There's a lot of seafood in Southeast Asia and cooks have marvelous ways of transforming it into delicious foods. One of the common approaches is to pound fish, shrimp, or squid into smooth pastes and then flavoring the paste with fish sauce, etc. The resulting mixture is commonly steamed into patties for longer storage and then deep fried.
Sliced, the cakes have a crisp skin on the outside and chewy-soft texture on the inside. With a lager beer on the rocks, the sliced seafood cakes make for a fabulous snack.
At Vietnamese and Chinese markets, there is often white or light gray fish paste in the seafood counter. Simon Bao, an avid fisherman, asked me if there I had a master recipe for making fish cakes from such a paste. Yes, I do. You may recognize the recipe below from the Seafood chapter of my book.
Based on my mother's recipe, these salmon cakes are one of my favorite stealth foods — something I make and keep frozen for when I need a last minute morsel for guests, or something for dinner. The dill adds contrasting color and subtle flavor, whereas the garlic and onion add punch. Steamed into patties, all you have to do is fry, broil, or grill them to eat. Basically, this is convenience food that you make at home.
You don't have to use salmon, though if you do, I suggest wild salmon for flavor and sustainability reasons. As the photo here shows, the bright orange/pink color makes an impression too.
Whatever fish you select, AVOID dry-ish, tight fleshed fish like ahi tuna, which cooks up very dry unless you add tons of oil. King mackerel works well and I love it. Unfortunately, it has high levels of mercury so I don't eat it as often as I'd like to. Rich-tasting fish, like trout, catfish, and butterfish (sablefish/black cod), would work well too.
Seafood is slippery and difficult to pound in a mortar and pestle. I prefer the ease of a food processor.
Makes fourteen to sixteen 3 1/2-inch cakes, to serve 8 to 10
2 pounds skinless salmon fillet
2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 large yellow onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Canola or other neutral oil
1/4 cup lightly packed finely chopped fresh dill, feathery tops only
1. Cut the salmon into 1-inch chunks, discarding any errant bones you discover along the way. (Bevel-tipped tweezers, particularly the professional kind used for fish, will speed any bone removal.)
2. To make the marinade, in a bowl, whisk together the sugar, baking powder, cornstarch, fish sauce, oil, egg whites, and pepper until blended. Add the salmon and mix well with a rubber spatula to coat thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
3. Grind the salmon in 2 batches (or in 3 or 4 batches if you have only a small food processor). In a large-capacity food processor, finely chop half of the onion and garlic, stopping the machine as needed to scrape down the bowl. Add half of the salmon and process until a smooth, stiff, sticky paste forms, again stopping the machine as needed to scrape down the bowl. Pass a spatula through the paste; it should have a resilient, almost bouncy texture. Transfer the paste to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining onion, garlic, and salmon. Add the dill to the paste and mix well with the spatula.
4. Fill the steamer pan half full with water and bring it to a rolling boil over high heat. While the water heats, cut out sixteen 4-inch squares of parchment paper and place them on the counter. Set a small, shallow bowl filled with water alongside. Using a spring-action 3-ounce ice-cream scoop, scoop up a heaping mound of paste and release it onto a paper square. (If you don't have an ice-cream scoop, use a 1/4-cup measuring cup to scoop and a rubber spatula to push the paste onto each paper square.) Dip the heel of one hand in the bowl of water and rub the mound of paste in a circular motion to flatten the top. Aim for a cake the size of an average burger, about 1/2 inch thick and 31/2 inches in diameter. Smooth and neaten the sides with wet fingers. The cake doesn't have to be perfectly round or flat. Repeat to make more cakes. You may steam the cakes in batches as you shape them or wait until you shape them all.
5. When you are ready to steam, pick up the cakes by their paper squares and place them in the steamer tray, spacing them 1 inch apart. Place the tray in the steamer, cover, and steam each batch for 6 to 7 minutes, or until the cakes have puffed up and are lighter in color, the signs of doneness. Remove the steamer tray from the steamer pan and set aside to cool. (If you have 2 trays, have the other one ready for steaming.) Repeat the steaming until all the cakes are cooked and then let them cool completely. As the cakes cool, they deflate and their color brightens. (At this point, the cooled cakes can be doubled wrapped in plastic wrap or placed in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Bring to room temperature before continuing.)
6. Discard the paper squares from the cooled cakes. Now you must choose the second cooking method, which will crisp the cakes and deliver a golden brown finish. Each method has its advantages and all produce delicious cakes. For shear ease, lightly coat the cakes with oil and broil in a toaster oven, turning them once, for about 15 minutes total. For a tasty charred edge, lightly coat the cakes with oil and grill over a medium-hot fire on a charcoal grill or medium-high heat on a gas grill, turning them once, for 6 to 8 minutes total. For the most authentic taste and the most evenly crisp exterior, blot excess moisture from the cakes with a paper towel, heat oil to a depth of 1 inch in a wok, skillet, or Dutch oven to 350ºF and deep-fry for 1 to 2 minutes. In each case, let the crisp cakes cool for 1 minute, then cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices and serve.
Recipe from Into theVietnamese Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2006)
Wild vs. Farmed Salmon Q&A with seafood expert John Rowley at Epicurious.com
Guide to Sustainable Seafood — Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program