A Healthy Alternative To Asian Fish Balls…And Why Your Fish Balls Should Be Homemade.

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I love Chinese fish balls (and beef balls, squid balls…all of them). After all, I am part Chinese. How could I not? I’ve grown up eating them in fish ball noodle soup, curried on bamboo skewers, barbecued, in hotpots…Asians use them everywhere! If you’ve been to Hong Kong, curried fish balls are a very popular street food. These stalls can be found all over, they’re sort of the Hong Kong equivalent to hot dog stands. I have to admit though, there’s something creepy about those seafood/meat balls and how rubbery they are. If you’ve ever accidentally dropped a cooked fish ball on the floor and seen how high it bounces off the ground…weird, right? And a lot of the time, they don’t taste very fishy at all. I never really questioned what I was eating, I just ate. I thought I’d do a little investigating on how Asian fish balls were made.

I found out that the bouncier the fish ball, the better. The rubbery bounciness actually has nothing to do with the ingredients of the fish ball. (Thank goodness!) It has to do with how long and hard the fish paste is slapped down repeatedly before being balled. I’ve seen women in Hong Kong marketplaces slamming big balls of fish meat on large wooden chopping blocks. Now I know why. To make their fish balls bounce and spring open upon being eaten!…I guess.

The rest of the answers I found are not so pretty. The whole fish ball fad dates back to to the 50’s in Hong Kong. They were made as a cheap, yet filling, snack food targeted towards the low to middle class population. Most fish balls you buy today are made with cheap fish and full of additives, such as MSG, and fillers. The cheaper fish balls consist of very little fish (sometimes less than 20%) and contain a large proportion of flour. Fish balls are mass produced in factories and made with fish that are not carefully selected. The fish portion of the fish balls is called surimi. What the heck is surimi?

Surimi is an Asian fish-based food product, and a common ingredient in Asian processed foods. I’ll let Wikipedia sum it up:

“Lean meat from fish or land animals is first separated or minced. The meat then is rinsed numerous times to eliminate undesirable odors. The result is beaten and pulverized to form a gelatinous paste. Depending on the desired texture and flavor of the surimi product, the gelatinous paste is mixed with differing proportions of additives such as starch, egg white, salt, vegetable oil, humectants, sorbitol, sugar,soy protein, seasonings, and enhancers such as transglutaminases and monosodium glutamate (MSG). If the surimi is to be packed and frozen, food-grade cryoprotectants are added as preservatives while the meat paste is being mixed. Under most circumstances, surimi is processed immediately into a formed and cured product.”

Surimi is a cheaper way for manufacturers to imitate the flavour and texture of a more expensive product. They take this tasteless gelatinous paste and then add the desired artificial flavour. Not so appetizing. I’ll have a real lobster tail, thanks.

So, on to making your own fish balls at home! I came across this recipe a couple weeks ago and thought it was amazing! I’ve stolen it from The Iron Cheftress, a blog I really like. You should check it out! It’s full of creative and healthy recipes amongst lots of other interesting stuff.

This recipe makes crispy pan-fried fish balls, with a bit of jalapeno spiciness. The best part is, they’re made purely of fish and a lot less carbs then store bought versions. They’re really yummy and would be a great meal or served as an appetizer. However, these are a dry and crispy fish ball, they’re not really meant for soup. I’m going to try making some real Asian-style fish balls in broth soon, but that’ll be a different recipe to share. 🙂

Crispy Fish Balls

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound of white fish (I used 2 frozen basa fillets I had in the freezer…a bit less than a pound)
  • 1/3 of a jalapeno pepper (use more or less depending on how spicy you like it)
  • 1 inch cube of fresh ginger
  • 1 1/2 inch piece of a thick carrot
  • 2 cloves of garlic (I’m sure I used more, I always use more with garlic)
  • 1 small shallot
  • 1 tablespoon of fish sauce (optional)
  • Salt (salt is unnecessary to salt frozen fish)
  • Ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup of bran cereal, whole wheat flour, oat flour, whatever flour you’d like (I made these during Passover so I used matzah ball mix and it worked perfectly)

1. Process the fish until it becomes a paste, then transfer to a bowl. I used a food processor, but I’ve seen it done using the back of a chopper knife on a cutting board. (Probably more traditional Asian. If you don’t have a food processor then that will work.)

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2. Process jalapeno, carrot, ginger, garlic, and shallot. Add to the bowl of fish paste. (If you don’t have a food processor, you’ll have to samurai chop those veggies to bits.)

