Musings of the fishy kind

It’s been a while.

Originally, I was going to share a full recipe for making Chinese fish paste the old-fashioned way, pounded in a mortar and pestle. That was my intention but I will have to disappoint. Don’t ask me how to make it with a food processor either, as I have never owned a proper one (I don’t count the kind that serves mainly as a blender stick). There’s no superiority with paste made by wrecking your wrists either, it’s just the only way I know how to make it.

Spanish mackerel

Spanish mackerel

One day I will inherit the worn-smooth mortar and pestle that my mother uses to pound fish paste from spanish mackerel. She swears that you need to carefully choose the fish by seeking out those with faint dots for smaller fish, or a particular kind of stripe for the large specimens for maximum stickiness. I’m only partway through my apprenticeship in choosing the perfect fish. When my mum was little, our family made it like most home cooks, on a chopping board with a heavy cleaver. My mother the ever perfectionist, later upgraded to a mortar and pestle so she could produce silky smooth fish paste. This mortar and pestle loomed large in my childhood, representing the time and care that my mother would take with the meals she magicked up with ease. I suppose I could simply buy a brand new mortar and pestle, but where’s the charm in that for sentimental ol’ me? Absolutely none.

The family mortar and pestle. The original pestle was made by my grandfather when I was little, but it was replaced a couple of decades ago with the current pestle.

Fish paste is a delightfully useful ingredient. You can stuff it into eggplant, chillis, bitter melon, fish maw, fresh tofu or tofu puffs. Paint a thick wodge onto a thin egg omelette, then roll it up like sushi and steam. Served sliced, this is a basic but lovely dish drizzled with some light soy sauce and sprinkled with fresh herbs and daubs of chilli sauce. Fried into fishcake, it’s perfect for throwing into noodle soups, braises and one of my own favourites, cooked with clear vermicelli and cabbage. Mixed with very finely chopped water chestnut, Chinese sausage, coriander and shitake mushroom, fish paste transmogrifies into an incredible ingredient.

A cutlet of a large Spanish mackerel

A cutlet of a large Spanish mackerel. Notice the faint stripes on the smooth skin.

I first made fish paste when I was about eight years old. One night we had unexpected guests over for dinner. Having planned to make fish paste that evening, my resourceful mother set me up to make it in her stead. I once mentioned that my parents made my brother and I trim the lawn edges with garden scissors. It was one of our childhood chores. My adult friends were horrified, and considered this cruel child labour. *shrug* What can I say, harsh Asian parents think nothing of putting their kids to work.

To pound the fish paste, we first lay several layers of newspaper onto the floor, then gently position the heavy stone mortar into the middle. Sitting on a narrow, 12cm high stool roughly fashioned long ago by my grandfather, I am inevitably a stiff mess by the time I finish pounding the spanish mackerel. I tell you, my Australian-raised hips and calves aren’t used to squatting on a ridiculously low stool for an hour.

So why not a full, detailed fish paste recipe? Let me walk you through the basic steps. First the spanish mackerel needs to be filleted if whole, then the flesh scrapped off the bones, carefully avoiding the bloodline as much as possible. If using the cross-section of a larger fish, again, the flesh needs to be scrapped clear of the bones. Specialist tools are unnecessary to prepare the fish, merely a teaspoon. Having prepped the fish, fill a medium bowl with cold water, add a couple of teaspoons of sea salt and stir until dissolved.

Spanish mackerel, scraped clean of flesh.

Scrape that fish clean! Don’t waste any of the pale flesh, however discard the bloodline. It won’t ruin the fish paste, but avoiding it gives a cleaner tasting result.

Now it’s mortar time! Start with a portion of fish flesh in the mortar then slowly pound for a few minutes until it’s a dry, faintly tacky mess. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of the salt solution into the mortar and carefully work the fish until the liquid is absorbed. At this point you will see a smoother paste begin to form. The addition of salt water might seem strange, however the salt is essential as it helps transforms the spanish mackerel flesh into a sticky mass that will hold together once cooked. Without the salt, the fish doesn’t come together to create the particular firm bounciness that is a core attribute of Asian fish paste. It also seasons the paste. After minutes of pounding, I add another round or two of salt water until completely smooth and I deem it ready. To do this, I dip a fingertip into the salt water and run it lightly over the paste to test the texture. If I detect even the faintest lump, I pound for a few more minutes. Once completely smooth, I scrape the paste into a ceramic mixing bowl and continue with another batch of fish until all is turned to paste. You will not use all of the water, in fact how much you end up using will vary with each batch.

Fish paste in stone mortar.

This is the dry, tacky stage.

Ready for the rest of the ingredients. It may not look like a lot, but this is a full kilo of spanish mackerel fish flesh pounded into paste.

Finally rising from the diminutive seat, to the mixing bowl, I add neutral vegetable oil, a heavy hand of ground white pepper, and a teaspoon of cornflour. I’ve been taught to mix this all together with a pair of chopsticks, stirring in one direction only. Cook a ball of fish paste in a small saucepan of boiling water to test the seasoning. Sometimes the fish paste needs more salt, sometimes it needs water, or oil, or cornflour. Other times, nothing further needs to be done. The individual fish rules the final result. The other ingredients are adjusted until the perfect texture is achieved. It’s not as bouncy as the oddly tasteless and rubbery commercial fish paste, but that is a good thing to my mind. Some recipes I’ve seen add egg white, but the family recipe doesn’t use it as my mother believes it dilutes the pure fish flavour.

Once I started to write this all down, it dawned on me that I can’t guarantee that even an incredibly detailed recipe would work every time. The age and size of each spanish mackerel affects the quantity of salt water needed, and the amount of pounding required so there’s no way to write a prescriptive recipe. Nothing can replace experience and that means numerous batches, and inevitable failures and disappointments. The prospect of being responsible for terrible fish paste would be a millstone around my neck, not to mention the waste of ingredients. If you want a recipe specifying exact quantities, there are plenty online.

Making fish paste in a mortar and pestle is a tradition that I intend to continue. It tastes of hearth and home.