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Fish at Chinese Grocery Store?

I am lucky to live in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in the East Bay (California). Within 10 miles of my house are Mexican butchers, bakers, and grocery stores, as well as Middle Eastern, Portuguese, and Chinese (sometimes sort of Pan-Asian) groceries. There is a gigantic Indian spice retailer nearby, as well.

I ran into one of the Chinese+multiple Southeast Asian stores yesterday to pick up some red Thai curry paste and again was struck by the amazing quantity and variety of fresh, frozen, and some still-swimming-around-in-tanks fish. However, apart from a couple (salmon, mackerel), I didn't recognize the names of many of the fish. Don't get me wrong, they were using English names (sometimes in addition to names printed in characters from other languages), but I had simply never heard of the specific kind of fish. I know I could ask each time, but previous experience tells me no one really speaks English there (my attempt at finding galangal was pretty funny but ultimately fruitless).

So, is anyone aware of a resource (such as a website) that might talk about what fish are commonly used in China/SE Asia, how they are prepared, etc.? Google did not return useful results for me, though I will also check out Wikipedia next.

(Even though I am in the East Bay, and both Oakland and San Francisco have large Chinatowns, I posted this here because I know there are many other areas, including Vancouver and New York, that have plenty of Chinese/Asian stores.)

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  1. Asians are fond of freshwater fish big and small/tiny. some popular fish: pomfret, catfish, carp, eel, tilapia, pangasius, croaker, red snapper, tarpon, mullet,....etc.

    18 Replies
    1. re: Pata_Negra

      Depends on which Asian you are talking about. Cantonese are much more fond of deep sea fishes. In fact a lot of them won't eat fresh water fish at all.

      1. re: Pata_Negra

        Re: carp - although I've read that it's considered great fare in some cultures, I've never in my life actually seen a recipe for carp, at least one that sounded at all tasty! Any thoughts?

        1. re: SonyBob

          yep, much loved in eastern European countries such as Czech Rep. also, Austria and southern Germany. carp is a traditional christmas meal in Czech. i don't like freshwater fish [doesn't matter how it's cooked i still taste mud...] but i did eat carp in Czech and Germany.

          i think all the fish i have had on my 3 trips to China had all been freshwater fish. taste ok with whatever sauces but the mud still comes right through.

          1. re: Pata_Negra

            Is there a difference in the taste between grass carp and plain old carp that we catch from our lakes and rivers?

            1. re: SonyBob

              apparently the oil also gives it a certain taste. the carp fillets i had in Germany taste pretty mild.

              maybe i get a carp at the market today and give it another go. i plan to make something Vietnamese like caramalised fish in claypot.

              an excerp from this site: http://www2.oanow.com/oan/sports/recr...

              "The taste of the two species is also much different. I have tried both fish and believe you me there is no comparison. I attempted to eat a common carp on the banks of the Chattahoochee one evening. The more I chewed, the bigger it got and little bones were sticking out everywhere. A pack of crackers and a can of sardines ended up being my supper.

              Mark Anderson caught a 15-pound Amur from the lake, went home and smoked it and brought me a plate. I was hesitant to try it after my experience with the common carp, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings. It actually had a good taste. "

              another grass carp link: http://www.mangaloreanrecipes.com/rec...

        2. re: Pata_Negra

          I keep wondering about the croaker tied up in yellow rope. I think it is semi-dried and/or salted.

          Belt fish is another one that catches my eye.

          1. re: paulj

            get it, eat it, and tell us about it. lol... i think those are most likely salted.

            if not fresh i still prefer herrings and smoked sprats (like this http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenhosau... )

          2. re: Pata_Negra

            I had croaker for the first time at Bund Shanghai in SF Chinatown and loved it. Not overly mild flavored but not oily or strong at all.

            1. re: c oliver

              i never know what fish i had in China. they are all whole and always served in a slimy sauce. did you also have it in a sauce? i mean like this http://bonvivantnl.fotopic.net/p56242...

              1. re: Pata_Negra

                "...always served in a slimy sauce"?? Perhaps you were in China with a tour group of senior citizens from the midwest?

