Despite the deluge of cookery writing these past 15 or more years with the rise and rise of foodie-ism, look through most culinary encyclopaedia and you’d still be hard-pressed to find much information about Asia’s dried seafood.
Perhaps it is the language barrier that keeps the information close to their native cultures, or that it takes some extra effort to appreciate the use of these pungent, less-than-pretty ingredients. Many of these dried seafood do not cross culinary boundaries despite the widespread borrowing and melding of ingredients and culinary influences across the world’s kitchens. Indeed, Asia’s dried seafood remains, by and large, within the realms of the purist.
It is no surprise that the practice of drying came about out of necessity. It was a form of preserving excess foods and making them available over the seasons. Drying, whether by salting or airing, took away the moisture within the ingredients, which intensified the flavours.
Despite their unappealing appearance, dried seafood in Asia comprises ingredients of intense flavours, often used to inject a deeper, richer, umami flavour into a dish, giving it a more substantial taste, body and backbone. But they are not to be trifled with, for a little can go a long way. Care must be taken to prepare them, failing which they have the potential of rendering your dish quite unappetising.
In terms of usage, dried scallops must be the queen of Chinese dried seafood. They are greatly valued particularly in Cantonese cuisine for their sweet, rich, umami flavour and are considered fine delicacies. Versatile and delicious, they are widely used to enrich the flavours in braised dishes, porridge, sauces and soups, and are the main ingredient in the moreish, complex XO sauce. Dried scallops are also called conpoy, and take the form of hard, circular golden nuggets. To get high quality specimens, head to the Chinese herbal shops where you can find them according to grade. The best come from Hokkaido. Generally, there are two varieties of conpoy—river scallops that are milder in flavour, and sea scallops (hotate) which have a richer flavour profile.
Large, whole, unblemished, bright golden specimens would fetch a much higher price than small or broken ones. When buying, choose according to your needs. Small or broken ones, which are less expensive, can be used for casual home cooking, when looks don’t matter as much in a dish. But for festive delicacies like poon choy or Buddha Jump Over the Wall where they play a primary role, large whole conpoy are essential. Whichever you need, look for bright golden, scallops which still have a slight moist patina on their surfaces. Soak them in water for about an hour, then steam together with the soaking liquid for 30 minutes before using.
If scallops are the queen of dried seafood, dried shrimps are the king. They may not be the most expensive ingredient, but they are certainly used most widely across Asian cultures and in an endless plethora of dishes. You’ll find them in Chinese claypot rice, zongzhi or rice dumplings, in soups and stews, in Peranakan and Indonesian rempahs or spice pastes, in salads across Indochina, and much more. Fragrant with sea-fresh aromas, they are extremely flavourful and lend substantial body to any dish, used whole or pounded. They complement the fieriness of chilli and act as a foil to high, peppery or minty flavours of Asian herbs. Grilled over a charcoal fire, they also make very addictive snacks.
The larger they are, the more expensive and valued. You’ll find particularly large specimens in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Sarawak. Look for lively, orange-pink, unblemished shrimps, and take a sniff to check for their fresh, briny, sweet aroma. Avoid grey, pale or overly desiccated-looking specimens, which indicate they have been sitting around for too long. Leave those without any aroma, and definitely avoid any that smell of ammonia—they would have gone bad. Always store them in the refrigerator in an air-tight container. To use, wash away the dust, then soak in water for about half an hour to soften.
They go by the name of hae bi or har mai in Teochew and Cantonese, kung haeng in Thai, and ebi in Indonesia.
Called ‘hou si’ in Cantonese, these make their presence felt particularly during Chinese New Year. They play on the homonym for ‘good things’, and so symbolise good luck and all things auspicious. Not to everyone’s taste, they have a strong, deep and earthy flavour. Prepared with skill, these dried oysters are turned into delectable morsels in porridge and braised dishes, such as dried oyster with black moss fungus.
There are actually three types of dried oysters: dried oyster, sun-dried oyster and half-dried oyster. Sun-dried oysters come from Guangdong in China, the best of which hail from Shajing. These are dried on bamboo poles, until they are 80 per cent dehydrated. They are recommended for steaming and stir-frying.
