One of the best things about living in a melting pot is other people’s holidays. Each one is a window into someone else’s experience, a snippet of someone else’s culture. And, almost invariably, it comes with food.
My Irish husband, in marrying me, became a Menu Jew. I know it’s Purim when Kevin starts talking hamentaschen. We don’t actively celebrate Hanukkah, but we make a mean latke. And he associates rugelach with any Jewish holiday going, including the ones he’s never heard of. He’ll be reading one of the array of newspapers he goes through every morning when an obscure item catches his eye, and he says, “Hey! It’s Shemini Atzeret!” Break out the walnuts.
If you’re out to appropriate other people’s holiday food, though, you have to look eastward. The Chinese have some of the most interesting food on the planet, and plenty of holidays to attach it to. Throughout my cooking career, though, my attempts at Chinese dishes have resulted in pale, Westernized versions.
Case in point: fish balls. You know the ones: with a mild flavor and bouncy texture, perfect for those big bowls of Chinese noodle soup. I’ve tried to make them at least a dozen times, and they’re always wrong. They’re too soft, too spongy, too . . . too . . . too much like gefilte fish. Could this be a genetic predisposition?
I have, of course, tried to figure out where I’m going wrong, and a quick Googling reveals that the secret to that elusive bouncy texture is the pounding, or slapping, of the fish paste as you make it, before you turn it into balls and cook them. Do that correctly, and for long enough, and you will get your bouncy fish balls. But what is correctly? And what is long enough? The only way to really learn fish balls is, apparently, from a Chinese auntie.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a Chinese auntie. But I have the next best thing: a seafood wholesaler.
Kevin and I have a small oyster farm, and all our oysters go through W&T Seafood in New York City. Its founder, Louis Wu, came to this country (from Vietnam, although he’s of Chinese origin) as a teenager, with nothing. His is the kind of immigrant story that built this country: very hard work for a very long time culminating in a successful business and a thriving family.
Along the way, Wu learned fish. Whatever kind of fish comes up in conversation (and many kinds do when you’re conversing with your fish wholesaler), he knows how to catch it, fillet it, store it, dry it, smoke it, freeze it and transport it, as well as who likes to eat it and how much it costs.
And how to cook it. Wu can cook anything that swims and, come lunchtime, he does. He has a huge, well-equipped kitchen upstairs in his refrigerated warehouse, and he turns out lunch for the staff every day. When I decided that, for Chinese New Year, I wanted to finally make proper fish balls, a traditional food for the holiday, I called W&T. Does Louis know how to make fish balls? Of course he does. Would he teach me? He would.
On an unseasonably warm January day, Kevin and I trekked to W&T’s Brooklyn warehouse to learn the secret to bouncy fish balls.
The first thing you notice about the warehouse is that it’s preternaturally clean. I’ve always believed that “spotless,” when applied to floors, walls and surfaces, was just a figure of speech (and anyone who has been to my house understands why). But W&T is, quite literally, spotless. And it’s a fish warehouse! The kitchen, upstairs, absolutely gleams. I will, as my lesson progresses, learn why.
Wu and I donned aprons and got to work. He pulled two beautiful kingfish fillets out of the refrigerator, where they’d been drying overnight, and took an ordinary spoon out of a drawer. He held it bowl side up and showed me how to scrape the flesh off the fillets using the spoon’s edge. Then he handed me the spoon.
Here’s where I have to rely on third-party reports. While I was busy focusing on my bumbling, first-time scraping, Wu was, according to Kevin, exhibiting what was evidently herculean self-control to not take the spoon back and do it himself.
I’m sure an iron will and rigorous discipline are part of what turned Wu from a teenage immigrant into a successful businessman, and I’m afraid that my fish ball lesson required him to call on them more than once. “He’s a perfectionist,” his daughter, Nellie, told me. “I’m surprised he let you do it at all.”
He did let me do it — at least for a while. He corrected my technique (keep your thumb on the back of the bowl, keep the spoon at about a 30-degree angle to the fish), but he let me do almost half of a fillet. Then he tactfully stepped in to do the rest.
We then put the fish through a grinder (but you can use a food processor) and measured out the remaining ingredients on a scale I couldn’t use because the labels were in Chinese. We also made a batch with ground shrimp.
Then came the aforementioned manhandling. It can come from an actual man, handling (Wu’s preferred method), or from a woman, handling (which I found tiring and tedious), or from a stand mixer (the preferred method of us mere mortals). We tried all three ways. While the mixer was doing its job, Wu showed me how to lift the ball of paste and thwack it back into its big stainless-steel bowl, over and over.
