs, and it also offered lots of shows by the native Atayal people. My favorite was The King impersonator who did a great job transporting Vegas Elvis across the ocean into a sequined white suit with lots of fringes. He sang pretty well, too. But that was my sum impression of Wulai until a friend took me there for lunch. And then I had some fish.

The day didn’t start out as anything special: we took a bus up the winding road into town, roamed around the few streets, admired the enormous piles of fruit the area produced, and studied countless red plastic trays piled with the produce and proteins that each little restaurant displayed outside the front door.

My friend settled on one place overlooking a meandering creek, and I was delighted when I spied some very tender bird’s nest fern fronds (shānsū 山酥) that a proprietress assured me would be great in a stir-fry, and they did actually turn out to be just as soft and slippery as I’d hoped against some chewy pork shreds decorated with fermented black beans.

Then came a steamed freshwater fish adorned with ochre beads that I could not identify. My friend called them pòbùzi 破布子, which must be a transliteration of some local name, since i just means “broken cloth seed.” Their flavor really made my taste buds stand up, because they were like capers crossed with soy sauce, and they formed the perfect complement to the tender fish. I have come to call them “Taiwanese capers.” They have hard pits inside, just like olives, so be sure not to feed them to children and others who might crack a tooth if they’re not careful.

These capers are sold in jars in the pickle section of many Chinese groceries under a variety of names, like shùzǐ 子 or yīnshùzǐ 蔭, so the main thing to look out for are the little fleshy seeds floating in a clear brine.

Steamed fish with Taiwanese capers
Pòbùzǐ zhēngyú 破布子蒸魚
Serves 2

8 ounces fish filets (flatfish works beautifully), or a small whole fish
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1½ tablespoons mild rice wine
1 tablespoon finely shredded fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 red jalapeño pepper, seeded and julienned
1 green onion, the whites and greens kept separate, trimmed and julienned
¼ cup Taiwanese capers, plus a bit of the brine
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil

1. Pat the fish dry and lay it on a rimmed plate that will fit easily into your steamer.  Sprinkle the salt and rice wine over it and let it marinate for about 15 minutes. Pour off any liquid that accumulates on the plate.

2. Sprinkle the top of the fish with the ginger, garlic, chili pepper, and the whites of the onion, as well as the capers and their brine. Steam the fish until it is just done, which will depend upon your fish and the heat of your stove—start checking at around 7 minutes. When you can effortlessly insert a chopstick in the thickest part of the fish, remove the plate from the steamer and pour off the salty juices.

3. Array the onion greens down the center of the fish and drizzle the soy sauce on top. Heat the oil in a wok until it almost starts to smoke, and then pour this evenly over the green onions. Serve hot.