River Delicacies 4: Yellow Croaker (黃魚)

江鮮單::黃魚
黃魚切小塊,醬酒郁一個時辰,瀝乾。入鍋爆炒兩面黃,加金華豆豉一茶杯,甜酒一碗,秋油一小杯,同滾。候鹵乾色紅,加糖,加瓜薑收起,有沉浸濃郁之妙。又一法,將黃魚拆碎,入雞場作羹,微用甜醬水、芡粉收起之,亦佳。大抵黃魚亦係濃厚之物,不可以清治之也。

What is a sea dwelling Yellow croaker doing in the River Delicacies chapter? Regional trade and confusing names, perhaps. (Credit: efishalbum.com)

List of River Delicacies::Yellow Croaker[1]
Cut the yellow croaker into small chunks. Marinade with soy sauce and wine for a day and let allow it drip dry. Fry the pieces until the sides are golden brown, then add a small cup of Jinhua douchi [2], a bowl of sweet wine, a small cup of autumn sauce, and boil together. When the sauce has reduced, add sugar, soy-sauce pickled cucumber and ginger [3], and continue to reduce slightly before plating. The flavours of this dish are deep, rich, and delicious.

Another method of preparation of yellow croaker is to first removed bones of the fish, shred the meat,[4] and then combine it with chicken broth to make a thick soup. Lightly season it with sweet soy sauce and thicken with starch before serving this delicious soup. Note that yellow croaker is a thick textured and flavoured fish and should not be cooked using methods reserved for light or delicate ingredients. [5]

Random notes:
[1]: Figuring out what type of fish was “Huang yu” (黃魚, lit. Yellow fish) took quite some time. The challenge came down to the fact that while there are many references to “yellow” fish in Chinese, there are no freshwater river fish known by the name. However, many clues point to the saltwater Yellow croaker (Larimichthy crocea) as being the most likely candidate for “Huang yu”. First, although Yellow croaker is a saltwater fish, it congregates in the brackish waters of the Yangtze delta and estuary in certain seasons. It is also fished year-round in the sea surrounding the delta and is, commonly now as before, shipped up the river to be sold in both its fresh and dried forms. Second, considering how the previous chapter’s title Haixian can mean “Delicacies from the sea” as much as “Delicacies from over-seas”, I am also willing to allow this chapter’s title Hexian to veer off to mean “Delicacies shipped in by river” although it should specifically mean “Delicacies from the river”. The yellow croaker fits in the former category. Third, the first recipe is remarkably similar to Hongshao yellow croaker (紅燒黄魚, lit. red-cooked yellow croaker) and its variant Douchi hongshao yellow croaker (豆豉紅燒黄花鱼) while the second recipe basically describes Yellow croaker soup (黄魚羹), both of which are well-loved preparations for the fish even now. I did consider Trachinotus blochii (金鯧, lit. golden pomfret) as a possible fish due to its common preparation with douchi is used with it, but it is really a light textured fish and contrary to the last sentence of the section’s text. But what finally settled this for me was actually a line in the Suixiju Gastronomic Manual (隨息居飲食譜) by a close contemporary of Yuan Mei, the Qing Dynasty Doctor Wang Shixiong (王士雄). In this document, he explicitely stated “Shishou fish is know as Huang fish, and also as Jiang fish” (石首魚一名黃魚,亦名江魚). What this line effectively links is the Sciaenidae or croaker fish family (石首魚科) with the term Huang yu (黃魚), making Huang yu a species of croaker and most likely the Yellow croaker. But even more interesting is the fact that the Huang yu is also known colloquially as Jiang yu (江魚) or the “(Yangtze) River fish”, which may explain why Yuan Mei placed it in this chapter of river delicacies despite the fact that it is not a freshwater river fish. All of these points indicate that the “Huang yu” referred by Yuan Mei is undoubtably Larimichthy crocea, more commonly known as the Yellow Croaker.

[2]: Douchi is a fermented black soybean that can be used directly to season food. It is only an intermediate product used make a very high quality soy sauce in Taiwan known as Yinyou (蔭油, lit. Shaded sauce).

[3]: I previously translated gua-jiang (瓜薑) as just “ginger”, thinking it was just another ginger variety. Turns out, it’s a rather common ingredient pair made of soy-sauce pickled cucumber and ginger.

[4]: The term here is chai (拆) means to tear and disassemble like taking meat off chicken to make chicken sandwich. I’m not sure if this is the best way to translate it.

[5]: For example, shad.

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