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Nov 17, 2008 06:28 PM

Sacramento Blackfish (soong yue/steelhead/hardhead/shad)

I love fish markets. I stop by fish markets here at home in San Francisco, many times just to look. I go to fish markets on vacation (in fact, they are sometimes the reason I go on vacation). They provide an opportunity to learn about both local culinary traditions and natural history. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting Oakland Chinatown, where there were always tanks and tanks of live fish. In those days, almost 40 years ago, the predominant fish were Sacramento blackfish (Orthodon microlepidotus). Blackfish, like carp a member of the minnow family, are something of a rarity, a native California freshwater fish. Also called hardhead, steelhead, soong yue, and shad, blackfish is not a hardhead (a related minnow that apparently was also marketed), a steelhead (an ocean-going rainbow trout), or a shad (an ocean-going herring originally from the East Coast). A small commercial fishery supplying the Asian live-fish trade existed at Clear Lake and San Luis Reservoir. Growing up, I was only able to persuade my parents to buy a live one once; my mom steamed the fillets, and they were soft, tender, full of small bones, but with a good flavor.

After we moved back to San Francisco in 2007, my interest in blackfish was renewed by the following posts:

Here was a native California fish that was used in a specific, local recipe (albeit with Chinese roots). Many menus in local Chinese restaurants still list steelhead. Intrigued, I began a hunt for rainbow raw fish salad made with blackfish/steelhead. I visited Bow Hon, and I saw only black bass. I asked if they still served steelhead, and they assured me that they did, and had irregular, weekly shipments. I therefore called weekly and visited on many occasions. I know I annoyed the owners with my persistent pestering, but I never did see a live blackfish, and I doubt they served them. I finally tried the fish salad, and it was good, but I was deeply disappointed to not have had steelhead.

I roamed markets in Chinatown, the Richmond, and the Sunset, and I found channel catfish, bullheads, carp, sturgeon, black bass, tilapia, silver carp/crucian carp/wild, overgrown goldfish, but never a blackfish.

In September of 2007, I spoke with the manager of Kirin Restaurant, which also serves rainbow raw fish salad. He said, “Steelhead is only so-so. It was popular because it was a cheap fish. We haven’t had it for two years—you can’t find it in the markets. We make our rainbow raw fish salad with sturgeon now.”

I suspect the reason for the absence is explained by the following:

an advisory regarding mercury accumulation in fish from Clear Lake.

Dejected, I resigned myself to not trying steelhead salad, steelhead jook, steamed steelhead…until Saturday. I was window-shopping on Clement Street with no intention of buying anything when I noticed a hand-lettered sign in one of the windows: “LIVE BRACKFISH”. I looked inside, and there they were: Live blackfish swimming in a tank, something I had not seen in years.

The next day, cooler in hand, I returned and selected two victims (the first fishmonger became frustrated with my insistence on choosing specific fish; he let fly with a long burst of Cantonese. I’m glad I don’t speak the language). The fish were whisked to Kirin. One was prepared into salad, the other was steamed.

The salad was less complex than the one at Bow Hon; it contained pickled ginger, cilantro, five-spice peanuts, fried noodles, fried won ton skins, and blackfish, sliced wafer-thin. The dressing was somewhat watery, but the dish overall was good. The fish was very mild, and was neither chewy nor soft—more al dente. My sister remarked that it had a “rough” texture. I didn’t understand until I ran my tongue over a slice. Indeed, it felt somewhat like sandpaper; I think this was due to the many fine bones that had been sliced extremely thinly, too thinly to be noticed when chewed.

The steamed fish was a winner. It was very tender, “buttery soft” in my sister’s words. The flavor was very mild, with minimal freshwater taste, and was terrific with the soy sauce and peanut oil. We both agreed that the taste and texture were familiar, and that we had had this dish at childhood banquets. We gorged until we could gorge no more, and left satisfied, having had a taste of the past and perhaps the future.

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  1. Very cool and informative post. Thanks so much.

    1. Great post. I'm surprised, though, that the fish monger didn't want to let you pick out your own fish. I've never seen that.