Half-dried oysters also come from Shajing, but are dried to 60 per cent of their moisture. For these, choose plump, smooth specimens with a sweet aroma. Japanese dried oysters come mainly from Hiroshima, and are bright in colour with slightly dark edges. They are particularly strong in flavour, plump and are rich in oils. These are best suited for long, slow braising. Korean dried oysters are smaller than their Japanese cousins, with a dark green tinge, and a strong fishy smell. These little ‘pearl oysters’, as they are also called, are perfect for porridge. To prepare, soak them for two hours to rehydrate before use. Store in the freezer.
These flattened cephalopods are commonly found in Chinese herbal shops or the dried goods section of the supermarket. Produced mainly in Guangdong in China, they are mildly sweet in flavour, and most commonly added to stocks and braises to enrich the flavour of the dish. In traditional Chinese medicine, they are known to replenish energy, nourish the blood and stimulate lactation in new mothers, and hence, are often used in confinement cuisine. Soak them in water until soft, and remove the membrane before using. If you are planning to use dried octopus in a steamed dish, immerse it in water and steam it for 20 minutes before using.
An added advantage to dried squid is it can be grilled until crisp, then shredded or pulled into smaller pieces and eaten as a snack.
Thinner and more delicate than octopus, dried squid is prepared and used in almost the same way, in soups and stocks. An added advantage is that it can be beaten a little to tenderise further, and grilled over an open fire or in a toaster until crisp, then shredded or pulled into smaller pieces and eaten directly as a snack. These dried squid snacks can also be found in shops around Southeast Asia, sold in packets. The more you chew, the more the flavour is extracted. Perfect with beer.
Dried Sea Conch Feet
Yes, they sound odd but certainly to the point. These are the muscular fleshy parts of the conch or sea snail, which the creature uses to move itself along the seafloor. Reconstituted, they are sweet with an aromatic seafood flavour and are springy in texture with a satisfying bite. They are most often used in double-boiled soups enriched with Chinese herbs and other gourmet delicacies like fine shiitake mushrooms, abalone and conpoy. For quality conch, look for the superior dried Red Sea conch which come from the Middle East; they are quickly boiled then sun-dried, yielding a strong, sweet flavour. The US produces dried conch as well. Larger, whole pieces are more expensive. Soak in water for 12 hours before using.
Rich in collagen, mild in flavour and a joy to eat with its springy, bouncy, tender and smooth texture, fish maw is one of the most treasured ocean delicacies of Chinese cuisine, alongside abalone, sea cucumber and sharks’ fin. You’ll find it in soups and stews such as in the much-loved dish of braised goose webs and fish maw, and even in stir-fries. The Chinese enjoy it for its spongy, gelatinous texture and mild flavour. Also, its high viscosity gel protein and mucopolysaccharide are believed to boost complexion and blood circulation. It is often braised with good stocks and sauces as it has a delicious characteristic of soaking up all the flavours of the liquids it cooks in.
Fish maw is the swim bladder of fish. You’ll find two kinds in the markets. Firstly, dried fish maw, which comes from larger fish, is hard and have a rich golden colour. The other is fried fish maw which comes from smaller fish such as eels or yellow croaker, and is long and lighter in colour. Fried fish maw is springy with a shorter bite, making it best for stir-fries or wraps to be stuffed. Oddly, fish maw is also categorised by gender. Male fish maw is thicker, longer and does not disintegrate in slow cooking; while the fish maw of a female fish is round, flatter and disintegrates more readily over extended periods of cooking.
When buying, look for thick, golden and unbroken specimens. Before using dried fish maw, reconstitute it by soaking in tepid water (not hot) overnight or between six and 12 hours, to soften. Change the water several times to get rid of the fishy smell. Drain and squeeze out excess water. Bring a pot of water to boil with ginger and shallots. Turn off the heat, and quickly add in the fish maw. Cover the lid tightly and leave it to soak until the water has completely cooled. Remove the fish maw and rinse it out before using for cooking.
Sea cucumbers are also called sea slugs and beche de mer in French. For the Chinese—ardent eaters of these gelatinous wobbly slugs—it is called hai shen, or ‘ginseng of the sea’, reflecting their high regard for its wholesome properties.
