Homemade Chinese Fish Balls…The Way They Should Be Made

Fish balls are a staple in many Asian homes. In Hong Kong they are a popular street food. There are as many fish ball stands in Hong Kong as there are hot dog stands in North America. They can be eaten on their own, fried, boiled, with noodles, in curry, in hot pots, on skewers, barbecued or any way you can think of cooking them! All ways are delicious!

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As delicious as they are, it shocked me when I looked into what ingredients were used in most store-bought and restaurant-served fish balls. If you read my earlier fish ball post, you’ll recall all the details. If you missed it, you can check it out by clicking here. It also includes a recipe for a healthy alternative to the traditional Asian fish balls (crispy pan-fried fish balls).

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I’ve received a lot of comments and requests for me to post a recipe for homemade, traditional, Chinese fish balls. So, as I promised a few months ago, I did some research and tried it out on my own. Making your own fish balls, or fish paste, obviously takes more time and effort than opening a frozen package from the store, but it’s definitely worth the effort if you want your food fresh, preservative-free and without added fillers in the ingredients.

It’s always quite satisfying to realize that you can create the foods you buy at the store in your own kitchen! Home cooked food also has the benefit of being less expensive and much better for your health. You can control what goes into what you eat, and keep your meals preservative-free!

Traditional fish paste is made with minimal ingredients. To sum up the process, you are scraping all the meat from a fish (or fishes) and pounding it until it reaches the right consistency. There is a lot of technique to the pounding part (I still need a lot of practice). You’ve got to do it for the right amount of time to achieve the perfect fish balls with that “bouncy”, “springy” consistency. Here is my recipe and the results of my first attempt. This was also my first time gutting a fish…which wasn’t as gory as I thought it would be. I saved the heads, tails and bones and made a delicious fish broth for grandmother by simply boiling in water with some ginger and onions.

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Get ready to slam that fish paste! A great way to de-stress and release some tension!πŸ™‚

Traditional Chinese Fish Ball Recipe

*A wooden cutting board may absorb the smell of the fishl and take longer to clean, use a plastic cutting board for less fishiness. (I was smelling fish for a few days…)
Also, you may want to work over newspaper to avoid fish bits getting everywhere.

Ingredients

  • 2 whole Spanish mackerels, about 1 pound each **I have seen others use different fish, you can try this with any white fish. If you really don’t want to use a whole fish you could try this with just fillets as well. You can also cut this recipe in half if you want to try with just one small fish.
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper (or to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • Water

1. Clean your fish. Spanish mackerel has no scales which made it easy for me. Ask the fish monger to de-scale your fish if you have chosen to use a fish with scales. Make a slit along the belly from the fish’s rectum up to where the head begins. Remove all the innards and discard. It’s really quite simple. Rinse the fish in cold water, dry and place on cutting board. Use a plastic cutting board if you don’t want to stink up your wooden one!

2. Remove fish head(s). Simply chop the heads off. Discard, or save if you want to use them to make broth.

3. Filet the fish. Slice the meat off the fish along the bones from the tail forwards towards the head using a sharp knife. Repeat on the other side as well. (2 filets per fish.)

4. Using a spoon, scrape the flesh from the skin of the filets as well as off of the remaining fish bones. You ultimately want all the meat separated, without bones or skin. Be careful of small bones! You don’t want any bones in your fish paste!

5. Place all the flesh on a cutting board and season with salt and white pepper. I used 3/4 of the teaspoon of salt and about 1/2 teaspoon white pepper.

6. Add the approx. 1/4 teaspoon salt you have left to about 1/3 cup of water and set aside for later use.

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7. Using the back of a big chopping knife, begin chopping/breaking up the fish. Keep an eye out for any bones to remove. (Note: if you want to save time you could use a food processor.)

8. The fish will develop a slightly sticky consistency as you continue to chop. Add the salted water bit by bit while chopping. This will make it easier and less sticky.