In Chinese, this procedure has a name I’d transliterate as “daht.” In English, it’s best described as slapping. In either language, it makes a huge mess — at least when I do it. Every time the ball of paste hits the bowl, little bits fly hither and yon. Which could be why Louis took over. Somehow, when he does it, the paste stays in the bowl. Something about knowing who’s boss, no doubt.
But an interesting thing happens when you slap it around, even inexpertly: You get to see and feel how the texture of the paste changes. It becomes less grainy and more glossy. It starts to pull away from the side of the bowl. But slapping is hard work, and I found, to my relief, that I could observe the textural change in the stand mixer version as well.
The last step was forming the paste into balls, which Wu does with sleight-of-hand extrusion: He closes his fingers around a clump of fish paste, and a perfect sphere emerges between his thumb and forefinger. He then scoops it off with a spoon and drops it in a pot of boiling water he keeps at the ready. I tried. Believe me, I tried. Wu watched me patiently for a bit, then finished the job in about seven seconds.
Let’s face it. Little gray balls of fish won’t win any beauty pageants, but dip one in a spicy chili sauce and you’ll find that you want another. And another after that.
While I was eating, comparing the machined version (very smooth, very bouncy) to the manhandled version (less of both those things) to the shrimp version (shrimpy and delicious, medium-bouncy), Wu was cleaning.
It seemed a little odd. Here was the owner of the business, scrubbing bowls and pots and counters, while the rest of us — his employees and guests — sat around gorging on fish balls. I got up to help. No dice. “I can do it,” Wu said. Because he is gracious and polite, he didn’t add, “your standards are not sufficiently high,” but I can read between the lines. I was there when he used a paper clip to clean a little bit of dried something out of a screwhead on the mixer’s paddle.
Before I left, I asked him whether he’d ever made gefilte fish. After all, the concept is the same: seasoned ground fish, held together with a little something starchy. He said he’d never tried it. “But if you bring me some to taste, I can figure it out.” And I believe him. I’ve never met anyone better with fish. He could even give my great-great-aunt Esther, the legendary gefilte fish maker in our family, a run for her money.
Come Passover, I’ll be sending some samples his way. Let the melting-pot holiday exchange continue.
Haspel will join our Free Range chat at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
Captain Louie’s Fish Balls
5 to 8 servings (makes twenty to twenty-four 1 1/2-inch balls)
You can use a regular meat grinder (with a small-holed die) or grinder attachment on a stand mixer instead of a food processor. Shrimp may be substituted for the fish.
MAKE AHEAD: The cooked fish balls can be assembled, frozen separately on a sheet in the freezer, then frozen in a zip-top bag with as much air removed as possible, for up to 1 month; defrost overnight in the refrigerator.
Adapted from Louis Wu, founder of W&T Seafood in New York.
11/4 pounds fresh skin-on white-fleshed fish fillets, such as Spanish mackerel, kingfish or walleye (may substitute 1 pound shelled, deveined raw shrimp)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 large egg whites (11/2 ounces total)
1 tablespoon plus 11/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/4 cup water
Pat the fish dry with paper towels. Use a spoon to scrape the meat from the fillets, being careful to avoid any blood lines. Discard the skin or reserve it for later use (such as making fish stock).
Place the fish scrapings in the food processor; puree for about 30 seconds or until the fish’s consistency is pastelike; a ball will form, but the fish will also coat the sides of the bowl. Use a spatula to inspect the paste, making sure no discrete pieces of fish remain. Scrape it into the bowl of a stand mixer; add the salt, sugar, egg whites, cornstarch, white pepper, sesame oil, fish sauce and water. Beat (paddle attachment) on low speed for 2 minutes or until well combined, then increase the speed to medium-low; beat for 2 minutes. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Beat on medium-high speed for 11 minutes. The fish ball mixture should look smooth and a little glossy and should start to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium. Place a small bowl of water nearby.
Once the fish paste is ready, place a small handful of the mixture in your palm, close your hand over it and form a small circle with your thumb and index finger. Squeeze your hand until a ball of paste emerges through that circle, then use a spoon to scrape off the squeezed ball, letting it drop into the pot of boiling water. (Or you can form the balls in another way that works for you.) As you form the balls, occasionally dip the spoon into the small bowl of water; this will help keep the fish ball mixture from sticking to the spoon.
Cook in batches of 4 or 5 for about 5 minutes per batch. The fish balls will lighten in color, and some may float as they’re done; they will be a uniform texture and color all the way through. Cut into one of them after it has cooled for a few minutes; the texture should be elastic and springy.
As the fish balls are done, use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a plate or directly into a pot of soup.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 8): 120 calories, 15 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar
Recipe tested by Tamar Haspel and Bonnie S. Benwick; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org