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A cool fish for summer

By Pauline D Loh | China Daily | Updated: 2018-06-26 07:48
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Deep-fried eel is a classic dish. [Photo/China Daily]

When I visited Shanghai many years ago, I saw eels being prepared by the fishmonger on my first visit to the market. They were covered with a slippery mucus and were pretty hard to handle. But they posed no challenge to the experienced fishmongers.

The eel was picked out and quickly dispatched with a swift stab to the head with a special pick. Pinned to the chopping board, the eel was then spliced open and its backbone stripped at a single stroke, leaving just the fillets.

The yellow eels are in season in early summer, when they are fattening up for the spawning season from June to August. This is the best time to enjoy them. They are now mostly farmed, and production is most abundant in the monsoonal regions in China's southern provinces.

There is an old culinary saying that in summer, the yellow eels have better nutrition than aged ginseng.

Their meat is full of fat and protein, calcium, potassium and various B vitamins, so there is sufficient scientific backing for that old adage.

To the Chinese, everything about this little eel has health benefits-bones, skin, blood and flesh. Li Shizhen even recommended reducing its head and bones to ash, mixing it with yellow wine and feeding the mixture to patients with gynecological complaints.

Its flesh is for those who are anemic but cannot afford to eat too much red meat. It is a panacea that is often prescribed for those who suffer from tinnitus or middle-ear infections, eczema, coughs or weak digestion, among other ailments.

There is one part of the eel that must be strictly avoided, though, and that is the slimy mucus it secretes. This toxic slime must be rubbed off with plenty of salt, and rinsed off thoroughly. The toxin breaks down with heat, so the eels must be cooked well to get rid of any stubborn residue.

There are many classic eel dishes that are popular on the summer menus of restaurants and homes all over China.

My hutong-raised husband says his family favorite is eel stir-fried with fresh green peppers. These are the spicy long green peppers that are eaten more as vegetables in Beijing. The stir-fry starts with finely sliced Beijing leeks and shredded ginger, then the shredded eel and green peppers go in the pan. The fish is finished with salt and a huge amount of cracked black pepper.

My first taste of eel was a dish steamed with lots of ginger and sweet yellow bean paste. The eels are cut into chunks and placed on a plate. The steaks are topped with a layer of finely minced ginger and yellow fermented bean paste diluted with sweet rice wine.

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