9. Now for the most important part! When your fish is evenly chopped, with no big chunks, you will gather the ball of fish paste and begin the throwing/slamming process. Repeatedly pound the fish paste onto the cutting board. This is the key to making “springy” or “bouncy” fish balls. I’d say I slammed mine about 50 times. Watch for flying fish bits! **

10. When you are done pounding the paste, add a little water to your 1 tablespoon of cornstarch in a small bowl, just enough that it liquifies. Add this to the fish paste and knead until combined well.

11. Your fish paste should be smooth and soft. When you’re finished, wet your hands and apply a little bit of water to the surface of your fish paste ball and you will notice it becomes smooth and shiny. You have done well!

12. You can test out your paste by dropping a spoonful into boiling water. When it floats, it’s cooked! Have a taste. You can add more seasoning, chop or pound more as needed.

13. To make fish balls, take the paste in your hands and shape into balls. They are usually about a tablespoon of fish paste each.

14. Storage: You can separate your fish paste however you like, and keep in the freezer. If you want to freeze it in fish ball form, I suggest lining a baking tray with parchment paper, place the fish balls in a single layer on the parchment, cover with foil to avoid having your freezer smell like fish and then allow them to freeze in a few hours or overnight. You can then take the fish balls off the tray and keep them frozen in a container or bag of your choice.

**In regards to the “throwing” of the fish paste, I’ve heard people throw 10 times and I’ve heard throw 70 times. It takes practice to make perfect fish paste and also comes down to personal preference. Keep experimenting to master a perfect paste for you!

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I hope you enjoy this recipe! It was a fun learning experience and taught me a little more about my own heritage which was really nice. You can always get creative and add extra ingredients to your fish paste before cooking. Adding ingredients like green onions or ham are more common, but let your imagination run wild! I’m sure you can come up with something tasty!

Cheers! Xo

43 thoughts on “Homemade Chinese Fish Balls…The Way They Should Be Made

    • Thanks Francesca! Haha, yes! I threw that thing up and down for so long! I actually had a birthday party to go to that night. I ended pulling my neck and not being able to move it…and showed up smelling like fish. I couldn’t get the smell off my hands! Lol
      Fish paste/fish balls are common all over Asia! And yes, they’re sooo yummmyy!πŸ™‚

      • use a pair of surgical gloves made of rubber to handle the fish dough…dat way your hands will be free from fish smell.

      • “surgical gloves” are a little extreme! You do not need sterile gloves. Fortunately most cooking supply places sell them and they are not rubber, they are latex. I use them to make meat loaf as I don’t want to get my hands oily from the hamburger/pork fat. Also use them for hot peppers and some pastries. They are about $8 for 100 gloves and come in several sizes I usually buy 5 or six boxes at a time. When done throw them away. Also yuse them for arts and craft work, changing the oil in a car etc.

      • Haha, I think that’s what Angel meant by “surgical gloves”. I work in a lab so I’m used to wearing gloves all the time!
        Yes, any disposable gloves will do. I love fish, but I don’t wanna smell like one!
        Good meatloaf/burger idea too! The fat can really buildup, and it’s hard to get off. With gloves I can keep my jewelry on!πŸ™‚ Thanks Richard!

  1. Thanks so much for this detailed and well-illustrated recipe. I have always wanted to make homemade fish balls and we are going to try them tomorrow for a hot pot dinner. Of course, there is the little issue of how many times to throw…

      • We did a big batch, broke it into four chunks and then tasked for people with throwing them. I think we threw 50-70 times. If there were a way to share photos in comments, I’d post an image of the hot pot. It was half fish and pickled greens and the other half was Sichuan-style hot with the homemade fish balls. Seriously yummy.

