It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
FERMENTED FISH (臭鱼, chòu yú)
Regions of use: China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, Scandinavian countries, consumed elsewhere but not as prevalently
Tasted at: Wan’an Nongjia (皖南农家) // No. 35, Hongmei Entertainment Street, Lane 3338 Hongmei Lu (虹梅路3338弄, 虹梅休闲步行街35号楼) // Closest Metro Stop: Longxi Road (龙溪路) Line 10
Imagine a fish that you could chum the water with and attract more Wisconsinites than sharks. That fish would be chou yu, fish that’s fermented so that it has the pungency of cheese.
Reeking up the globe
The globe is pervaded by the stink of fermented fish, from the funky fish sauces and pastes of Asia, to fermented Baltic herring or surströmming, a Swedish specialty so ripe-smelling that it used to stink up the villages where it was produced. Maybe the most notoriously smelly is Hákarl or fermented basking shark, an Icelandic eat that Anthony Bourdain deemed the worst thing he’d ever tried (unwashed warthog shit-chute in Namibia might’ve been a close second). But while fermented fish isn’t uncommon throughout the world, we felt it odd that China, a country that views cheese as about as off the beaten palate as you can get, would have its own cheesilicious fermented fish.
Fish sauce factory in Vietnam
However, like with many odd dishes, the peculiarity spawned from necessity, and fermentation allowed people to preserve hyper-perishable foods like fish in the days before refrigeration. After a while, people acquired a taste for these fermented foods, and bingo, they became local delicacies. The ancient Romans used to spread garum (fermented fish guts) liberally over breads and dormice, and today, people hold fish sauce from the Vietnamese Island of Phuo Quoc in the same high esteem as the finest olive oils and balsamic vinegars.
Fermented fish became a delicacy in China in the same way, even if the origin stories may be somewhat apocryphal. One version, fermented mandarin fish, was reportedly invented 200 years ago by Yangtze River Merchants who used to slather fish with salt so it would keep on the long trek to Huizhou, and eventually grew fond of its funky flavor. The taste caught on.
But even as die-hard cheese fiends, we were unsure if we could foster the same fondness. To find out, we headed to Wan’an Nongjia, an Anhui restaurant situated in a Xintiandi-like enclave of European and American restaurants and bars (of all places) in the Minhang District.
A big cheese in a small pond
Wan’an Nongjia’s specialty is red-braised fermented mandarin fish or hongshao chou guiyu (148RMB), an eat that looks and smells like one of those sun-bronzed fish carcasses you sometimes stumble upon while beach-combing.
The actual flavor is closer to that of roquefort cheese, but the supple morsels of meat shred off the bone like regular old snapper or bass. Still, some hunks are permeated by a stench of rotting fish.
Nonetheless, a lifetime of blue cheese and anchovies had fortified our palate for this moment, and we ravaged the fish until our hands smelled like we had just fisted a beached whale’s blowhole.
Fermented fish is a fascinating exotic eat because of both its seemingly out-of-place cheese flavor and the insight it provides on historical food preservation practices. Just keep in mind when trying it that similar to with pungent cheese, a little bit goes a long way, so share it with at least one other person. Well, maybe not a date.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Sea anemone
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].