Ba Genh, or, Formosa Fish Paste Surprise

In food on 02/03/2009 at 7:37 pm

It was blizzarding horizontally today. My face was nicely exfoliated by huge, wet, hard pellets of snow on the walk home. Cold, slushy, gross days like this call for something hot, soothing and hearty…Soup! But not just any old soup, a classic Taiwanese staple, Ba Genh, literally, Meat Slurpee – Formosa’s superior version of hot and sour soup. The consistency is less thick than a stew, but more rib-sticking than consommé. A stewsommé?

This magnificient stewsommé takes some prep work, but if you’re an old hand at chopping veggies, this is the soup for you. When I was living in San Antonio, I took a second job on the weekends within walking distance from my house. The place was once the Guenther flour mill in the gorgeous historic German district, but is now converted into a popular brunch destination for tourists and a favorite of locals. I’d always wanted to flex my culinary muscles, so I weaseled my way into the kitchen as a prep cook, more prep than cook. So here I was, for about six months, hacking my way to bliss in a tiny galley off the kitchen every Saturday and Sunday with a massive ultra chef’s knife, at least 20″ long. I sure miss that machete.

Bushels of chopped potatoes, carrots, celery, and chicken breast were dumped into Rubbermaid crates for the top secret chicken salad for the hungry hoards. That was the #1 dish ordered. In my spare time, I assisted the baker, who shared my work counter, making fresh bread for sandwiches. I used to just eat that bread for my employee meals. There’s something so satisfying about repetitive labor. You can turn off your brain and just go into cruise control. I cook these days not just for sustenance, but for the elegance and symphony of it.

Get into your kitchen and create beautiful music!

fish paste (if you can’t get this, just buy cheap filets and grind to paste consistency in the food processor, salt and pepper to taste)

pork strips (not ground fatty pork this time, pork shoulder)

carrot julienne

woodear mushroom julienne (can substitute other mushrooms, this one is good crunchy contrast to other ingredients)

shittake mushroom julienne (reconstitute dried ones, more flavor than fresh)

chili pepper flakes or sriracha

cornstarch to thicken

black vinegar (this is a Taiwanese vinegar, a cross between balsamic and regular, on the sweet side)

salt & pepper

cilantro chopped

Start a pot of water boiling. Use a stock if it’s available.

Cut up pork into strips. I like bigger chunks. Fill a Ziploc bag with cornstarch. Drop pork inside and shake to coat. (Cornstarch allows the fish paste to stick better, and adds a silky QQ mouth feel you find with all Chinese fast food – “the Genh”)

Prep carrot and mushrooms. Add to pot of water. Add chili powder. Salt and pepper to taste.

Dunk pork strips into fish paste and drop into boiling water. (This is the lazy version of fish balls, Taiwan’s homage to Fuzhou fish balls with ground pork inside. Of course, this version is more QQ! You can also save some cooked fish-pork strips in freezer for later use in other soups. If you want only fish balls, use a melon baller, scoop and drop into soup. Same can be done with pastes of pork, beef, seafood, chicken, turkey…etc. Food processor magic).

Cook about ~15 min, just until pork done. Dissolve cornstarch first before adding to soup, thicken to taste. Re-season with salt and pepper.

Serve on sticky rice with cilantro or as a soup by itself. Each person adds black vinegar at the table to taste.

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