3. Mix it all together and season with black pepper (and salt if needed). Roll the fish paste into small bite-sized balls.

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4. If you are using bran cereal, grind it up. If not, have whatever flour you’re using in a small bowl. Roll each fish ball in your bran/flour until all sides are coated. I used matzah ball mix (for Passover purposes).

5. Heat a pan on medium heat and spray with cooking oil to keep the fish balls from sticking.

6. Once heated, place all your coated fish balls into the pan and keep rolling them around until they’re nice and crispy and a golden colour. It’s hard to make them a perfect ball. Mine kind of flattened out and became a little angular, and I may have over-browned them a bit…but they were delicious.

7. Serve them right away, with a spicy sauce. While they’re still nice and hot! I served mine with a sweet chili sauce and a horseradish ketchup (kind of like a hot cocktail sauce).

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So yummy! Enjoy! xx

For The Love Of Oysters

If you even mention the word oyster, my face lights up. There are not many things in this world that fascinate me as oysters do. I adore them. For any true oyster lover out there, you know how I feel. There’s a tension, a sense of excitement, in the fact that we love these creatures and we can’t stop loving. It’s a strange kind of love, that cannot be explained. Oysters are not just a delicious food, they are a fascinating species! And most people know nothing about them! They date back to prehistoric times, they were around with the dinosaurs. Archaeologists have found large shell piles of oysters and other shellfish that date back to neolithic times. They were efficient at doing what they do, and have been doing it ever since. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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I’ve loved oysters since as far back as I can remember. While other kids could be cheered up by candy or ice cream, my mother would come into my room with a smile and say, “Sorry I got so angry…I picked up some oysters, want to do hot pot tonight?”. I would pretend I was still mad, but was actually so happy inside. Oysters make my day. Up until a couple of years ago, my experiences with oysters only went as far as eating cooked oysters and came mostly from my Asian side of the family. We would have sizzling plates of oysters with green onions, ginger and garlic, oysters at our Chinese hot pot dinners, Chinese deep fried breaded oysters, and the occasional oysters and chips on our road trips to the east coast of Canada. This was enough to keep me happy, but unbeknownst to me I had only uncovered the tip of the oyster iceberg.

hkoystercooked Delicious cooked oyster in Hong Kong, bought fresh at the market and cooked at the seafood restaurant next door. (Sam Shing, Hong Kong.)

Two summers ago, at Oysterfest in Toronto, I had my first raw oyster. It was love at first…slurp. For all the squeamish eaters that have never tried a raw oyster, PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! JUST DO IT ALREADY! I’ve heard all the excuses (my friends know who they are) not to eat them. “They are slimy.” “They are gooey.” “They look like dino boogers.” Raw oysters may not be your cup of tea, but you’ll never know until you try one for yourself. I’ve converted quite a few of my non-oyster-eating friends over this past year. Find an oyster bar near you, bring some friends for back up, and be ready to have your mind blown! (Do it now! Before you change your mind!)

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My first dozen oysters. 🙂

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It’s hard to describe the flavour of an oyster, but there is definitely something that sets these creatures apart from all other shellfish. The French poet Léon-Paul Fargue said eating an oyster was “like kissing the sea on the lips.” An oyster takes me to the seashore in a mouthful. They taste of the ocean, like the smell of the sea breeze at low tide. They are more than just a tasty treat, an oyster excites both the palate and the mind. Rowan Jacobsen described it perfectly in an article I read when he said, “The proliferating category of oyster adjectives—cucumber, citrus, melon, copper, smoke—is useful, but doesn’t cut to the core. At some level, it’s not about taste or smell at all. Because an oyster, like a lover, first captures you by bewitching your mind.”

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Pick up the half shell, tilt your head back and let the oyster slip into your mouth, along with the liquid that it’s resting in. The oyster’s “liquor” is seawater, and is part of what makes it so delicious. I’ve been told by shuckers how insulting it is to see people dumping the liquid out before they eat their oysters. Shuckers work so hard to keep that in there for you! Oyster etiquette rule #1: Don’t do that. The fresher the oyster the more sea-filled flavour is captured within its shell. The initial saltiness you will taste can range from really salty, to mildly salty or unnoticeable. This is why oysters are usually served with lemon or a mignonette. The acid in the lemon juice or vinegar sort of cancels out the salt. Oysters are like miniature water filters. They feed on the plankton, algae, and other particles floating around them. An adult oyster can filter up to 5 litres of seawater every hour. That’s a lot for such a tiny little thing! That’s why the condition of the water in which the oysters are growing plays such an important role in the survival of the oyster and its flavour/texture. They are what they eat! The tastes of different oysters change with the climates, salinity of the waters, and what they feed on in different places around the world.

