People living in coastal areas pickle fresh seafood with salt, and just a single piece of pickled seafood is enough to flavor a whole bowl of rice, traditionally supplying the needs of the simple daily lives of ordinary people. Meanwhile mullet roe, which was once only consumed at banquets or at the Lunar New Year, symbolizes abundance. Eating pickled seafood not only signifies experiencing the transformation in flavor brought about by time and salt, it also means sampling the traces of the culture of an era.
We arrive in the Annan District of Tainan City, located on Taiwan’s Southwest Coast, where we follow Tsai Teng-chin, chairman of the Deer Ear Community Development Association, as he goes to a market to do some shopping in preparation for making kiâm-kê (seafood or meat pickled with salt).
As he watches a woman deftly shucking an oyster, Tsai recalls his memories of eating kiâm-kê as a child. Anything including small fish, shrimp, edible bivalves, and crabs could be made into pickles. “One oyster was enough to go along with a whole bowl of congee,” says Tsai, speaking in Taiwanese as he shares his childhood experiences. Although there is not much meat on a small fish or shrimp, the combination of seafood and large amounts of salt was enough to stimulate the appetite and to flavor a big bowl of rice congee.
A local product of the Saltland
Women and children gathered various kinds of seafood including fish, shrimp, crabs, snails, and bivalves, and pickled them with salt to make delicious kê-tsiap sauce. For residents of the Saltland, this was an element of dietary culture well suited to the local terroir. (Taiwan Panorama photo)
Tseng Pin-tsang, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Taiwan History at the Academia Sinica and an expert on Taiwanese culinary culture, says there is a long history of eating kiâm-kê in Taiwan. Since the Ming and Qing dynasties, residents of China’s Fujian and Guangdong provinces and Taiwan’s West Coast have pickled fresh seafood to preserve it by fermentation, turning it into kê-tsiap sauce. When researching Taiwanese gentry families of the Qing Dynasty, Tseng came across evidence of the consumption of kiâm-kê in the account books of the Lin Family of Wufeng in Taichung, with clear records of the purchase of pickled oysters and crowned turban snails.
While people all over Taiwan have consumed kiâm-kê, Tseng says that pickled foods are an essential part of the diet of residents of Taiwan’s Southwest Coast.
Large parts of the southwestern coastal region of Taiwan, from Chiayi in the north to Tainan in the south, were once covered by various lagoons, such as the Taijiang and Daofeng lagoons. Silt carried down by rivers was deposited in the lagoons and at the coast, continually creating shifting areas of new land, with sandbars, lagoons, tidal creeks, mangroves, and rivers that often changed directions and overflowed their banks. The soil here often contains high levels of salt, and when you add in the sand blown about by the winter seasonal winds, conditions did not favor agriculture and residents mainly had to rely on fishing, fish farming, and making bay salt. In literature, this area was called “the Saltland.”
Although life was difficult, given the abundant aquatic life in the lagoons and the development of the bay salt industry, local women and children were able to gather all kinds of fish, shrimp, snails, and crabs in the intertidal zone, and use salt to pickle them to make kê-tsiap sauce. For residents of the Saltland, where potable water and fuel for fires where hard to come by, kiâm-kê that could be eaten without cooking became an important element in local culinary culture.
From kiâm-kê to ketchup
Tsai Teng-chin demonstrates how oysters are pickled. First they are rubbed with a little salt to clean them, then rinsed multiple times in a pan until the water becomes clear. Next the moisture is drained away and salt and ginger are added. The oysters are then sealed in a jar for three to seven days to ferment, after which they are ready to eat. They taste both salty and sweet, and they really go well with rice.
Due to changing times and the evolution of modern people’s diets, traditional kiâm-kê has largely disappeared from the daily lives of Taiwanese. However, few people know that this food gave rise to a global phenomenon: ketchup.
According to research by Dan Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University, people on China’s southern coast were using salt to pickle fresh fish as early as the 5th century CE. In the 17th century, after Europeans arrived, the local pronunciation of the sauce they made using pickled fish, kê-tsiap, became the English word “ketchup.” Kê referred to pickled fish, while tsiap (tchup) meant sauce. Europeans brought fish sauce back to their home countries, and eventually all methods of producing sauce through pickling were called ketchup. After the tomato was introduced into Europe, it too was pickled into a sauce, and the meaning of the word ketchup gradually changed to refer to sauce that no longer included seafood. This is the origin of the tomato ketchup so familiar to us today.
The secret of delicious mullet roe
(Taiwan Panorama photo)
Mullet roe is another salted food with a long history.
Mullet fishing and the production of salted mullet roes was booming along the coast of Taiwan by the early 1600s. During the era of Dutch colonial rule (1624–1662) there was even a tax on ships that came to Taiwan to catch mullet.
Later, under Japanese rule (1895–1945), techniques for processing mullet roe continually improved. Even today, mullet roe is still a prized gift at the Lunar New Year and is a representative seafood product of Taiwan. We came to one of Taiwan’s leading mullet roe producing areas, Kouhu Township in Yunlin County, to visit brothers Zhuang Guo-xian and Zhuang Guo-sheng, who have won top prize in the national mullet roe competition four years running.
