Many of you might never have heard of it, but fish maw is considered a delicacy in China — one of the four treasures of the sea. It has also been documented, since the Han Dynasty, as a tonic for strengthening one’s tendons and bones. In today’s China, women believe it to be a beauty food because of it’s high collagen content. I have eaten it in the past, but have not cooked it myself until today.
Pikky’s mother, who had brought me the fish maw the other day, gave me a recipe, but I didn’t have many of the ingredients she listed, and decided to improvise with what I had on my shelf. I suppose I gave it a Shanghainese twist. A few adventurous eaters from our Marco Polo production ate it and claimed that they absolutely loved it, which surprised me, and pleased me to no end. As a friend of mine commented that those were the loyal hungry subjects of the Hungry Empress.
I leave for Shanghai tomorrow and will bring some fish maw back to cook it for my parents. They are both getting frail with age and I want to spend as much time with them as I can.
My father is hard of hearing and my mother has early stage of dementia. They have been helping each other in the recent years — one hears and the other remembers. Together, they have lived as one whole person.
Mother was a brilliant researcher in the field of neuropharmacology. As she began to lose her short term memory, her critical thinking and analytical ability were still intact and she was clear-eyed about her poor prognosis. She told me that there is no cure yet for damaged brain cells.
My father with me in front of our house in Shanghai
When I called her two days ago about my trip to Shanghai, I was not sure if she would remember it later. I thought of calling her again today to remind her. Sometimes, I would call her everyday about the same thing until she got it. For instance, I told her that I was filming in Malaysia at least five times until she finally committed it to memory. Now she knows where I am, most of the time. When I turned on the computer to Skype her, I was happy to see an email from her, clearly remembering our conversation and asking for my arrival time. Her very selective short term memory can still retain what’s truly meaningful and important to her.
For as long as I could remember, I have admired my mother for her beauty, intelligence and talent. When I was a child, all my school friends admired her and wanted to grow up to be like her.
After her retirement, my mother took up piano full time and won First Place in a city wide competition in Shanghai for her age group 10 years ago. When her arthritis became more severe, she changed her style from classical to what she called Jazz — freer, more expressive but less demanding on her fingers’ precision. Now she plays the piano as part of her daily routine to stall the progression of dementia.
Sometimes, I panic a little when I see how old age has ravaged them, but when I hear my mother play the piano, I calm down with the knowledge that there is still much vitality and joy left in her. As I write, I have the picture in my mind: Mother is playing the piano with her arthritic fingers while Father sits next to her focusing on the computer screen, polishing the radiology textbook that he, at age 84, will publish this year, completely deaf to and unperturbed by Mother’s banging on the piano. They remind me to seize every moment and to capture every drop of joy in life.
Braised Fish Maw
3 cups Fish Maw (after soaking, squeezing out the water and slicing)
1 cup Shao Xing cooking wine
1 1/2 cup water (separated)
3 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon Chinese peppercorn
8 slices ginger
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 green chili pepper
1 red chili pepper
4 small Thai red onion or small shallots
1 carrot, sliced diagonally
6 oz. snow peas
Cilantro leaves and chopped green onion for garnish, optional
Soak the processed fish maw. They come deep fried into crispy chips, much like the pork skin crackling chips. When they become soft, wash them and squeeze out the water 4 to 5 rounds. Cut them into 2 inch or smaller pieces.
Mix cornstarch, 1/2 cup water, sugar. Set aside.
In a wok, heat 2 teaspoon oil and sauté on medium high ginger, garlic, pepper, peppercorn until aromatic and add sliced fish maw. Give it a few good stir and add the wine and soy sauce and water and cover the lid. Lower heat to medium and let cook for 5 to 8 minutes.
In the meantime, in a separate pan, sauté the shallot, carrot and snow peas until tender crispy.
When the liquid in the wok with fish maw is reduced to almost nothing, add the sautéd vegetables and the cornstarch mixture. Toss to mix and coat.
Garnish and serve hot with rice.
I added a few pieces of tofu to braise together with the fish maw, thinking that if someone did not like fish maw, he could eat the tofu, but everyone who tried loved the fish maw.
Serve hot with rice or noodle.