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  no, i never travel with a tour group (anywhere) and just wander round checking out busy restaurants. even a popular West Lake fish dish has this slimy sauce: http://www.louwailou.com.cn/english/m...

                  but i'm free of Chinese fish in a slimy sauce for a while woohoo.

                  1. re: Pata_Negra

                    I was just joking about your travel habits; but do think that "slimy" is not an appropriate adjective to apply to other peoples' foods. I mean I often think of fat slob Americans sucking down huge cola drinks eating huge slabs of overcooked, flavorless corn fed meat with disgusting baby food texture along with vomit like mashed potatoes whose function must be to help slide the grisley grey overcooked to slop green beans down their fat jiggling gullets. But i don't post such things; and if I were to do so, I would select more neutral adjectives!

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Sam work on the meter and change the form and you have a lovely poem!
                      "The American Dream"?

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Sam F., thank you kindly! i didn't know!!! i meant to say SAUCE, honestly.

                        i had carp tonight....

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          Maybe we should add "steamed fish in slimy sauce" to the menu gaffes thread that's been going for a while...


                    2. re: Pata_Negra

                      The fish had been battered and fried and then had a red SAUCE on it. Not slime. For lunch yesterday I had some Sichuan dumplings with an oil SAUCE on them, not slime. One night I cooked lamb shanks with a SAUCE on them. Not slime. Oh, right, and then there was the chicken fried steak with pan GRAVY. Not slime. If you don't like sauces and gravies, you should probably order dishes that aren't prepared that way. And, most kindly, I'd like to suggest that you lose the word "slime" unless you're referring to ponds.

                      1. re: c oliver

                        c oliver, please accept my apologies. yes i mean the SAUCE! :) the oil chili SAUCE that is served with Sichuan dumplings is very nice indeed. i've had it countless times at the source so i know. i practically drank it. cheers!

                      2. re: Pata_Negra

                        I can definitely relate to the slimy description. I sensed you meant nothing derogatory. Like my nick, I used to eat fish/meat/vegetables in slimy sauces too. Not anymore. Now I only eat quality fish served no sauces to mask their flavour, usually grilled. I had wild atlantic cod last night and last week my family and I ordered black cod. At home, I bbq or pan fry portuguese sardines. I like to stay away from fish coming from Vietnam and China and other south east asian nations. Before anyone calls me racist, I am ethnic Chinese (but not a Chinese national) and have always been (more than 30 years) careful about consuming Chinese made products.

                  2. Fish are prepared in a lot of different ways: steamed, stir fried, deep fried, baked, in clay pots, etc. In fact, some stores will clean and deep fried your fish for you. Some Asians like to use the fried fish in a soup.

                    1. The most common seafood you'll find in tanks at most Chinese supermarkets (independent or chain are) at least in Northern California are:

                      Farmed tilapia
                      Carp (or grass carp)
                      Black bass (Cantonese call it mahng choe)

                      and of course, spot prawns, lobster (Maine / East Coast or from Canada), and crab. There may be slight variants throughout the year depending on the season but those are the most frequently seen ones. Of course we're not going to include oysters, manila clams, mussels.

                      If the store is big enough, maybe rock cod or something equivalent that is extremely huge (between 4 to 8 pounds).

                      What fish are considered common in Asia may not have the direct equivalents over here. Most supermarkets source to whatever distributors they have access to, and seafood can come from as far north as Canada or if not swimming in the tanks, can come from various parts of the world, including Africa, India, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand, and China (as witnessed by signage displayed at a local 99 Ranch supermarket).

                      I don't know too much about the various Chinese provinces and how they prepare fish, but in Hong Kong, southern China (specifically Guangzhou) and areas that are literally by the coast, including Taiwan, the most common and straightforward logical preparation is steaming. Fresh fish that likely never met flash freeze, straight out of the tanks (or at least from the fish market where the butcher de-scales, cleans, de-guts), is pretty much steamed to preserve the original taste. Other preps may add varying condiments to season (on top of steaming) but that's more or less it.

