Longing for Pungent Dried Fish

Steamed pork hash with salted fish served over Chinese sticky rice.

Sometimes you never know what you’ll end up missing.

For me, it turned out to be — of all things — a most humble Cantonese dish of steamed ground pork, strewn with finely julienned ginger and copious amounts of preserved, pungent mackerel.

Yes, stinky, salted fish is what I longed for. Who would have thought?

This steamed pork hash or cake, otherwise known as hom yu jing jiu yok bang, was not something I missed at first. Not when my Mom had a stroke, limiting her ability to cook this dish and so many others I had grown up with. And not even years later, when my Mom passed away, and this home-style dish faded into memory.

It was only a year after her death, when I happened to be at Asia Village, a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Sunnyvale, when I saw the dish on the menu and decided to order it for old time’s sake.

It came to the table, looking a lot like what my Mom used to make —  a 1-inch-thick pressed round patty of ground pork, topped with a couple small pieces of salted fish, all floating in its own lovely juices.

It was tender, a bit briny, incredibly succulent, and the perfect foil for plain, fluffy rice. One taste is all it took to make me sigh wistfully.

I’m not the only one. I started asking my Chinese-American friends if they remembered this dish. All did fondly from their childhood, but almost all of them had not eaten it in years. They didn’t cook it now, having never learned how to make this basic dish. And they didn’t eat it when they went out, because of its scarcity on menus.

“It’s classic Cantonese comfort food. It was truly one of my favorites growing up,” says Chinese cooking expert and cookbook author Grace Young, who grew up in San Francisco and now lives in New York. “Steamed pork cake dishes are seldom found in restaurants. I think they are so simple to make that when people go to a restaurant they want to eat dishes that are too complicated to make at home.”

It’s a family-meal dish beloved by both the Cantonese and the Hakka, neighbors in Southern China, according to Bay Area food writer, Linda Lau Anusasananan, who is writing a book on Hakka cuisine.

“It combines pork, preserved ingredients, and strong seasonings — all main elements in Hakka cooking,” she says. “I love the dish for its simplicity.”

If I wanted to enjoy hom yu jing jiu yok bang regularly, I realized I would have to learn how to make it myself. The key would be finding just the right fish to use. That turned out to be far easier said than done.

First, I asked my aunt, who used to make the dish. She thought the fish came in jars, packed in oil, but her memory was fuzzy. All she could say for sure was to be careful to pick out the tiny bones in any fish I bought.

Second, I paid a trip to my local 99 Ranch Market, where my head began to spin. There was preserved fish in jars, in the freezer, and still more in the refrigerator case. Because I neither read nor speak Chinese, I was at a loss until a young Chinese-American shopper took pity on my quest, and was kind enough to scour the aisles with me.

She picked up a bag of preserved snapper fillet from the refrigerated shelf and suggested I try it.

Unfortunately, it proved not nearly salty enough. In fact, it was fairly flavorless.

Undaunted, I decided to improvise using anchovies packed in oil on my next attempt. They turned out to have the requisite saltiness, and could work in a pinch, but they lacked the complexity really needed.

Next, I pestered former San Francisco Chronicle food writer Olivia Wu (now a Google cafe chef), who told me I had to seek out salted fish fillets sealed in plastic blister packs in the refrigerator case. I’d probably find these only at more authentically ethnic markets, she added.

Just when I feared this would require driving to every Asian market in the Bay Area, my friend Lisa suggested a field trip. She would ask her Cantonese-speaking father, who loves to cook, to take us to his favorite Chinese market to find the fish needed.

Lisa was keen on learning how to make this dish, as well. Her Hispanic husband once wondered why in the world anyone would want to eat pork that tasted like fish. A full-fledged convert, he now knows how to order the dish by its Chinese name.

The three of us met at Tin Tin Market in Cupertino, which Lisa’s father likes because it stocks a lot of Cantonese products. He shuffled slowly past the freezer case, picking up various fish, examining each one, then putting them back, not quite satisfied.

In Chinese, he asked one of the checkout workers where to find the fish he was looking for. He was directed to the refrigerator section. There, we found small blister packs of previously-frozen salted mackerel from Thailand.

At last.

A package of salted mackerel -- the key ingredient in my steamed pork hash.

When I opened the package at home and got a whiff of the strong aroma, I knew this had to be it.

Steamed pork cake is a little like American meatloaf. There are endless variations. Some people like it basic — just ground pork shoulder and salted fish. Others add chopped preserved turnip (chung choy), or slices of salted duck egg yolks. I like mine with chopped shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, and green onions in the mix.

