Fish Maw or 魚肚 – An Introduction
The picture above shows what appear to be three very different things but, in fact, they are just different forms of a product used in Chinese and South-East Asian cookery, and commonly referred to as ‘Fish Maw’. It is an ingredient that is preserved by drying and is prized, particularly in Chinese cuisine for its texture rather than its taste. Being a dried ingredient, it requires soaking, and sometimes simmering before use, and you can read on to learn how to prepare and use this interesting foodstuff.
What is Fish Maw?
Here you can see a piece of dried Fish Maw in its natural state. The word maw actually means stomach, or gullet, and, as such, the term for this product is a bit of a misnomer as it is really the ‘Swim bladder’ of certain bony (non-cartilaginous) species of fish. The swim bladder, is a gas filled sac that lies in the belly and allows the fish that possess them to maintain and control buoyancy at different depths.
On packages, or restaurant menus, the product is most commonly rendered in Chinese characters as ‘魚肚’, which directly translates as ‘Fish Stomach’, but you will also occasionally find it represented as ‘魚漂’ (which translate as ‘Fish Float’), or ‘花膠‘. Frequently, the swim bladders are obtained from the ‘Yellow Croaker’, but other species yield them as well. I have no idea as to the original source for the Fish Maw used in this post as the packaging for all three was silent on the issue.
Here you can see closeups of two pieces of Fish Maw in their most commonly available form. In each case, the natural dried Fish Maw is very quickly fried in hot oil, causing it to puff up. The first style rather resembles fried pork rind, but with a whitish color, while the other has a similar texture, but is pressed into a sheet (more clearly illustrated in the very first picture in this post). The texture of both of these once cooked is somewhat different that the product in its natural state, but it is a little easier to prepare.
You can easily make your own ‘puffed’ Fish Maw by Deep-frying it from its natural state. Just drop pieces into moderately hot oil and you can see them puff up almost instantly in a dramatic fashion. If you do this, rather than buy them already prepared in this fashion, then it is a good idea to rinse off any residual oil under running water if you want to store them for any length of time.
How do you Soak, or Reconstitute, Fish Maw?
Before using any of the forms of 魚肚, they must be reconstituted by soaking. For the deep-fried, ‘puffed’ types, this is relatively quick, but, when using Dried Fish Maw in its natural state, the soaking process takes longer and generally requires additional simmering to make it soft enough for consumption.
The initial soaking time for Fish Maw in its dried natural state will depend upon the age and thickness of the pieces, with 6 – 12 hours often being cited as required. However, you have a lot of lee-way and can leave it soaking for quite a long time without any problems and it is a simple matter to start soaking on one day then leave it overnight in the fridge for use the following day.
Simmering can be omitted if you are using the maw for soups or slow-braise dishes, but simmering, with a bit of ginger added, is often employed in Chinese cookery to remove any ‘fishy’ taste. Personally, I don’t regard this as an issue (and I don’t bother to change the soaking water several times as is often suggested).
Some say to put the maw in water, bring it to the boil and the remove from the heat and leave it to sit until cool. However, I found that putting it onto water already at a low simmer and leaving it, still simmering, for an hour, or so, works nicely. Much longer, and you will make It too soft and leech out a good deal of the collagen that will add richness to your finished dish.
Here is the plain dried sort after being soaked and simmered. You can see that it is both limp and soft at this point. If you try tasting it at this stage, you will already be able to see why the foodstuff is prized for its gelatinous, collagen-rich texture.
The deep-fried variety of fish maw needs a very short time in water to be reconstituted for use. As little as fifteen minutes, up to thirty or so is all that is necessary, depending on thickness and density. Here you can see how the soaked deep-fry type becomes just as soft and flexible.
What is the Taste and Texture of Fish Maw?
The plain, dried form of Fish Maw has an aroma of the plain dried sort a little like dried squid (albeit much milder), while the deep-fried type doesn’t really have much of a smell at all.
As noted, 魚肚 is used primarily for its texture. Some sources state bluntly that it has no taste of its own but rather, like tofu, takes on the flavors of other ingredients in a dish. In fact, it does have a certain, mild, ‘fishiness’, but it is still the texture that is important. It is rich in collagen, which not only gives a pleasant slightly gelatinous mouthfeel itself, but the collagen will dissolve into soups and braising liquids to lend added richness.
Using Fish Maw in Recipes
Here is a soup I made using some of the soaked and simmered plain-dried sort. Fish maw with crab meat is quite common, but here I used shredded lobster flesh (as I had some left from a can of frozen lobster meat). I used the ‘liquor’ from the can along with a little chicken stock for the base and added nothing else except the fish maw and some frozen peas. No seasonings were necessary and a somewhat slow cooking of the maw in the broth before adding the lobster and peas gave the finished result a lovely unctuous richness.
The above dish illustrates the use of 魚肚 in a ‘dry’ preparation. Here, strips of the reconstituted ‘sheet’ type are stir-fried with Shrimp and Mushrooms.