Fresh seafood is enticing, but dried seafood is also gastronomically interesting. Dried seafood is fresh seafood with the water removed, which is a traditional and cultural seafood preservation technique in China. Open air drying with the sun and wind is the most classic technique for drying seafood, followed by smoking and salting. Dried seafood is commonly used in festive banquets, daily cooking, and traditional tonics, particularly by people from Hong Kong, the adjacent province to Guangdong. A variety of Chinese dried seafood can also be found in Chinatowns around the world.
WHAT IS CHINESE SEAFOOD?
Chinese dried seafood was invented by fishermen in coastal regions, from the North to the South. The most intensely-flavoured dried seafood mainly refers to four types of delicacies; abalone, sea cucumber, shark fin and fish maw. Aside from these expensive sea treasures, there are also many other more affordable everyday ingredients to try, like dried shrimp and salted fish, braised, stir-fried and stewed.
THE HISTORY OF CHINESE SEAFOOD
Hong Kong, with its nearby coastal regions, has a centuries-old appreciation of dried seafood. Long before it became a colony of the United Kingdom in 1841 the country which then consisted of small fishing villages, already had a tradition of dried seafood. Since the early 20th century, street Des Voeux Road West in Sheung Wan has always been a paradise for dried seafood.
Not only can you find a street jam-packed with varieties such as octopus and oysters, but you can also find many other unusual ones dried on the rooftops or salted in the crocks. The all-time favourite delicacies reach their peak during Chinese Lunar New Year in Hong Kong. Being considered delicious, high in protein, and auspicious, the locals spoil themselves with premium dried seafood. For example, the dried oyster is one of the most popular dried seafood, since oyster sounds like 'hao shi' in Chinese, signifying prosperity for the new year ahead.
THE CHINESE DRIED SEAFOOD SPECIES
- Abalone. Abalone, nicknamed sea ear, is ranked top among the dried seafood. The shellfish has an open spiral structure, enclosing the shiny and mild flesh. Abalone provides high protein, low fat, vitamins, and trace elements, winning it the reputation of "gold in the sea". It also varies in sizes and species, including black abalone, red abalone, ass's-ear abalone.
- Sea cucumber. The marine animal with a leathery skin feeds on algae and plankton in the deep seas. Over 20 species are edible in China, divided into 3 categories: prickly sea cucumber, sea cucumber, and white teat sea cucumber. Sea cucumber is expensive but worthy seafood with high protein, low fat, and low-cholesterol, which is commonly used for Chinese festive banquets, high-end restaurants, nourishment.
- Shark fin. The nutritional qualities of shark fin are hard to be absorbed even it contains about 80% of proteins or relevance, but because shark fin is precious a huge number of people are obsessed with it. The two kinds of best shark fins are the one which appears flawless after being soaked into the water, and the other is dried in the open air from freshwater.
- Jellyfish. Jellyfish live commonly live in the oceans from the Liaodong Peninsula in the North to the South China Sea, which is significant in the fishing marketing. The edible species of jellyfish, like cannonball jellyfish and jelly blubber, are processed into dried jellyfish. Because the flavour is plain, pairing with additional texture and mouthfeel like salad can be perfect, such as salad, sesame oil, chilli sauce, pepper or ham.
- Oyster. Deep-rooted in the symbolisation of good luck and rich flavour, the dried oyster has become a Cantonese tradition. It is a must during festivals or celebrations for blessings. Dried oyster, sun-dried oyster or semi-dried oyster are suitable to cook in different dishes.
- Squid. This mollusk prefers the East China Sea which is salty and warm. Squid is soft in texture but strong in the aroma. Dried squid has 2 categories of oval shape and longitudinal shape, with the latter being better quality. Soak them in water for at least 2 hours, and then taste their sweetness.
- Prawn. Sun-drying the cooked fresh prawn meat after removing the shell-skins is popular in Hong Kong and Guangdong. Good combinations with sweetness, mildness, saltiness, and freshness, are applied to flavouring in soups and others.
- Smelt. Smelt fish are dried for 4-5 days which is enough given their small size. Smelt is semi-dried so that it can be dried repeatedly whenever you want. Smelt is commonly steamed at home or deep-fried in some Cantonese restaurants, but it would be better to reduce the high concentration of saltiness before cooking.
- Fish Maw. Fish maw dries from fish air bladder, which is classified into kingfish maw, premium fish maw, grass sea bass fish maw, and fried fish maw. Many Chinese people believe that fish maw soup can improve their skin.
- Scallop. It is a general name for species of saltwater clams. The dried scallop has a strong aroma and flavour, so it matches well with numerous ingredients whether in soup or with staple food.
HOW TO COOK CHINESE DRIED SEAFOOD
Chinese dried seafood is highly suited to various Chinese cooking techniques.
Take dried abalone, for example, In Hong Kong people like steaming, braising, pot-stewing, stir-frying this ingredient while locals in inner China prefer abalone deep fried, in a flavoured sauce or cooked in a hotpot. Other techniques include grilling, barbecuing, roasting or baking.
Meanwhile, dried shrimp may or may not require soaking, depending on its size. More slight varieties can be crumbled straight into soup or stir fry. Dried smelt can also be added to stir fries after being steamed, while anchovies can be deep fried and munched as a crispy snack.
Despite dried seafood being palate-friendly in China, some useful tips should be applied wherever you are. First and foremost, soften the dried seafood in water at room temperature, which can take anywhere between 1 hour to 10 days depending on the exact texture. Secondly, be careful to clean the softened dried seafood. Thirdly, because seafood is hard to penetrate with other flavours, it takes several hours cooking to achieve optimum results.
HOW TO PRESERVE DRIED FISH AND SEAFOOD
The two nemeses of virtually any food’s longevity are moisture and heat. Dried fish and seafood are no exception, so they are best stored in a cool and dry area. This will keep the fats in the product from going rancid and counteract mould growth. However, if the environment is too dry, the fish or seafood can also completely dry out and loose its flavour. Pieces should be individually wrapped in paper to prevent this desiccation. These ingredients should also be kept out of direct sunlight.
Dried seafood can also be placed in sealed packaging and frozen, where it should last between 6 months and a year. If freezing isn’t possible, you can also place these foods in jars, put a lighted match or small candle inside, the screw on the lid. This removes all the oxygen from the container and stymies destructive microbial growth.