FOR people living along or near coastline, seafood is a valued part of the diet, rich in protein and full of flavor. Traditional tastes from region to region mean a variety of different but delicious ways to enjoy the fruits of the sea.
Seafood in China is divided into two categories: “big” seafood like the king crab, lobster and salmon; and “small” seafood like clams, oysters and sea snails.
Seafood like fish, shrimp and shellfish, caught on the day by fishermen, is cooked for a short period of time, preserving the natural flavor and tender texture. There’s nothing worse than overcooked, rubbery seafood. Ginger, scallions and wine are often used in the cooking, especially when the “fishiness” is too strong.
In inland provinces, where fresh seafood was hard to come by before the advent of modern refrigerated transport, fish was traditionally cooked with heavy seasoning and bold sauces.
In China today, seafood is commonly farmed instead of caught in the wild.
Clams and sea snails
Clams and sea snails are among the most popular, easily accessible and cheapest seafood available in most farmers’ markets throughout the year. They require only elementary cooking skills to serve up a fine meal.
The rich umami flavors from saltwater shellfish and molluscs correspond to the amount of organic acids, like succinic acid, in the animals.
Hua ge, or asari, is a shellfish farmed across China’s coastlines. These clams are low in fat, high in protein and rich in minerals.
In the market, vendors typically ask how many of the calms you want, then pick the most tightly closed ones from their stocks. Before cooking, rinse the clams and let them in clean water to wash out any sand grit. One of the easiest ways to cook them is to pop them in boiling water and pull them out when the shells open.
Asari clams stir-fried with scallions, dried pepper, garlic and ginger are also a popular dish. The clams are tossed in a pan over high heat for about two minutes, then soy sauce and cooking wine are added at the end.
Steamed egg with asari clams is a simple three-ingredient dish using fresh clams, eggs and scallions. The dish is seasoned with regular or seafood soy sauce.
Asari clams also are used to make soups, with complementary ingredients such as tofu and white gourd.
Razor clams are a narrow saltwater variety common in both Chinese and Western cuisine. Juicy fresh razor clams are used in appetizers and salads, and they pair harmoniously with Bordeaux or sparkling wine.
Zhao Xiao Jie Bu Deng Wei, or “Miss Zhao Doesn’t Wait for a Table,” is a restaurant in Shanghai that caused a lot of buzz when it opened earlier this year. Miss Zhao may not wait, but plenty of people do, in long queues outside the restaurant. One of the three most popular dishes on the menu is razor clams baked in sea salt. The dish is quite salty but carries a distinctive taste of the sea.
The dish can be made at home. Simply heat sea salt in a deep pan, with peppercorns and star anise, and then arrange fresh razor clams on the salt and cover the pan with a lid. Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size and volume of clams.
When cooking clams, be sure to toss out any that don’t open after being cooked. They are not edible.
The blood cockle is a heart-shaped clam very popular in Fujian Province. It is served there semi-cooked so that the meat of the clam is red when served. Some people find these clams too fishy. Then, too, it can be dangerous to eat any shellfish that aren’t thoroughly cooked. In 1988, polluted clams sickened 300,000 people in one incident of poor quality supervision.
Sea melon seeds are tiny, thin-shelled, light-colored clams about the size of a thumbnail. In northern China, they are a species called moerella iridescens; in the south, musculus senhousei. Sea melon seeds are stir-fried with ginger, garlic, dry pepper and scallions. The dish goes well with cold beer or spirits.
Oysters and mussels are popular across China, whether they are steamed, baked, pan-fried or turned into soups.
Sea snails, which aren’t as widespread as clams, are eaten in certain regions of the country. One species, the common egg cowrie, is called “sea bunny” in China because of its appearance. When cooked, sea bunnies actually look like tiny squid. They are often stir fried with garlic and pepper or Chinese chives. Dried sea bunnies are also popular for easy storage.
The mud snail is a mollusk that inhabits tidal lands. The snails are tiny and have to be dug by hand from the mud. One popular way of serving them is called drunken mud snails. The mollusks are stored in distilled spirits seasoned with ginger, salt, sugar and peppercorns for a week before serving.
Shrimp and marine worms
Mantis shrimp is a large shrimp with a very hard shell. They are meaty and flavorful. A classic way to cook them is in a stir fry with pepper-spiced salt.
Eating mantis shrimp is a complex task. The shells are not easy to peel off once the shrimp are cooked. When handling them raw, it’s good to wear kitchen gloves.
The peanut worm is a delicacy in Fujian, Guangxi and Guangdong provinces. This species of marine worm is about 15 centimeters in length and is found along sandy shores. Although the look of the peanut worm is not appetizing, this sand creature isn’t so bad when cooked. In Fujian, the peanut worm is called tu sun, which translates as “earthy bamboo shoot.” Fresh peanut worms can be made into a jelly-like dish and dried ones are added to porridges and soups.
Shuttles hoppfish is a small fish found in muddy estuaries and tidal flats. In Shanghai, they come from Chongming Island. These fish “hop” on the mud flats to find food. The best time to eat them is in wintertime.