Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Battle of the Sha Guo Fish Stews

When I went to visit Taiwan this year, I had a very memorable Sha Guo Fish Stew at a shrimp fishing facility (we'll talk about that another time). It had a whole fish, assorted homemade fishballs, tofu, vegetables all in a great sha cha sauce infused sauce. The whole thing came in a boiling pot set over a butane stove to keep the heat and to keep the flavours melding as one ate. The first bite and the last bite had different tastes that spoke of the evolution of the dish. I couldn't get enough of the dish. It was earthy yet light. It was rustic but delicate. Here's a picture of the original.

When I came back home, the dish haunted me. So I went about trying to replicate it. First, I went to Ranch 99 and selected a yellow fish from China. I had the fishmonger clean and fry the fish for me (one of the reasons I love Ranch 99). At home, I filled a pot with water, added sha cha sauce, frozen assorted fishballs, silken tofu and let the concoction come to a boil. I then placed the fried fish in whole. The whole pot simmered for about 15 minutes. At the very end, I dumped in 3/4 of a bag of a mixed spring greens salad mix I had leftover. Hell, I was all about the shortcuts where I could get them. Here's a picture of my first try at sha guo fish stew.

I scooped a small bowl out for myself while I allowed the rest of the pot to continue to simmer on the lowest of heat. The first bowl had that delicateness I was looking for. But I felt that the flavours could meld together more. At this point, every bite, every ingredient was still distinct. While the soup had sha cha flavour, none of the other ingredients had it *soaked* in. An hour later when Wil came by, I laddled a big bowl for him and a small half bowl for myself. This time, the stew had matured. The effect is almost like let red wine breathe. Everything was now more blended. The sharp edges between ingredients had mellowed into a rounded smoothness. All I could say is... damn, I'm good!

My only lament with my version is that it did not have the fantastic homemade fish balls the version I had in Taipei did. Ah, homemade fishballs... that's another mountain to climb saved for another day. Daddy made homemade Fujian style fishballs when I was a little girl from scratch. And I mean scratch like, filleting fish. Not sure I am brave enough for that path. But maybe I will try making fishballs soon from the pre-made fish paste they sell at asian markets. The ones at the shrimp fishing place in Taipei were exquisite (sigh!)

P.S. I made this dish again a few weeks later and made one major change. Instead of the mixed green salad, I added tong-ho to the stew. Who would have thought - but I liked it better with the western greens better. The tong-ho made the soup bitter. Now, I am a fan of bitterness, but the Chinese medicine quality of this later version really took away from the sweetness of the fish and fishballs. It also made the sha cha base taste murky. Not a good experimental result. Survey says... mixed green salad from a bag is a winner.

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