It's my last week in San Francisco (!!), so naturally, as a parting gift to my roommates, I made the entire apartment smell like fish... oops.
Fish ball skewers were next on my list of Chinese street foods to recreate at home, and I was happy with the outcome, if not the cleanup. The test to see if your fish ball has the right texture is if it bounces when you drop it; mine did, very enthusiastically! And gymnastic authenticity aside, these were springy and just a little chewy, with a clean mild flavor complemented by a freshly made spicy peanut curry sauce.
The method of creating an acrobatic fish ball is quite fun, and a little strange. The meat is pounded with the blunt edge of a knife until smooth, then slapped aggressively onto a cutting board 60-70 times until the soft slippery handfuls turn into a doughy paste. This transformation is dramatic and bizarre, the process a complete opposite to traditional meatball making where the mix is worked minimally. Here, however, where chewiness rather than tenderness is the goal, there's no need whatsoever to be delicate.
Street food vendors in China would serve these either boiled or fried; I made half of both, but the former is much less messy and easier to do in bulk. Extremely high heat and lots of oil is necessary to prevent fish from sticking to the pan, which led to an alarming amount of oil spattering - not at all welcome when this is already a fairly chaotic process to begin with! Boiling is low-maintenance, and it's easier to tell when the fish balls are cooked. When done, they float up to the surface of the water and bob agreeably, ready to be scooped out.
I will caveat that the cost advantage in home-cooking really does not apply here. Frozen fish balls are much cheaper, partially because the ratio of actual meat to questionable fillers is a lot lower than when homemade. But I think the tradeoff is worth it, because 1) it's weirdly entertaining and therapeutic to smack around big piles of fish and 2) eating a fresh, preservative-free version has its clear benefits. With the added kick of an easy spicy sauce, these snacks will disappear quite quickly!
Fish Ball Recipe (makes 12-15 fish balls, depending on size)
- 2 lbs of mackerel or yellowtail snapper fillets (I used yellowtail)
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp white pepper (optional)
Scrape the fish from the skins - I used my hands in the beginning to feel for any remaining scales and bones, then a spoon to get the last remaining pieces. I recommend keeping 2 bowls of cold water nearby, one for the discarded bones and one to place the fish balls in when shaped.
Mince and pound the fish meat with the back of a cleaver until smooth and even. This will take 5-10 minutes, try to make as even as possible. At this point, take handfuls of the paste and slap them onto the cutting board 60-70 times (or knead around 100 times to avoid having fish fly everywhere). The fish paste is done when it feels a little doughy but not too firm, it should stick together and shape fairly easily still. Too much slapping will result in a tough rather than pleasantly chewy ball. Place the fish balls into the cold water to stay fresh.
To boil: Bring a pot of water or stock to a rolling boil and drop in the fish balls. Cook until they have floated to the top.
To fry: Heat a generous amount of oil in a non-stick skillet, using oil best suited for high heat - I recommend canola. Fry a few fish balls at a time on all sides, without moving them too much, as turning before seared fully can lead to sticking and breakage. When golden brown, remove from heat and place on a paper towel to drain.
Serve with dipping sauce of choice - soy sauce with plenty of vinegar and sesame oil, or my spicy peanut curry satay sauce recipe below.
Spicy Peanut Curry Satay Sauce (makes a lot - scale down as needed)
- 1 cup peanuts (dry roasted, unsalted best)
- 2 shallots, chopped finely
- 1 tbsp curry powder
- 1 anchovy, or 1 tsp fish sauce
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- 0.5-1 inch of ginger, sliced thinly into strips
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp tamarind paste
- 3 dried chilies
- 1 fresh chile (I used serrano), seeds removed, chopped
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tsp sesame oil
- 7 tbsp coconut milk
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- Water as needed
Blend peanuts in a food processor until they turn into a smooth paste. You can use around 3/4 cup of peanut butter instead, but be careful with the salt/soy sauce.
Heat 1-2 tbsp of oil over medium heat and sautee the shallots, anchovy and curry powder for around 5 minutes, until shallots are fragrant and slightly colored. Add in the garlic, ginger, tomato paste, and tamarind and sautee for another 5 minutes.
Add the sauteed paste, chiles, soy sauce, sesame oil, coconut milk, and sugar to the peanuts and blend until smooth, adding water and stirring as needed.
Return the sauce to the pan and cook for another 5 minutes, adding water or reducing further until at desired consistency.