Notable Nosh: 鹵水墨魚
Today, we get to feature the curious specimen I recently found hanging at the Kowloon Market in Ottawa, a picture of which I included in the post announcing my safe arrival home. One of my readers made a tentative guess at what it might be (correctly, as it happens) but only baconbiscuit21 confidently identified it as a cuttlefish…
The sign hanging beside it in the store described it using the four Chinese characters in the title of today’s post. The last two of these identify the animal and are literally translated as ‘ink fish (pronounced ‘mòyú ‘ in Mandarin), while the first two characters, pronounced ‘lǔshuǐ’, refer to the very interesting Chinese cookery technique employed to cook the creature…
The individual cooking method characters mean ‘salt’ and ‘water’ respectively, but the compound word formed by the two of them together can be translated either as ‘brine’ or ‘marinade’. In common culinary parlance, however, it refers to a process whereby main ingredients get cooked in a rich medium that is often called a ‘master sauce’ in English.
A master sauce is based on a stock (sometimes chicken stock, sometimes just water) to which is added soy sauce, sugar, frequently rice wine, and a variety of different ingredients such as scallions, star anise, garlic, ginger, and the like. The whole idea is that as various ingredients are cooked they add their flavors to the liquid, which is then re-used so that the ‘master’ accumulates a layered depth of taste over time. It is said, and is quite possibly true, that some master sauces have been in existence for generations.
By the way… Jeff Smith (aka ‘the Frugal Gourmet’), a cookery book author who used to host a television cooking show many years ago before he passed away, always referred to this as a ‘looing sauce’ and made a joke of calling duck treated this way as ‘lewd duck’.
For those completely unfamiliar with this interesting marine animal, here is a picture of the live variety. As you can see, it looks like a rather ‘stubby’ squid with the additional feature of a swim fin that completely surrounds the body. I have seen these creatures only in pictures thus far, save for in small pieces, sliced after the speckled membrane was removed, and then frozen. The appearance of these, it may come as no surprise, is indistinguishable from squid flesh treated the same way.
Anyway, this picture, which looks disturbingly like some sort of alien porn, shows the underside of the cooked cuttlefish and the manner in which it was ‘cleaned’. The head portion that includes the eyes has also been removed and it was this fact, coupled with the turgid stiffness and bright orange color of the flesh, that startled and momentarily stumped me when I saw this one hanging in the store.
Here is a picture of the flesh after slicing in cross-section. As you can see, the master sauce (or ‘looing sauce’) if you prefer, has penetrated to a fair depth.
My wife and I tasted a piece of the cold meat right after slicing, and my wife’s first words were ‘I want more’. The cooked meat has a faint aroma that is a little like lobster and the texture is also a little similar. If you eat east-coast lobsters fairly often, then it will help you to imagine the texture as somewhere between the fleshy, fibrous part of the claw and the tougher meat in the pincers.
The taste of the meat is, again, like lobster, but quite a bit more delicate and not quite as sweet. I would rather eat a lobster tail if I had my ‘druthers, but, I think I would say the the flesh of the cooked cuttlefish is actually better than lobster claw meat… especially the rather tasteless pincer bits.
I saved the tentacles and fin to add to rice dishes sometime, and also froze a little of the fleshy mantle, or body, with a view to making a Thai style hot and sour soup, but I wanted to try a little bit of the meat immediately in something simple but hot. Accordingly, I briefly marinated some strips in a little mirin, sprinkled on a little pepper, and then dusted with some rice flour before sautéing it in a little oil.
The result, which I served with nothing other than a little soy sauce for dipping, was very tasty, although I do think that some of the sweet delicate flavors get lost a little when the flesh is hot. I don’t think it will happen anytime soon but I would love to lay my hands on a whole raw cuttlefish so that I can first taste it raw and then, secondly, clean and cook it myself from scratch. When that happily eventually transpires I will be sure to share the results of my investigation here at Sybaritica…