When the pork hash came out of the steamer, I eagerly tried a forkful.

After so many markets, so many queries, and so many experiments, I finally had it — the taste of home I was grateful to have missed.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Feel free to make this home-style dish your own. If you prefer a not so pungent taste, use less mackerel. Or dried scallops can be substituted for the mackerel. Chopped preserved turnips also are a nice addition. You also can add salted preserved duck egg yolks. Rinse them, cut into slices, then gently push the pieces into the top of the pork cake before steaming.

Steamed Pork Cake (hom yu jing jiu yok bang)

(serves 4-6 as part of a family-style meal with other dishes)

8 dried shiitake mushrooms

1 piece (about 2.8-ounces) salted mackerel, or to taste; see Note

6 fresh or canned water chestnuts, diced (and peeled if using fresh ones)

2 green onions, sliced thinly, divided use

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon mirin or rice wine

2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with ¼ cup water

1 1/4 pounds ground pork (from the shoulder)

1-inch piece of fresh ginger, finely julienned, divided use

Soak dried mushrooms in warm water for about 25 minutes or until softened. Drain mushrooms. Discard tough stems. Dice mushroom caps.

Rinse mackerel fillet, and remove any bones. Cut in half. Dice one half; and cut the other half into four to six pieces.

In a mixing bowl, combine mushrooms, diced mackerel, water chestnuts, half of the green onions, soy sauce, cornstarch mixture, and pork. Pat this mixture into a cake in a 9-inch square glass pan or a round glass pie pan. Arrange the remaining pieces of mackerel on top of the pork cake, and scatter remaining ginger and green onion slices over the top.

Fill the bottom of a steamer with water, and bring to a boil. Place pork hash in the top of the steamer and cover, turning heat down to a simmer. Steam for 30-40 minutes, replenishing water in the bottom of the steamer, as needed.

Serve with plain steamed rice.

Note: Small fillets of salted mackerel can be found in the refrigerator or freezer case at Asian markets. They are sold in plastic blister packages.

By the way, in the top photo, the pork hash is served on top of a mound of Chinese sticky rice. For that recipe, just click here.

Recipe by Carolyn Jung

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Date: Thursday, 7. May 2009 5:54
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Asian Recipes, General, Ginger, Recipes (Savory)

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35 comments

  1. 1

    Carolyn – This brought back so many memories for me. I haven’t eaten this since high school – my mom hasn’t made it since I left home for college. She can’t cook much anymore because her arthritis is bad, so I’ll have to follow your recipe and maybe go to Asia Village. Thanks so much for writing about this.

  2. 2

    It’s amazing how food can bring back memories for all of us.

  3. 3

    Food Gal, next time you’re in San Francisco I’ll take you to Chinatown to show you the shop that sells tons of the hom yu hanging from the ceilings like dried prosciutto ham. This is where my mom takes me when she’s in town and she’d help me pick out the best fish (they make it from a variety of fish) and then ask the store owner to chop it up for me, and then I’d take it home and keep it in the freezer until I’m ready to use. (They no longer recommend you sink it in a jar of oil because the oil can mask the fragrance.) My nephews and nieces love when my mom make the dish you’re describing, but I’m actually not a big fan because it’s really weighs heavy on your stomach, I think. So I use the hom yu or salted fish in fried rice. Yum!

  4. 4

    I would love to try to make this! My parents would especially love this! Back in Ukraine we used to have a lot of salted fish.

  5. 5

    Carolyn, thanks for sharing the story and recipe. This is not a dish I grew up with, but I think I’ll like it very, very much. My mother does make a similar dish, with minced pork, pickled cucumbers and fat choy, then she’d stud the slab with salty egg yolks. It’s been years since I’ve had a taste of that.

  6. 6

    An interesting product! That steam cake must taste really good and have a lot of flavor!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  7. 7

    Carolyn,

    It’s been ages since I’ve had this dish – my mother doesn’t make it in her rotation anymore. She would buy a pork butt and chopped all the pork by hand, rather then buying ground pork. The chopping might have gotten too much for her. Thanks for reminding me of this dish. I’ll have to get her recipe while her memory is still good, although I suspect your version will be very close. Hom yu over hot rice…the best!

  8. 8

    Carolyn,

    this is the kind of food writing that is sorely missing from the newspapers these days. Excellent article! Glad to have you share your memories and missions with us!