                      Milkfish, also known as bangus in Filipino cuisine, is a very commonly eaten fish in Taiwan and SE Asia. In southwestern Taiwan (particularly around Tainan) local milkfish is made into numerous different dishes, including but not limited to: fishball soup, fried fillets, grilled milkfish belly (with a lemon wedge) which is an extreme delicacy, milkfish congee, milkfish head soup (can be very fishy but adding ginger slices helps). There are restaurants that specialize in nothing but milkfish (and multiple courses of milkfish) with very skilled chefs to know how to de-bone it (and the fish is insanely boney too). So yeah there's going to be a ton of information on the net and it's going to be scattered.

                      Other Asian cultures may do some deep frying (and seasoning afterwards).

                      1. The most basic way to cook the fish that I know of is in a steamer. Take a fish such as carp, snapper or catfish (my preference), make some slashes down the body of the fish and top it off with some slivers of ginger, fresh sliced/chopped scallions, a little drizzle of sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine. Place this on a plate and stick in a steamer whole. When the meat of the fish has just started to pull away from the bones, about 10-15 mins take out and enjoy.

                        1. Each market will have different species of fish, which will inevitably vary based on the seasons as well.

                          Best thing to do, is if you find a fish you think looks good, buy it and then come here on Chowhound and ask how to prepare it.

                          1. I have always thought that it would be nice to have an online pictorial reference for seafood. Have a look at this book (I don't actually have it, so I cannot vouch for it):

                            Some Chinese fishmongers here are now getting savvy and are now posting pictures along with English and Chinese names at the store.

                            More often than not, the actual name of the fish doesn't really matter. Some cookbook recipes will merely call for something like a "firm white fish" (eg snapper or rock cod) etc or call for such a substitution based on the characteristics of a locally available fish.

                            Also keep in mind that the name for fish is different depending on location...and confusingly, different fish often have the same name, or fish within a certain class are often generically named. It's best to find a fishmonger who you can trust, is fluent in English, and help educate you...but barring that, just follow a good recipe book until you develop an intuition for how to use fish based on its own physical characteristics...(eg its oiliness/freshwater/saltwater or...if it is appropriate to deep fry, or steam whole, deep fry whole, stew, mince to a paste, etc.)

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: fmed

                              FMED, I actually 1-clicked that book, pretty much sight unseen, b/c I had to buy her legume book after having checked it out from the library.

                              I have a pretty good sense of how to cook fish, though often chicken out with poaching or parchment b/c of how dire overcooking can be. Still have not succeeded in emulating really good seafood restaurant when trying to sear, but am getting more courageous about using really high heat.

                              The thing is, there is a fish market in the town next to mine but their selection is pitiful compared to that available at the Chinese+SE Asian market, and I want to be able to identify the fish not only b/c of how to cook them but also to understand sustainability issues, etc.

                              Milkfish is an example of a fish I had never heard of; now that one of you mentioned it, I was able to look it up and learn more about it. That's the kind of knowledge I am aiming for, though obviously if I can find a mama-san to educate me about new ways to prep, that would be a plus!

                              Thanks to all for help/discussion/food for though (pun intended).

                              1. re: kleine mocha

                                I hope that book works out for you. Not sure if it has pictures of the specimens which of course would help tremendously. Each section should ideally have the Chinese and Vietnamese names of the fish as well as the other European languages.

                                Speaking of Milkfish, look for pre-marinated Milkfish in Vacpacs in the Filipino cold section of your Asian grocer. The Filipinos call it "Bangus" and it is often prepared my first marinating the butterflied fish in a vinegar-garlic solution, then it is pan fried till brown on the outside...serve with plenty of white rice (and a quick tomato/salted duck egg salad).

                            2. I wouldn't worry about what fishes are found in East Asia, because they may not be available in the US. You should focus instead on how to pick the freshest fish/seafood available.

                              There are many ways to prepare fish depending on their flavor, fat content, and their ability to hold together. Others have mentioned the various versions of the classic method of steaming fish. However, it is not entirely suitable for all fishes. For example, it doesn't work well with trout, which has tiny bones and falls apart very easily. But it works very well with rock cod and other types of fishes.

                              While it is best to learn from a cook, sometimes, there is no other option than to learn by trial and error. That's how I generally learned to cook .

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: raytamsgv

                                Yes, the steam method only really applies to a fish with firmer flesh.