      • Great teamwork! Imagine throwing all that fish yourself! You’d be crippled the next day! Haha!
        Mmmm the hot pot soup sounds DELICIOUSSSSS!
        If you’re on twitter or instagram and you’ve posted a pic tag me or mention me!
        @nessporter on instagram
        @nessaporter on twitter

        Now I’m craving hot pot! So good in the cold months (but any other time too!)πŸ™‚

    • Thanks for reading Warren!
      Fish balls of higher quality usually do not have any flour in them. Generally, flour is added for mass production purposes to lessen the cost by not having to use so much fish. In Hong Kong, there are traditional restaurants making better quality fish balls with fresh fish, while a lot of street vendors will serve fish balls using cheaper fish and a mixture of flour.
      I was focusing on making traditional fish balls with no filler or additives, but you can experiment however you like!πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks so much for the recipe. Can’t wait to try it. Could you put the fish paste in a ziplock bag and then start throwing? To avoid fish splatter?

    • Esther! Thank you for reading! I’ve never heard of anyone using a ziploc bag, although I totally get why you’d want to. You’re throwing pretty hard, I think the bag would probably break. You wouldn’t be smacking it the same way if it was bagged. I’ve done it with newspapers on the floor with my cutting board on the newspaper. But, who knows! Give it a try! Let me know how it goes!πŸ™‚

      • Maybe. Instead of throwing the fish against the board, try throwing the board against the fish? As in, using a paddle to pound it?

        Is the purpose to try and get air bubbles out of it? In some kinds of bread dough, you throw the dough to reduce air bubbles and to build gluten (wheat protein) strands that gives bread an elastic structure. Maybe the same for fish paste – in reducing air Bubbles and causing the protein strands to connect together and get bouncy?

        If that is the case, there is a technique of No Knead Bread dough that simply requires letting the dough rest overnight and the protein strands form without working. For fish paste, that would mean refrigeration overnight. I do this when making pork sausages and it makes the meat kinda like hotdogs. I think I’ll make some comparisons and post my results.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I like using lots of photos in my recipes, I find it so helpful to have pictures to follow when I don’t know what I’m doing. It is quite easy, but the throwing of the fish gets quite tiring. Using a food processor is probably even easier, but I went full-on traditional, just to try it out.πŸ™‚
      I checked out your blog, love it! I’ll have to spend more time later looking through recipes!πŸ™‚

  3. I’ve just tried it!wonderful experience.but instead of one tablespoon of corn flour,I used one teaspoon by mistake.but it turn out nice :p

    • Hi Jennifer! I’ve never made shrimp balls. I think it may work, but I would suggest using a food processor (or you could chop finely). The shrimp won’t mash up like the fish.
      I’ve seen people do shrimp balls by food processing with scallions and a little ginger (or just adding a few tablespoons of ginger water, which you make by soaking smashed ginger in hot water for about 10 mins).
      If you try, I’d love to hear how they turn out!πŸ™‚
      P.s. Fried shrimp balls are really good!

  4. All sounds great I might cheat and use filleted fish from the supermarket deli I might add some finely chopped chives, crushed garlic and a little finely grated ginger to the mix after throwing it about 40 times then throw some more, form the balls and deep fry the balls for a variance.

  5. Hi, I was wondering if this could be done with canned fish (like sardines), or if it really does have to be fresh? I’m pretty far away from the coast, so fish is pretty expensive here.

  6. Hi Vanessa, i tried your recipe by using hamour fish. The paste break apart each time i threw on chopping board and it doesn’t look as solid as yours. May i know how can i improve? Your guidance is very much appreciated.

    • Hi Suraya,
      I’ve never had this happen before. Have you chopped/smashed your fish into a paste? It should completely break up into a mushy ball. Is it dry? Maybe a tiny bit of water and it will hold together a bit better?
      Let me know if you try again. I hope this helps.πŸ™‚

  7. A Chinese friend taught me to make fishballs in a similar way, except she also blended up a bunch of shallots and mixed them in too, with a little cornflour or arrowroot.

  8. A trick I learned is use two stainless steel mixing bowls. Put the fish paste between the bowls and shake them vigorously. No flying fish part or smell. Just wash out the bowls after your done.

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