Amber-like mullet roes are drying in the sun outside the processing plant. They are not of a deep red color, as most people think, and they give off a fresh sea fragrance as the sea wind blows over them. The key to their aroma lies in the fact that before the mullet are brought up out of the aquaculture ponds, Zhuang Guo-xian first makes a cut in them with a knife to bleed them, thereby avoiding the distasteful odor that may arise if blood contaminates the fish eggs. After being taken out of the pond the fish are carried by low-temperature transport to the processing factory, where roe extraction teams await. When the truckloads of mullet are offloaded, the workers form up into groups of three to harvest the roes. In a seamless operation, one person slices open the fish belly, another separates the fish roes from the fish meat, and the third takes the fish and removes the roes.
Next, blood still remaining in the blood vessels, and any unwanted mucosal tissue, must be scraped off the roes by hand. Freezing the roes for several days increases the resiliency of the mucous membrane on the surface, and only then can the roes be processed into a finished product.
Mullet roe is treated with salt and time to give it that oily fragrance. (Taiwan Panorama photo)
Premium quality mullet roe
The Zhuang brothers, who insist on using eco-friendly aquaculture methods, do not use any additives when making their mullet roe. Following advice from experts, the brothers began using the cold air drying technique to produce their mullet roe. This has shortened the time the roes must be sun-dried, avoids bacterial contamination, and reduces the amount of salt needed as a preservative compared to the traditional method, so that their mullet roe meets the contemporary demand for low sodium content in foods.
We watch as Zhuang Guo-xian places the roes into a basin of salt mixed with kaoliang liquor from Kinmen. After the roes are coated in salt, they are turned over to Zhuang Guo-sheng, who lays them out on wooden boards. Then blocks of concrete are placed on top to squeeze out the liquid and allow the salt to penetrate evenly through the roe. The curing time is rigorously controlled based on the size of the roes, and when the time is up the salt must immediately be washed away. Then the roes are placed outdoors to be exposed to the sea breezes and sunshine.
Then the roes have to be turned over, after which any tears in their skins are covered with casing made from pig intestine, and their positions are adjusted to even out differences in thickness among the roes placed on the boards. Next concrete blocks are again placed on top to press on the roes with evenly distributed weight. After sun-drying, the mullet roes are placed in a cold-air drying room to continue to draw out moisture. As if taking care of young children, the two brothers inspect the proceedings several times each day. If you include the time it takes to raise mullet fry into adult fish capable of producing roes, the whole process takes two to three years. The ponds need to be inspected countless times each day and the fish treated with special care to finally be able to harvest the roes. It is only at this point that we understand how complex the process of making mullet roe is. No wonder Zhuang Guo-xian proudly says that the procedure for making mullet roe is comparable to hand-crafting luxury handbags.
(Taiwan Panorama photo)
Sun-drying of mullet roes by fishing households is an enchanting part of the scenery on Taiwan’s West Coast. (Taiwan Panorama photo)
The endless search for flavor
There are many ways to enjoy mullet roe, including pan-frying it in oil, roasting it over a fire, and adding it to fried rice or Italian pasta. In recent years there has been a fad for cutting the roe into slices and sandwiching it between pieces of juicy fruits and vegetables such as pears, apples, or cassava. Zhuang Guo-xian shares his own favorite method of eating mullet roe, which is to sprinkle kaoliang liquor on top and broil it with a hand-held torch, after which it can be sliced up and consumed. In this way the outside is crisp while the inside is firm, and with each bite your mouth is filled with the aroma of fresh fish and fat.
Whenever mullet roe is discussed, there is contention over whether wild or farmed mullet produce better roes, but in fact each type has its own strengths and weaknesses. Hsu Zong, director of the Taiwan Culinary Arts Association, who has long studied the flavor of food ingredients, points out that wild mullet living in the sea are omnivorous, creating a rich variety of tastes in their roe. Nonetheless, because in the last few years the techniques for raising mullet in aquaculture have improved, this type of roe has gotten more and more positive attention.
Hsu says there are three reasons for this: The first is that bleeding the fish results in roes with a beautiful color and luster. The second is that with the trend in recent years for reducing salt use, the feed given to farmed mullet and the timing of when they are removed from their ponds can be adjusted, and these steps, along with research into how to precisely apply salt, enable the fat-rich roe to manifest its finest flavor. The third is that business and academia have worked together to upgrade mullet farming techniques and technology. For example, Zhuang Guo-xin and Cheng Ann-chang, chairman of the Department of Aquaculture at National Kaohsiung University of Science and Technology, have worked together to use photosynthetic bacteria to improve the ecology of fish ponds and reduce the risks involved in mullet aquaculture. All of these factors have raised the profitability of mullet farming, attracting more people and investment into the industry and building relevant expertise in Taiwan.
Hsu has been delighted by the continual refinement of mullet roe in Taiwan, which has inspired him to try out all kinds of variations in its preparation. For example, he has paired mullet roe with ‘Megumi’ variety apples, with the green garlic produced in different areas, and with gin flavored with local materials, contrasting these with the enchanting flavor of pickled seafood. As he says, “There’s no end point to the search for perfection; instead you have to continually think up interesting new ways to look at mullet roe and other foods.”