  9. 9

    Carolyn,

    You’re making me miss a dish my grandmother used to make that also used steamed ground pork with eggs. It wasn’t the soft pillowy steamed eggs like chawan mushi but much more cake-like in texture and after being steamed, it was put into a soy-sauce based stock and eaten with rice. I haven’t had that in more than 15 years. I need to find someone to hand me a recipe now…

    Thank you for the memories. And I love how you evoked a simpler time with your descriptive writing.

  10. 10

    What a nice switch of tempo from the “Beard dinners”
    by our flexible ‘Food Gal’. A fascinating chapter. (& quite pungent too!)
    Is there enough for a whole book about memories of Mom’s cooking?

  11. 11

    Single Guy: Oh man, I should have asked you ahead of time. You must take me to that store in Chinatown sometime soon. I would be honored to have you as my guide.

    Annie: I think I know the dish you’re talking about. My late-Mom also used to make something like that. It had a lot of ground pork in it, so that’s why the texture wasn’t custardy, but more dense. If memory serves me, my Mom used to spoon a little oyster sauce over the top when it was finished cooking. She also used to fret anytime the egg dish ended up with too many bubbles. She always tried to make hers as smooth as possible. And she was so happy when she succeeded. So thank YOU for prompting me to remember that memory, too.

  12. 12

    Love this dish with rice. Looks so delicious. I often crave for salted fish too and I always have my salted fish with claypot chicken rice!

  13. 13

    Salty and pungent – two adjectives that often get a bad rap when it comes to food. I have never had this dish but would love to try it.

  14. 14

    This from FB’s Chinese Zodiac: “Protect yourself from cardiovascular diseases by eating fish.”

  15. 15

    My mom used to make Hom Yu, but I don’t remember salty fish or anything on top. Just the ground pork. Wow, haven’t thought of that in a long time….thanks for the memory!

  16. 16

    Looks wonderful!

  17. 17

    Hi Carolyn,

    Thanks for the add! I love this dish too..sometimes the humblest of dishes is what tastes best and brings back tastes of home!!

  18. 18

    Wow! You really went on a journey to learn to make this dish. Nothing like good old perserverance.

  19. 19

    Because my printer’s not working and I know a very special aunt in San Mateo would love to read your article on hom yu jing jiu yok bang, I’ve put out a call for help from kin on facebook to print it for her. My aunt’s PC is even slower than mine so giving her the link wouldn’t enable her to see it — this century. ;) One way or another, Carolyn, your article will eventually reach her in San Mateo where she still lives by herself (she’ll be 93 in July) and I know she’ll truly enjoy your piece. Thanks as always for a great piece of writing.

  20. 20

    Wow! My mouth is watering just reading your column. I have to go out and make this recipe. I haven’t had this since I left home for college. I wonder if I can get my kids to eat it? Actually, I don’t care. I’ll eat it all myself!

  21. 21

    Hom yu, no kidding!? Years and years ago there was a very famous Chinese restaurant in Japanese town down in LA called “Far East Cafe”. Every Japanese person I know down there remembers their creaky wooden chairs and incredible Cantonese food. Now that I think about it, it probably wasn’t authentic, but it was the best Chinese-American restaurant in LA. Before we knew about heart disease (ahem), my family would order “ham yu”, which was like a small ashtray-sized dish of densely packed, finely chopped uncured bacon. Oooh, it was so good over hot rice with its saltiness and slightly crispy browned bits of fat. I don’t remember them adding anything else – perhaps my family ordered it plain?

    Thank you for the memories, Carolyn! I’ll definitely try this out.

  22. 22

    That’s for the wonderful article and great recipes. This dish sounds so good. There is an Asian market close to me, where I’ve seen fish like you described. I think I’ll have to make a special trip,

    I look forward to reading Linda’s book on Hakka cooking – there are several Hakka restaurants near me, that I love and would appreciate learning more about the subtleties and differences of this cuisine.

  23. 23

    Carolyn, Thanks for your story and this recipe. This is one of my comfort food dishes from my childhood and I still gotta have it, yum!Great Eastern restaurant in Chinatown, San Francisco, makes this dish pretty good.

  24. 24

    Craig: Thanks for the kind words. I don’t think I’ve been to Great Eastern since I was a kid. If I get there anytime soon, I’m definitely going to have to order my stinky fish pork hash. ;)

  25. 25

    Hi Carolyn,

    Thanks for the travel down memory lane. I never had the chance to get the recipes from my Mom before she passed. Mom always compared her home cooking when we ate out- she would always tell us how her food was better because she used the freshest ingredients, her food had more substance (more meat and flavor) and how it was cheaper to cook at home than going out to eat! Your recipe came very close to hers…I would leave out the water w/cornstarch and just add the cornstarch dry. With a little practice, hopefully I’ll get the recipe close to the way she used to cook. Yum!

