28 October 2016
Visitors to places such as Tai O, Cheung Chau and Lamma Island can often find salted fish being laid out to dry. Photo: HKEJ
Visitors to places such as Tai O, Cheung Chau and Lamma Island can often find salted fish being laid out to dry. Photo: HKEJ

How to keep your fish fresh for the table

Removed from water, a fish starts to degrade and begin to lose its freshness. In certain species, there are enzymes eating away the fish body, accelerating the degradation.

Of course, we can avoid such problems by quick refrigeration after fishermen secure their catch.

But what about the old days when there was no refrigeration technology? How did people manage to retain the freshness of newly-caught marine creatures?

Well, they did it by salting.

Fishermen would first cut open the fish from the back or belly. Then they would splash a generous amount of coarse salt onto the fish. After a few hours, the fish would be ready for steaming.

The first and foremost advantage of adding coarse salt is to preserve the fish from bacterial actions. Some fish such as horse head (馬頭), scads (池魚), small fourfinger threadfins (小馬友), come with a mild taste and loose texture. Salting can spice up their flavors and texture.

Fish is naturally rich in free glutamate ions, yielding a rich umami taste. After salting, the fish becomes drier due to capillary action. Proteins also break down into smaller units as glutamate ions.

Put simply, the umami taste gets intensified and the meat becomes more elastic after preservation with salt.

The duration of preservation depends on the size of the fish. It usually varies from one hour to half a day.

Now, let me give some you some useful tips. 

Place one or two kitchen paper towels underneath the salted fish for absorbing excess water, and put it into the refrigerator to complete the salting process.

Cooking salted fish is easy. Rinse the fish if you feel that there is too much salt. Then steam the fish with shredded ginger and douse it with hot oil before serving.

Bear in mind: never add soy sauce.

Fish-salting is a skill that is not exclusive to the Cantonese people.

The Japanese also come up with similar preserving methods using coarse salt or brine, on fish such as mackerel pike (秋刀魚), Japanese horse mackerel (竹筴魚) and Atlantic mackerel (鯖魚).

After salting and preservation, the fish are usually grilled over charcoal fire.

The process is simple but the outcome is delicious.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 8.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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