One question I’ve been asked a lot is, “Do you just swallow them whole, or do you have to chew them?”. Chew them! (I mean, you don’t HAVE to.) Chewing is where the real body and finish of the oyster comes through. You get to really experience its texture and sweetness. You taste its cool, buttery, salty, seaweedy, flavour. With some oysters you can go through a series of flavours. Some oysters have a flavour that lingers even after you’ve swallowed it, just like wine or whiskey. This is referred to as its finish. Some don’t have much of a finish, and the flavour disappears almost immediately. Flavour is also very dependant on season. A species will taste very different from one season to the next. Oysters fatten up right before the cold winter months. All the stored glycogen makes them extra sweet. Farmers know exactly when to harvest their crop. To farm oysters, farmers actually manipulate the oysters’ environments, moving them from slow moving waters, to waters with more current, waters with higher algae levels, to warmer or colder waters. This all has to do with feeding cycles, seasons, spawning… There’s so much to know about oysters! They’re just such amazing creatures!

Oysters are also good for you! Like most shellfish, they are low in calories and saturated fats. They are full of protein and contain omega-3 fatty acids. Like fish, they can improve your health by providing essential minerals and vitamins such as zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper and vitamins A, B6, C, folate, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, and a huge amount of vitamin B 12.

Apart from being one of my favourite treats, oysters provide me with this never-ending amount of learning. There’s way more for you to find out about these shelled beauties than you know. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some great shuckers, farmers, and other individuals involved in the oyster world, and they never run out of stories and fun facts to tell me. Did you know you can tell an oyster’s age by counting the ridges/rings on its shell? Each ring takes about a year to grow (one ring = one year)! An oyster can change its sex from male to female several times in a year. Their reproductive organs contain both eggs and sperm, and so they are technically capable of fertilizing their own eggs. Once the female oyster has been fertilized, she will release millions of eggs into the water. Within six hours these larvae develop. They move around the waters for two or three more weeks before settling into an oyster bed or reef where they will mature within about a year. I took a shucking class a few months ago. It was great! We learned TONS about oysters, learned to shuck, how to handle, and how to store oysters. Best of all, we each got 16 oysters and a shucking knife to take home with us. Learn to shuck! Then you can enjoy your oysters in the comfort of your own home, and save a bit of money! 🙂 But make sure you learn the right way. Shucking can be dangerous. You’re prying a rock-like shell open with a knife. I’ve heard some nasty shucking stories. (Shucking knives stabbing deep enough to hit bone.) Watch the hand that’s holding the oyster!

If you’re looking to do a great shucking class in Toronto (Canada), go to Oyster Boy on Queen Street W. It’s the best oyster bar in the city, and pretty much my second home.
http://www.oysterboy.ca/#shuck-u

Hopefully I’ll have more oyster posts in the near future and I can go through some of my favourite varieties and recipes! Here’s a fun gallery of oyster photos! I have so many.

Happy shucking! And if you haven’t tried a raw oyster yet, hesitate no more! Hurry on and try one today! xx

The Seafood Spree Continues: Diana’s Oyster Bar & Grill

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Continuing the seafood spree that is my life, I decided to finally head to Scarborough and try Diana’s Oyster Bar & Grill. I’ve only had oysters in a couple places in Toronto. I’ve always remained loyal to Oyster Boy (Queen St. West, Toronto), that place is like my second home. However, I love trying new things and I had heard so many wonderful things about Diana’s that I just had to go and see for myself what all the fuss was about (sorry, Oyster Boy).

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Before the restaurant, Diana’s Seafood was a seafood store only (one of the best fishmongers in Toronto), selling all types of fresh seafood and oysters. I haven’t been to the store yet, but I definitely will go soon. The store is shaped like a ship, with the bow facing the street, it has the big swinging doors, and its walls are lined with portholes shaped windows. How fitting! I’ll hopefully find time to go this weekend. They’re having a special on sea urchin! (YUMMY! That got me super excited.) In late 2011, Diana’s took over the property next door and opened a restaurant. Customers can now enjoy their fresh seafood without having to wait to get home and prepare it themselves.

