Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of…Fish?

You’ve undoubtedly seen these if you shop at Asian markets whether Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Southeast Asian because they’re a favorite everywhere in that part of the world. (Scandinavia has its own variant, but we’re not going to venture that far north this time.) There are even fish cake emoji like 🍥 (narutomaki) and 🍢 (oden). In local Asian markets, you’ll find fish balls and fish cakes in the freezer case packaged in bags or plastic wrapped in a small tray, but if you’re lucky they’ll also have bins of loose assorted varieties where you can cherry-pick as many or as few of whichever ones suit your fancy – my style of shopping, of course.

At their most basic, fish balls are made of fish paste: finely ground fish (pulverized and pounded), egg white, starch, plus a little seasoning. You may have also encountered fish paste as Japanese surimi which is used to make imitation shellfish like the crab stick you see in those ubiquitous California rolls. Incidentally, you can often purchase a few types of fish paste by the pound at the larger markets in the fresh fish/meat department. These are generally the stores’ own blends and are worth trying, but they’re easier to work with as filling for a dumpling or stuffing a vegetable, dim sum style, rather than for rolling your own fish balls, so I strongly recommend getting the ready-to-go frozen ones as an entry level fishy requisite.

Anyway, I was shopping at Jmart (136-20 Roosevelt Avenue in the New World Mall in Flushing, Queens) and fortuitously happened upon one such bin – fortuitously because I had just made a savory Chinese duck soup from a pair of carcasses that contributed their meat to a Thai duck salad I crafted and I had been trying to decide whether to put noodles or dumplings in it. This bounty made the choice easy – and now I had the perfect excuse to buy a few of each kind.

It’s difficult to rate them on some sort of 1 to 10 scale because they’re all quite good but the cuttlefish balls and all of the filled varieties were especially tasty; the shrimp ball filled with pork and sea cucumber and the fish ball with pork filling were excellent. By way of identification, from left to right in the photo above:

Row 1: shrimp ball, fish tofu, imitation lobster ball, Chinese brand mini bite sausage

Row 2: beef tendon ball, fish dumpling with lobster flavored filling, fish ball with fish roe filling, cuttlefish ball

Row 3: fish tofu with shrimp filling, fish ball with pork filling, pork and chicken patty ball with pork filling, shrimp ball filled with pork and sea cucumber

Preparing them is a piece of cake (no, not fish cake) because they’re already cooked. The easiest method is to simply drop them into boiling soup/water; they’ll float to the top when they’re good to go. Alternatively, they can be fried and served with just about any Asian dipping sauce; you’ll find them on skewers at some food trucks, and I’ve seen them served with a curry sauce as well. Obviously, they’re incredibly versatile.

The flavor is mildly fish-like (except for the ones made from meat which are mildly beefy or mildly porky) which partly accounts for their affinity for various dipping sauces and also for their adaptability in combining with other ingredients. The texture is tender and frankly springy/bouncy, but in a happy way.

The final photo was taken just before adding more soup since it would have completely covered them up; there are some greens in there for good measure.

So I’m curious: let me know if or how you’ve used these little wonders in the “Leave a Reply” box below! (If you don’t see it, click the reply button next to the title of this post.)

 
 

Smart Cookies

If you’ve visited the confectionery aisle at almost any Asian market, you know there’s no shortage of packaged cookies and cookie-like treats to tempt your tastebuds and purge your pocketbook. Japanese renditions of American classics take that to the next level, both in terms of snackability and sticker shock (at least what I can find stateside). A cursory perusal of one such aisle revealed variations on the theme of mini Kit Kats and Oreos (in a bite-sized format unfamiliar to me); I was tickled to find matcha green tea versions of both as well as strawberry Oreo and sweet potato Kit Kat varieties. (This last sported instructions on the back for optional toaster-oven crisping!)

Oreo Matcha BagOreo Strawberry BoxKit Kat Sweet Potato Bag

I was less tickled by the prices, however. Certainly the packaging is attractive – bright colors, shiny gold, embossed even! – but lots and lots of air surrounding teeny tiny morsels of sweet crunchiness. (Reminds me of a quote from Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “There will now be a whopping great intermission, during which small ice creams in very large boxes will be sold.”) This 9½ inch wide bag of mini Kit Kats, for example, offers about a dozen individually wrapped pieces, each weighing in at about 12 grams – less than half an ounce – for $6.99, but I guess I do understand why the pricing is what it is.

Oreo Matcha PieceThree individually wrappedThree unwrapped

In terms of taste, the sweet potato Kit Kat was, for an instant, sort of sweet potato-y, then it turned somewhat artificial and a little metallic. The matcha was more subtle but was also more true to its green tea flavor description. Strawberry Oreo straddled the fence between fruity and artificial.

(I’ve always theorized that if a being from another planet landed on Earth and was tasked with the challenge of reconciling how the taste of artificial cherry, grape, et al. has any resemblance whatsoever to real cherries or grapes, it would shake its heads, concede defeat, and return home with its tails between its legs. Somehow, after years of ingesting these chemical concoctions, we’ve become inured to their ersatz essences and have accepted the use of the word “raspberry”, for instance, to describe both disparate flavors. Such is the wonder of modern food science as it confronts our ability to suspend culinary disbelief. But I digress.)

It turns out that Japan comes by its penchant for wild and crazy cookie flavors honestly. Since 2000, Nestlé has developed some 200–300 (reports vary) extreme Kit Kat flavors: cinnamon, hojicha roasted tea, strawberry cheesecake, brown sugar, pear, crème brulée, apple, apple vinegar, ginger ale, blueberry cheesecake, hazelnut, raspberry, orange, rum raisin, pumpkin pudding, orange pineapple, choco-banana, pancake, black honey, taro, chili pepper, red bean, edamame, sake, wasabi, soy sauce, and dark chocolate (how’d that get in there?) as well as something called “mixed juice” to name a few. (I can’t help but wonder what flavor “Midnight Eagle” might be.)

The story, as I understand it, of Kit Kat’s overwhelming popularity in Japan has to do with its name – it sounds roughly like “kitto katsu” which translates as “you will surely win”. The smart cookies at Nestlé became aware of burgeoning sales every January when the appropriately named sweet was given to students as a good luck gift prior to taking college entrance exams.

Now, sixteen years later, the candy is the number one seller in Japan, even promoted in schmancy department stores and specialty shops. The unusual (by Western standards) varieties pay homage to the unique flavors of Japanese foods; some of them are based on the particular character of a specific region in the country with limited distribution of each signature flavor to its region.

If you’d like to read more about how Kit Kat became a phenomenon in Japan, check out this story in the online version of the British newspaper, The Telegraph. In it, they write about innovations like an extravagant version covered in gold leaf and a Kit Kat croissant available in a coffee shop chain that sells out on a daily basis. (Take that, Dominique Ansel.)

I’m certain that more of these delicious wonders are lurking throughout the New York City area. (Update: I subsequently found bittersweet chocolate, strawberry, and Japanese sake. And more recently, I’ve discovered a designer version, the “Chocolatory Moleson”, the first decorated Kit Kat, which is topped with dried cranberries and almonds – placed there by hand!) Fellow ethnofoodies: let me know what you find and where you found it and I’ll update this post along with a hat tip for your hunting prowess!