      Did you deliberately withhold the info on which market on Clement you found the blackfish? If so, shame on you!

      1 Reply
      1. re: Xiao Yang

        I think the fishmonger became frustrated with trying to net a particular fish among twenty. The next guy expertly scooped up the chosen fish. Not a deliberate omission about the market, just an oversight. It was Wing Hing Seafood, 633 Clement between 7th and 8th on the south side of the street. I would imagine other markets, especially those in Chinatown, might have it as well.

      2. Thank you for this post! I've only ever known the fish by its Cantonese name "soong yue." Every time I ever tried to find out its English name, I would get blank stares from the fishmongers and my dad. And no one would ever tell me where it came from or when it would be available or why they didn't have it. Aggravating.
        The fish is very popular in my family for its sweet and pleasantly fishy flavor, if that makes any sense. We used to steam them whole dressed with green onions, ginger, and cilantro. They are extremely bony and my family would happily pick at it for hours. They were banned from the dinner table for a few years when I had a choking accident as a kid. So if you plan to do this at home, beware.

        It takes some skill and a lot of waste to slice the fish into leaves to avoid the bones. Anyway, the chef at New Wooey Loy Gooey in Chinatown does a great job when the fish is available. He serves it as "Soong Yue Peen Choi Sum", which is stirfried choi sum vegetable mixed with thin slices of fish just until the fish is barely cooked. I just had a lunch plate of it today sprinkled with a little white pepper. His slices are very smooth. Awesome, but not cheap. (BTW, New Wooey Loy Gooey has delta snails in a black bean sauce, right now if you are looking for another classic SF Cantonese dish.) The restaurant is an almost all Cantonese speaking place, and the dish is a special, so it might be very difficult to order. And you must insist on soong yue, which is only available at certain times.

        Also, as another tip, don't order soong yue in HK or Guangdong--it is most definitely not Sacramento blackfish.

        5 Replies
        1. re: sfbing

          Thanks for the info on New Wooey Loy Gooey; I'll have to try it (although my lack of Cantonese may be a problem). Can you provide more info on delta snails? I pride myself on seafood knowledge, but have not heard of them specifically (I have seen a variety of aquatic snails in markets, but don't know specifics). Does the name refer to the California delta, or other? Also, have you ever heard of Sacramento splittail? I don't know the Chinese name.

          It is another California fish, found predominantly in the Delta. It used to support a small commercial and sport fishery, with Chinese targeting them during their spawning run.

          (also with a mention of hardhead and blackfish).
          It is currently a species of concern, although people continue to use them as bait for striped bass. I have been unable to find anyone with knowledge of the Asian fishery, and would love to speak to anyone familiar with this. Perhaps someone with family in Walnut Grove or Locke? (On a culinary note, the related, but alas extinct Clear Lake splittail was a favorite food of the Pomo).

          1. re: alfredck

            FWIW, the Chinese Wikipedia gives 大鱗裂尾魚 as the Chinese name for Pogonichthys macrolepidotus. That may just be a translation of the Latin, not a common name.


            1. re: alfredck

              My family calls the snails "teen loh" or field snails, I think. They are black with thin shells and are quite frankly very ugly. We prefer them compared to the "saek loh" or rock snails that are more common in Cantonese nyc restaurants, which are prettier but kind of bland. However, I've been told by a cantonese guy who fishes for fun that teen loh are obtained in the brackish waters of the sacramento delta and may therefore have high levels of various chemicals from the runoff. You sort of poke at them with a toothpick and then bite off the top part, leaving the babies behind. The classic way is to suck on the shells and slurp the meat out, but that really is kind of disgusting in public. (I like to buy an order to go cooked al dente, and warm them up with a couple of slices of jalapeno and slurp away in the privacy of home).