Serious connoisseurs and cooks would choose to rehydrate quality dried sea cucumber themselves, rather than take the easy route and buy ready-processed ones from the supermarket. This is because the latter for all its convenience may have been left soaking too long, yielding a mushy, overly soft texture. But reconstituting them is a time-consuming process that can fill the house with a strong smell of the sea—not always a pleasant prospect. Done well, though, the effort is worth it, for sea cucumbers, braised in superior sauces with abalone and mushrooms, or fish roe, are a treat fit for an emperor.
Ordinary grey sea cucumbers are smooth and tender, and when rehydrated, can balloon five times its dried size. The most highly valued sea cucumbers are the ‘prickly’ Japanese sea cucumbers. These dark-hued creatures with nobbly extensions all over their bodies— not quite ‘spikes’—cook faster, are daintier and have a fresh neutral taste. The fact is, these slippery creatures are enjoyed in Chinese cuisine mainly for their texture—the bounce of the bite, the tender break and the prized versatility in lending themselves to all sorts of sauces and flavours. In Japan, naamako chaburi is sea cucumber marinated in tea and served with vinegar. Innards are eaten as a sushi.
In getting to know your food, sea cucumbers are fascinating creatures. They have no brains, they hibernate in summer, and when needed, they can eject and regrow their intestines. Most enigmatic of all, when they die at the end of their average lifespan of about 10 years, their bodies release a chemical that dissolves their carcasses, leaving no trace of their existence.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, sea cucumbers are nutritious foods high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol. They are good for those with high blood pressure, heart disease and are a good health booster for the elderly.
To prepare these cucumbers, bring a pot of water to the boil and add them in. Boil for another 20 minutes over medium to low heat, and leave them in the hot water for 12 hours, allowing the water to cool completely. Drain the cucumbers, soak them in fresh water for a couple of days, changing the water occasionally. When the centre of the cucumber is soft and giving, and the surface is slippery, they are ready to cook as your recipe requires.
Finally, no talk about dried seafood is complete without a word or two on abalone, the mother of all dried Chinese seafood, a status symbol for the host who serves it, and an essential addition to any important feast. Smooth, springy to the bite, and with a meaty texture somewhere between squid and matsutake mushroom, abalone is valued by the Chinese as the best caviar is to Western tables.
Abalones are available frozen, canned and dried. While many prefer to use canned abalones requiring little more than to slice the mollusks, dried abalones require much more skill and effort to prepare. The latter is the choice of connoisseurs who believe the drying process concentrates and intensifies the abalone’s flavours. Dried abalone comes from the Middle East, South Africa and Japan. With their exacting techniques in processing abalone, it is no surprise that Japan produces the best quality abalone. Three are noteworthy. The amidori abalone comes from the Aomori prefecture in Japan. It is a large, light-coffee coloured variety, with broad rough edges and a thin powdery white patina on its surface. It yields a chewy texture with a strong flavour. Yoshihama abalone, aka kippin abalone, comes from Iwate prefecture, sporting a visible line down the middle of its oval body and reddish-gold in colour. When its appearance is particularly clear, it is considered a top quality abalone. Finally, the oma abalone, also from Aomori, is the finest of them all. They have a thin short body, smooth soft texture and a delightfully rich flavour. You can distinguish them by the holes on the sides, where fishermen had hung them out to dry with seaweed.
Abalones are categorised according to ‘heads’—the bigger the abalone, the smaller the number (ie. one head being the largest available). This system is based on the number of similar sized abalones required to make up one ‘jin’, or about 500 grams. The larger the number (eg. 12-head abalone), the smaller each mollusk. When choosing, look for smooth, unblemished ones with rich, golden hues. They should be whole, without any cracks on the edges, and weighty.
To prepare dried abalones, rinse away the dust and soak the abalones fully immersed in water for two to three days. Store them in the fridge during this process and change the water every 12 hours. It is important to keep them submerged to fully rehydrate them and prevent them from absorbing the smells of other foods around them. Once softened, clean the abalones thoroughly and cut away the hard ‘beak’. Steam or simmer for two to three hours, before using the abalones according to your recipe. Meanwhile, retain the liquid in which the abalone had cooked in as it is also nicely flavoured with the mollusc. Add it to your gravy or soup.
This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s Oct 2017 issue – Seafood.