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We went on a Saturday, later in the evening. It was an anniversary celebration, and what better way to celebrate then to indulge in dozens of oysters and delish seafood dishes. 🙂

The first thing I noticed was all the huge selection of oysters they had behind the bar, all on ice with name tags. I love trying new varieties of oysters. I try as many new ones as I can. The raw bar had about 14 different types of oysters along with fresh Cherry Stone clams and sea scallops. I was so excited to try them all! Apart from the Malpeques and Kumamotos, I hadn’t tried any of the other oysters they were serving. Boy was I in for a treat!

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The restaurant was small, clean, well lit, and simply decorated.

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We started with some really good bread (plus a bit of olive oil and balsamic). The bread was warm, light, and with just a touch of toasty crispness. I’ve made it a rule to keep bread eating before meals to a minimum, but it was hard. This bread was great.

I’ve learned to order strategically when going to restaurants now. My eyes are definitely bigger than my stomach. It’s hard when I want to try everything! I start by looking through the whole menu. I try to stay away from entrees, unless they sound absolutely wondrous and too hard to pass up. We sometimes share an entree between two people and then order an assortment of appetizers. At oyster bars, we always start with the usual two dozen oysters. I was really looking forward to the fresh clams and scallops, but to my dismay, they had just run out of the sea scallops. Bummer.

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A delicious assortment of oysters arrived at our table and I was bouncing up and down in my seat for joy. We asked for the shucker’s recommendation and I let the waitress know I wanted to try new varieties and which not to include. We had a mix of Lucky Lime, Shigoku, European Flat, Fanny Bay, Virginica, and South Lake oysters as well as some Cherry Stone clams. Each oyster had its own distinct flavour and texture. They were SO GOOD. Diana’s serves them with housemade seafood sauce, mignonette, and a scotch bonnet hot sauce (it’s hot, and so good) along with lemon and freshly grated horseradish.

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Cherry Stone clams. They have a mild briny taste are a bit chewier than oysters. These were amazing, but I still love my oysters better.

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European flats. These were sweet and meaty, with a weird metallic finish. I’ve never had oysters with such a strong aftertaste. I think it’s a hate it or love it kind of taste. I thought they were delicious.

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The Virginica oysters were really delicious. They were plump, meaty, salty, and similar to a Malpeque.

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The Shingokus have very deep shells, like little oyster buckets. They were sweet with a light clean salty taste. I almost found they reminded in the slightest bit of Kumamotos (which are a lot more buttery and rich). These are also much larger than Kumamotos.

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Dressed Shigokus. We always do a cheers, it’s our thing.

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Fanny Bay oysters.

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Fanny Bay.

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European Flats.

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Clammy goodness.

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Doing what I do best.

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Our waitress brought us an extra few Virginicas. 🙂

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The oysters were the best part. I really enjoyed the variety and their freshness. I was so satisfied. Our other dishes began to arrive…

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We ordered the lobster bisque. I love lobster but don’t do bisque very often. Diana’s bisque was really good. It was rich, not too creamy, lots of flavour and lobster. I scraped my bowl clean. (Bad manners, I know.)

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The steamed Gallo mussels were steamed in a white wine sauce (there was also a spicy marinera option). They were quite tasty, but the mussels were a bit overcooked. I must confess, after my recent trip to Halifax, I don’t know if I’ll ever be satisfied with mussels anywhere else ever again. I had the BEST mussels I’ve ever eaten at The Five Fisherman Restaurant & Grill. They were fresh local mussels from Halifax and were cooked in white wine to PERFECTION. Absolutely divine. The biggest , juiciest, most plump mussels I’ve ever seen. My pre-Five-Fisherman-mussel-experience self would probably say these mussels would have been terrific, had they been cooked just a little less.

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One thing on the menu that caught my eye was the sea urchin bruschetta. I haven’t always been a sea urchin lover, but I’ve grown to really enjoy its flavour and texture. The thing with sea urchin is that it has to be super fresh to taste great. I could eat a whole tub of fresh urchin. Fresh, raw seafood tastes so good on its own. You can really appreciate its true flavour this way.The bruschetta was yummy and so beautifully plated, although I think I personally prefer a fresh sea urchin sashimi. Really creative dish though, and delicious nonetheless.

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Full and so satisfied, I couldn’t even imagine eating dessert. Part of me was dying for a takeout order of creme brulee, but they said it would be too hard to pack it up. (I didn’t need it anyway.) We ordered a cappucino and latte instead, and sat happily discussing how great the oysters were. We were the last customers there and got to enjoy our hot drinks in peace. What a great evening.

Check out their website for menus & raw bar selection:
http://dianasoysterbar.com/

If you’d like to visit the Diana’s fish market for really great, fresh seafood, they list their products and specials on their website:
http://www.dianasseafood.com/