Longing for Pungent Dried Fish
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.
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