3 Chinese Herbs & Fishball recipe

Fishball is a food familiar to every Singaporean, its in Laksa, Ba Chor Mee, Char Kway Teow you name it… In primary school, I remember fondly eating fishballs in diluted soy sauce as a lunchtime snack. Now that I frequent the wet market more for my personal groceries (usually at Ghim Moh Wet Market or “GM Market”) I will always pick up some fishcakes or fish paste stuffed vegetables from the ‘Ghim Moh Traditional Handmade Fishball’ stall, not to be confused with the, also, very popular Thye Hong Handmade fishballs. The former stall is situated in the wet market section of GM Market, whilst the latter is found in the hawker centre area. The fishballs and cakes from both stalls taste very different too.

Fishball making appears to be a very daunting task, at least it was to me, because every Chinese new year, my mum will bring back stories from the market to the hotpot table telling everyone how the fishball maker’s hands went pale from beating and rolling the fish meat into balls. Its undoubtedly a labour of love making fishballs the traditional way – which involves buying the freshest batam or yellowtail fish, skinning / deboning it (or “qi rou” / meaning lift the meat from the bone in Chinese), using a chopper or two to pound the meat into a pulp, beating it down onto a wooden board 45 – 60 times until the meat becomes bouncy, adding seasoning, using your hands to squeeze out floating balls of meat into icy water..

However, fishballs being one of my all time favourite snack, I decided it was time to learn my mum’s recipe. She usually uses a mix of squid, prawn and fish in her fishball recipe but I had it tweaked to suit what I had in the fridge today / harvested from the backyard. And also, you may be pleased to know that with the aid of modern technology (ie. a blender, maybe even a paddle mixer) your handmade fishballs will be ready within the hour.

There are lots of fishball recipes around, and all of them use pretty much the same few ingredients. So in this brief write-up I’ll focus on the technique of fishball hitting which makes or breaks your fishballs. If you’re a home gardener like myself, then you may want to consider adding your herbs or spices into your fish paste. Thankfully, I managed to harvest some extremely fresh birds eye chilli, spring onion and Chinese coriander from my garden for use in today’s recipe.

Raw ingredients – you’ll need:

  • 2 cups of minced batam or yellowtail fin fish, you can use any other white fish flesh like naw he, pollock, etc;
  • 2/3 cup of prawn meat, get the wild caught local sea prawns also known as orh hei (black prawns) which have crunchy and sweet meat that is used for ngoh Hiang / kueh pie tee stuffing too. Theres a brilliant write-up on prawns from wet markets here;
  • 1/3 cup of cold water;
  • 1 teaspoon salt;
  • 2 tablespoon of tapioca flour;
  • *Optional: 1/2 teaspoon Hong Kong prawn paste, 2 tablespoons fish sauce (replace salt with this), 3 bulbs of spring onion leaves chopped finely, Chinese coriander leaves chopped finely, 3 birds eye chilli with the seeds removed chopped finely.

Method:

  • Blend the seafood meats together, adding the icy cold water as needed to ease the meat through the blender. This usually takes about 15 minutes. Ensure that the meats form into a paste like texture that is smooth, ideally there would be no muscle tissue visible. A tip for this segment is to use a big blender instead of a small “palm sized” blending unit, for smaller units you will need to feed the meat into the machine slowly and in smaller portions for an even blend;
  • Once meat is blended, add salt and the tapioca flour;
  • Then in a wide bowl, use a large spoon (rice cooker spoon or a soup spoon works) to stir the paste. At first, it will seem like the mixture is never going to get bouncy, but don’t give up. You will need to stir the paste at least 45-60 rounds (around the bowl) before you start seeing the right texture forming. You will know its ready when the meat paste starts to stretch alittle as you stir it, sheets of paste should be able to form and what you’ll notice is that the paste becomes shinier and more gelatinous looking. The meat looks more formed and coagulated together, rather than rough and patchy when it comes straight out of the blender. This stirring and mixing takes 20 minutes;
  • There you have it, your fishball paste! If you want to add herbs to your fishballs, simply chop the herbs or spices finely, then use your hands to squeeze out any excess water from the herbs and then mix them into the paste.
  • To make fishballs, prepare a bowl of ice water, then grab a palm full of fish paste, cup your four fingers (except your thumb) over the paste gently as if you are creating a small cylindrical well for the paste with your fingers. Then use your thumb to brush over the fish paste for an even surface, and slowly apply pressure with your four cupped fingers to squeeze out the paste. With your thumb, cut away the paste as it forms into a ball and let it drop into the ice water bowl. Heres a video of how to do it by sgpnoodles.

The fishballs I made with this recipe were good to taste and slightly chewy, but I felt they were not airy enough nor did they have the bounce factor of most manufactured fishballs. Whilst they did float after being cooked in soup, I am told that good fishballs float when they are raw and put in icy cold water. That is a standard I hope to eventually reach.

Nonetheless it was a fun experience and I hope you try this recipe in your own home!

Always, J.

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