                              2. Just a note and (sorry) just musing:

                                Funny - but reflecting cultural differences - how many of the (caucasian) Hounds know a lot about meat and cuts of meat and can be fanatics about meat prep. At the same time, many of us of Asian background grew up with fish, know a multitude of ways to prepare all sorts of fish, as well as how to scale, clean, and otherwise prep fish - while at the same time not knowing the full minutiae regarding meat cuts.

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  Spot on, Sam.

                                  And we hakujin ("the white guy") have even bigger fish to fry as we debate national health approaches and try our best on local levels to get the snack/soda machines out of our schools, revamp lunch programs to nutritional reality, and rein in the dole of food stamps to be limited to nutritional foods only, rather than those "first of the month" shopping carts laden with sugar and processed items.

                                  I'm fortunate to live in a city where there is a large Vietnamese presence, due to a previous generation's unjust military decisions followed by the more just relocations of victims within our target community.

                                  So, we've got fish. Lots of good fish coming in daily or several times a week.

                                  People who are clueless about fish when in an asian market environment need, first, absolution. It's okay to be confused.

                                  The language barrier, both the spoken with the fishmonger, and the written with the labeling of the tabs protruding from the ice, is intimidating.

                                  So here is the solution. While rarely can we take refuge in the safety of random encounters in our human relationships, when you're standing puzzled at the asian market fish market, give this a try: Watch the consumers of fish, and try to find a mama-san and see if she's bilingual. If so, you have a fish finding friend.

                                  That, and do your hakujin homework. A good place to start is Alan Davidson's "Seafood of Southeast Asia."

                                  1. re: FoodFuser

                                    To expand the point:

                                    Treat each trip to the Asian market as a friendly adventure, where you never know how much fun you'll have and how much you'll learn. Talk to as many people as possible about how they use each food they are perusing.

                                    1. re: FoodFuser

                                      It's how I t ry to live my life, not just shopping in Asian markets. I think overall people love to help others. Some of those shoppers speak good English and will be flattered to be asked for advice. Maybe a new friendship.

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        When I used to visit my mom, I used to stock up on Asian foods at the huge Hong Kong Supermarket. They had a huge selection of fresh fish and lovely meats. Once I took my 92 year old mother to renew her driving license and she passed the road test and exam w/ flying colors. She was very gregarious and when we left, the ladies at the DMV were all shouting, "Good-bye, Olga, see you in 5 years!" Then we went into the HK Supermarket. As a Russian speaking 1st gen American, she had a sense of intrepidation. But once inside and she saw all the live, fresh fish and crabs and the beautiful meats, she was immediately won over. Imperssed w/ the quality of the foods, she charged right in and through simple English and pantomime, she managed very well in buying unusual fishes. I asked her how she would prepare them and she said just like my mother used to. Enigmatic, but she looked at the fish, could scale and fillet and happily poached the fillets. After we returned to Maine, she continued to drive over to the HK market, buy new fishes and Asian vegetables and happily cook them by her tried and true techniques. What a woman.

                                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                                          That's a wonderful story and a lesson to us all. Thanks for sharing.

                                  2. re: Sam Fujisaka


                                    Go to Chinese grocery store and the beef is never graded either select, choice or prime. It's just the cut (sirloin, shank, etc.) that's labeled.

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      Totally agree. Most of my relatives still don't understand why anyone would order an under-cooked (i.e. rare) cut of beef.

                                    2. Some offerings in Korean markets -
                                      아귀/아구 ( agwi/agu ) Angler Fish (Monkfish) - Primarily stewed or braised
                                      복(어) ( bok/bokeo ) Puffer Fish - Usually braised or in soup, sometimes raw
                                      자리돔 ( jaridom ) Damselfish- Usually grilled or served raw in cold broth
                                      옥돔 ( okdom ) Tilefish - Usually grilled or in soup
                                      먹장어 / 곰장어 ( meokjangeo / gomjangeo ), Eel - Grilled or raw
                                      장어 ( jangeo) Freshwater Eel - Grilled
                                      대구 ( daegu ) Cod - Used in soups or battered and fried
                                      고등어 ( godeungeo) Mackerel - Braised, Grilled, or in soup/stew
                                      꽁치 ( kkongchi) Mackerel Pike (saury) - Braised, Grilled, or in soup/stew
                                      가자미 ( gajami ) Sole - Grilled, fried, braised, fermented
                                      조기 ( jogi ) Yellow Croaker (Yellow Corvina) - Braised, stewed, in soups, grilled, dried, pickled (Often sold semi dried and tied with yellow rope as Paulj notes above)
                                      민어 ( mineo ) Croaker - Grilled, braised, stewed, dried