  26. 26

    Mmm. I’ve made this dish many times since our field trip to Tin Tin, but definitely not as pretty and not as fancy as you’ve made it here. At my cousins’ annual Chinese New Year potluck, we once had four dueling versions of this dish (there are eight “kids” in this one branch of the family)…Which was great for the rest of us! At New Sun Hong Kong on Columbus and Broadway in SF, there is a hom yu gai claypot, which my Mexican-born husband derided the first time with “Why do Chinese want to make fish-flavored chicken? Chicken should taste like chicken and fish should taste like fish” That stopped once he tasted it.
    – Lisa

  27. 27

    I so enjoyed this post, Synesthesia to the max! I so love all things preserved and fermented.
    I have been experimenting with chinese dried salt fish. My hours of internet searches yielded
    very little or incomplete information on using salt fish as a flavoring ingredient My aim is to make a common casserole served at many chinese restaurants, that is eggplant, chicken with salt fish. What I need to know is how to prepare the dried salt fish and if you should happen to have a recipe for such a dish I would thank you for the rest of my days. In the mean time I will try your recipe for steamed pork cake. Thank you sooooo much. Dieter

  28. 28

    Oh my gosh, here I was slowly working my way back through your postings when I found hom yu! Can’t believe it. I, too, grew up in LA and fondly remember eating at the Far East Cafe, with those creaky old dark brown painted chairs. The hom yu was in this tiny light green melmac looking saucer—a gray cake of salty, steamed pork w/ maybe a itty bitty piece of dried fish on top, all swimming in a puddle of grease. I just loved it! Probably haven’t had any for 50 years! Wow, you mean I can actually make it?? Your recipe sounds and looks so much more appetizing. Gotta give it a try for sure! Thanks for bringing back the memories.

  29. 29

    Hi Carolyn,
    Just found this topic on your website. Funny thing.. I happened to have made a variation of this just last week! It was always one of my favorite things growing up many years ago in California. My mom used to make her own salted fish using flounder and then preserving it by packing it in vegetable oil. Of course, it attracted every cat in the neighborhood when she made a batch. [I can send you her recipe if you should want to give it a try]. Her hom yu was superior to anything I’ve had since, but I have been able to find jars of salted mackerel packed in oil in Chinese grocery stores on occasion and it works as a suitable substitute. The last bottle I got was packed in Malaysia. You might be able to find it on the shelves at Ranch 99.

  30. 30

    Carolyn: I am a senior citizen and like most Chines of my generation we were raised on great food like Steamed Pork with salted fish. My mother made the dish regularly except with a twist: She used to buy fresh flat fish of some kind and made her own salt fish. Used to salt them up, wrap them loosely in cheese cloth and hung them on a clothes line to dry. You can imagine the aroma that had on the neighborhood cats. The final fish made great dishes and she always shared her bounty with her Asian friends. Brings back memories. Thank you

  31. 31

    I’m so happy I found this recipe! I recently went home to visit my aging parents and had this very dish! It brought back so many memories and my mom asked me if i could count the times she’s conned us into eating our rice when we didn’t want to by adding the hom yu into our bowls. Ahhh. So nostalgic. Thank you so much for posting.

  32. 32

    Madeline: You are so very welcome! I’m glad the dish holds such significance and meaning for you, too. Just talking about it makes me crave me all over again.

  33. 33

    Brings back memories at a LA cantonese restaurant called Far East.
    For some of your readers who also mentioned this place, it no longer exists with the same menu. The ingrediants included lard “puddle of grease” which somehow increased the flavor 10 fold. The only other place which I have found that equals its taste is the Empress seafood in LA Chinatown.
    I’m going to the market and make a heaping plate as the main course and forget that I have high cholesterol.
    Thanks

  34. 34

    Norio: There was a Far East Cafe in San Francisco’s Chinatown, too. Must be one in every city that has a large Chinese population. Too funny.

    Glad I could bring back some delicious taste memories for you. Enjoy!

  35. 35

    Hi Carolyn,

    On my bus ride into work today, I had a conversation with a woman who lived in Hong Kong for over 30 years. Naturally, we spoke of food and this dish came up. This dish brings back so many fond childhood memories.

    Thank you for sharing your story and especially the recipe.

    Are we related?

    Thanks

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