If you've been to an Asian wet market you know them -- dried and flattened whole fish that could pass for cardboard cut-outs, slabs of salted fish fillets so hard and stiff they could be used as a weapon. There's a reason westerners often wrinkle their nose at the mention of salt fish: too often the stuff available to the average consumer is, well, too salty, too dry and so leached of fish flavor that there's nothing left but the stink.
But small-batch, homemade dried salted fish is another food entirely. Umami rich, lightly salty and with -- yes -- the taste of real fish, it's a great addition to stir-fries (a personal favorite: stir-fried bean sprouts with salt fish), pasta dishes and southeast Asian-style salads. If the fish you salt are small, try deep-frying them whole and eating like potato chips, crackly crispy bones and all, on their own or with a dip (like guacamole! or this northern Thai "red-eye" dip) or crumbled over a refreshing somtam. Imagine frying small dried fish like smelt Lao-style, with chili peppers and lime leaves and garlic, for a fantastic beer snack along the lines of these addictive dried mushrooms we ate in Luang Prabang. Think of any dish to which you might add salted anchovies, or anchovies preserved in oil, or fish sauce or oyster sauce and contemplate using salt fish instead.
Summer is a great time to make your own dried salt fish. (You can do it in cold weather too, as long as you have good strong sun.) If you live in a dry climate so much the better, but we made our own (that's them, in the photo above!) this week here in Penang, where humidity levels regularly hover above seventy per cent. Our guide in this endeavor was our long-time Thai helper Wan (that's Wan of the Kuala Lumpur ant egg harvest). The process is so simple that she snickered when we asked for directions.
To make salt fish it's best to have, or construct, some sort of hanging apparatus outside where it catches sunlight. (You can also lay your fish on a rattan mat or other material, but the more of the fish that's exposed to air and sun all at once, the more evenly they'll dry and the quicker the whole process will go.) We stuck a broomstick in a hole in the wall that surrounds our property and suspended our skewered salted fish from it with plastic twine.
Preferably you will time this project to start the fish drying early in the morning. Note that they need to wallow in salt in the fridge overnight or up to 24 hours before you hang them outside to dry.
Here's the process:
- Procure some fish. Any fish will do, really. Oily fish like sardines, anchovies, mackerel, smelt, ocean trout and salmon will result in the strongest flavor. If you're a salt fish newbie you might want to give it a go with a milder fish: trout, sea bass, john dory, flounder, halibut, cod etc.
- Clean your fish well. If the fish are small (the ones in the photo above were about 6 inches long) you can leave them whole -- just cut off the head and, if you like, fins and tail. If you're using fillets slice them into manageable pieces. A slab of salmon, for instance, I might slice into 6 by 2-inch strips. Remove as many bones as you can, but if you plan to deep-fry the little buggers the bones will become crispy enough to eat.
- Dry the fish, and then rub them with plenty of good quality salt -- sea salt, kosher salt, whatever. I'm convinced that the problem with alot of commercial dry salt fish is the salt that's used by the maker -- nasty heavily iodized salt makes for nasty salt fish. Put the fish in a bowl or a ceramic baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge -- or a very cool, dark place) overnight or for up to 24 hours.
- Remove the fish and rinse them well to get rid of the salt, and pat them dry. Skewer the fish in a way that exposes as much surface area as possible to air and sun. For instance, if you're drying whole fish, pull the sides of the fish apart so that the gut area opens up (see photo).
- Hang the fish in the sun. If you're concerned about flies and other insects (strangely, despite Penang's humid heat not a single insect bothered our fish when they were hanging outside) drape your fish with cheesecloth. You may want to adjust the position of the fish throughout the day, turning them front to back or whatnot, to get even sun exposure.
- Bring the fish inside at the end of the day and give it a gentle squeeze. You're not looking for cardboard, but the fish should be relatively dry. If any moisture comes to your fingers they're not done -- place them, covered, back in the fridge overnight (or in a very cool, dark place) and repeat the drying process the next day. Two days should do it.
- Use the fish right away, or store in the fridge.
Of course, dried salt fish are not just an Asian thing.
At a friend's home in Van, eastern Turkey, we ate whole dried salt fish -- pulled from Lake Van -- in a saucy preparation served with a lovely eggplant bulgur pilav. The fish themselves were just awful, so incredibly salty that they left my tongue burning. The sauce, however, was gorgeous. My next project: recreating that Van dish with our own delicious, not-too-salty salt fish.
Update 28 August 2012: See comments below for links to photos taken by Lynn Cook, an EA reader in Australia, who tried our recipe with excellent results!