                                        1. re: zfalcon

                                          That's a good start, but one should note that's a Hong Kong based blogger referring to his local regional fish (Hong Kong and China seas) in quite a few cases. The same Chinese name used overseas (e.g. Northern California) may apply to a different species of fish altogether (if not a distant cousin), in some cases used as a substitute. And some are perhaps strictly Cantonese based translations of the English name, e.g. mackeral as 馬鮫魚. In Taiwan mackeral goes by the Japanese kanji character 鯖 (saba) and called 鯖魚.

                                        2. sometimes it's deep fried but doesn't come with a slimy sauce. it was in southern China... don't know what fish this is http://bonvivantnl.fotopic.net/p45527... , http://bonvivantnl.fotopic.net/p45527... . i once had deep fried fish in Pnom Penh with finely shredded green mango in fish sauce on the side. that was so good.

                                          1. Larger markets like Ranch 99 will deep fry your fish.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. Spotted the following fish on ice the other day at my local Chinese supermarket (a regional competitor to 99 Ranch where I live)

                                              -milkfish (not sure from where but the Chinese name is dead on accurate)
                                              -salmon head (in a separate bin)
                                              -a fish named something like Galong Salong, looks like a much larger horse mackeral (they call it aji in Japanese sushi restaurants) with a Chinese name identical to what they refer to as "aji" in Chinese, in Taiwan, but to me doesn't look like aji served in Japanese restaurants
                                              -Mackeral from Norway
                                              -red snapper (from New Zealand)
                                              -sheephead (no Chinese name given)
                                              -rabbit fish (no Chinese name given)

                                              For mackeral, you can cook it similar to Japanese style, and that is salt (and/or pepper) marinate (more like seasoning) then grill it. Or use something like miso paste to marinate then grill. Pomfret is best served pan fried, salt or soy sauce, garlic, scallions, ginger, or dried fried shaved shallots.

                                              The salmon heads make excellent miso soup, just cook it with tofu, mixed veg, mushrooms (like in a hot pot). Also makes for excellent noodle broth.

                                              The other fish I assume you can do pretty much everything from pan frying to grilling to oven baking to stewing, or deep frying then plastering with sauces. Steaming might not be the best prep for them.

                                              6 Replies
                                              1. re: K K

                                                "For mackeral, you can cook it similar to Japanese style, and that is salt (and/or pepper) marinate (more like seasoning) then grill it." I do believe that grilled mackerel is the one thing I'd rather have than grilled ribs, grilled steak, grilled sausage... There are two or three Japanese restaurants whose menus I have yet to explore in any depth, because when I get to the grilled mackerel I stick there, unable to imagine anything else I'd rather eat.

                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                      Fresh BBQ eel...hmmm..... but baby eel gotta be stir fried like Shanghainese / Ningbo style xien wu...or deep fried in orange chicken like thick greasy sauce.

                                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                                        Oh, yeah, eel. There was a stand at a mostly Japanese food fair - well, it was the Tofu Festival - a couple of years ago that was selling cups of rice with eel in sauce, I think for the ticket equivalent of $1.50. Hardly anyone else was having any, but I got maybe four. I'm sure the very cute girls thought I was this old guy flirting with them, but it was about the eel. ALL about the eel...

                                                      2. re: Will Owen

                                                        Salt grilled works on quite a few other fish as well. Even snapper, sea bream, yellowtail, croaker. A wedge of lemon brings it all together.

                                                        Wait until you fly to Taiwan or Japan to try grilled fresh Japanese (or even local Taiwanese) mackeral. Stupdenous. You will never want to eat Norwegian variety ever again.

                                                        Summer/fall is also pike mackeral season. Try that (salt grilled) as an alternative at your Japanese restaurant (also called sanma shioyaki).