              I'm a big fan of new wooey loy gooey for old-style sf chinatown food. It is mostly populated with cantonese workmen and their families. Years and years ago, they used to be Sam Lok. down the block, but rents got high so they moved to this grotty place. The food is a little saltier and greasier and garlickly nowadays compared to when they were in the nicer place, but I think the clientele has changed and the customers prefer it that way. The $28 wo choy is quite good (written only in chinese), although if you are not chinese, insist you want the steamed chicken with green onions and ginger and not the one fried with shrimp chips. I can't read and my cantonese is rusty, so I usually have awkward conversations with the waiters to get what I want. If I'm with Asian friends, it usually isn't a problem. If I'm with non asian friends, I occasionally get into arguments because the waiter really doesn't think they're going to want to eat the snails or pay the extra extra cost of the blackfish. To be fair, I do think they have had some problems with hapless tourists wandering into the restaurant and complaining because the food is too Chinese for them. So they try hard to head them off at the pass with the completely uninteresting english menu.

              I don't recognize the splittail, I could show my dad the pic and see if he does. The problem with cantonese is that it can be pretty nonspecific with biology. That is why I was unpleasantly surprised when I ordered soong yue in hong kong. I got kind of expensive hunks of this huge fish which was NOT tasty. Apparently, immigrants came to california, ate blackfish, and were like "hey, it kinda looks like a very small bony version of that fish in the old country." I probably wouldn't eat huge amounts of either the blackfish or the snail. In my experience, asian fishermen are very blase about where the fish actually come from and it wouldn't surprise me if they had high levels of mercury or chemicals, even if they were farmed somehow. If you've ever gone fishing in SF and seen all the immigrants catching fish to feed the kids right next to the chinese sign about birth defects, you know what I mean. I was one of those kids, back in the day, and I'm not dead yet. But I do try now to limit my intake of scary food.

              1. re: sfbing

                FYI, New Oakland Seafood Restaurant in Oakland on 10th always has snails when in season as well.

                1. re: sfbing

                  Inspired by sfbing, I had lunch at New Woey Loy Goey today. The soong yue peen choi sum was very tasty, with tender, translucent slices of fish over choi sum. The perfectly fresh fish did have a gritty quality from the small bones, but they were so minute that they were easily swallowed. I asked about the snails and was shown them—they were larger than I expected, ranging from 1 to 2 inches in diameter. I ordered the snails in black bean sauce and was given a stack of toothpicks followed by a steaming plate of snails in a dark sauce with black beans, garlic, ginger, and jalapenos. At first I used the toothpicks to fish the snails out of their shells, but my server, Mr. Lee, disapproved. “They’re more tasty if you suck them out,” he said. I tried slurping and I found that I enjoyed them more this way. Using toothpicks, only a small amount of sauce accompanied the meat, and I found the snails somewhat bland; by slurping, more sauce accompanied each bite. The snails themselves had a very mild, clam-like flavor and had the chewy texture that Chinese value. I suppose the combination is somewhat like escargot in garlic butter, with the mollusks providing texture and the sauce providing most of the flavor. The snails bear live young and many of them had multiple baby snails within their shells. Mr. Lee recommended biting off the muscular parts, leaving the babies and entrails behind, although he said some people eat everything. In addition to blackfish, they had lobster, crab, black bass, tilapia, and channel catfish in their tanks. I believe that the snails are Chinese mystery snails (Cipangopaludina chinensis), a native of Asia that were well-established in the Delta by the 1800’s and sold in Chinatown at the time. Mr. Lee said that the soong yue are much rarer than before and that both the snails and fish are available on a seasonal basis.

                  After lunch, I took a walk around Chinatown. I dropped by Bow Hon and once again saw only black bass. However, the server said that they use soong yue for their raw fish salad. No markets carried either blackfish or Delta snails, although I saw huge numbers of whelks, tilapia, and frogs.

                  A related post on the snails:

            2. You take me back to my youth. I remember all this dishes and have also seen the lack of this fish in the markets. But I have seen this fish sometimes in Chinatown markets and other fish markets in San Francisco. But not outside of San Francisco and Oakland.

              Since this a very local fish it is not well know outside of old timers. I will have to go on the find this fish and make the fish salad. Slicing the fish correctly will reduce the effect of the fine bones.

              Steaming and doing a stir fry with the thinly slices are great.

              Thanks for finding this fish and making this post. I feel young already.

              I think the fish is being farm raised in lakes in both Northern California. The last time I saw them being delivered to a fish market I asked the driver.