Sunday, June 05, 2005

You're Scared of What?

fish, originally uploaded by emily loke.

I have a love-hate relationship with fish. I love to eat them – any fish cooked any way I’ll happily devour – but I really, really hate them live. Just as people who lecture against discrimination (and jedi masters) warn: fear breeds hate. So you can probably guess where all this fish-hating stems from – my mind-numbing fear of fish. Being scared of fish might be ok for an ang moh (white person), but when you’re asian, boy do you get made fun of. Considered lucky by the Chinese (yu, the word for fish, sounds similar to the word for fortune), fish, in Asia, are taken very seriously and are thus a positively inescapable aspect of Chinese culture. Singaporeans especially, I find, are unsettlingly devoted to their aquatic friends. My friend’s father, who is an architect, designed their entire house around their huge koi pond. My mother’s ex-colleague devoted one of the two bedrooms in his shoe box-sized apartment (which he shared with his wife) to housing his extensive tropical fish collection, climate controls, filters and all. This lady I know has a moat around her house which is home to huge, prehistoric, carnivorous fish. And she feeds them several pounds of raw meat every day.

I’ve tried several times to overcome my phobia. And at some point I was actually succeeding until I went deep sea fishing once with a good friend of mine in the middle of the pacific ocean. The islanders who lived on the smattering of islands there had boats made from hollowed-out tree trunks and so weren’t able to venture very far out to sea, which left the fish population in the deeper waters pretty much unchecked. Can you say personal hell? I saw some suckers out there that were almost as long as the zodiac I was in, who pounded back fishing hooks like candies, snapped almost all our lines, and left us with almost no baits by the end of the day. The avid fishermen who were with us were practically having seizures they were so happy, and kept hoisting in catch after 100-pound catch which flapped and gasped and bled all over me so much so that I was frozen in sheer terror and almost passed out from forgetting to breathe. I even considered swimming back to the main cruise ship, just to get away from the ever-growing pile of terrifying fish, but that’s when I caught sight of what looked like a Russian submarine with fins, and decided that being traumatized in a zodiac full of fish was the lesser of two very evil evils.

Scenes from that trip still haunt my dreams, but my neurosis is slowly subsiding. When a tummy ache yesterday made A. pledge to start eating better, I (and I’m proud to finally be able to say this) managed to quell my fear and steam two whole pomfrets for dinner tonight. They turned out spectacularly, especially since they were prepared with minimal me-to-fish contact, and I daresay everyone was quite impressed…no one more so than Danbi, who witnessed my last attempt to cook a whole fish – an incident that resulted in meatballs for dinner. Since it was balmy out, tonight’s meal was had on our balcony (which A. had decked out with vases and martini glasses full of floating candles) to the strains of Astrud Gilberto and the snippets of chatter drifting over from our neighbor’s apartment. There was good conversation and lots of laughter, and I couldn’t think of any better way to celebrate my release from the clutches of fishphobia.

Steamed Fresh Pomfret

2 pomfrets
4 tsp salt
4 tbs black bean paste
4 stalks spring onions
2-3 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, cut into fine strips
handful of cilantro, chopped roughly
¼ cup soy sauce

1. Clean and gut your pomfrets unless your nice fish monger did it for you already.
2. Cut a # pattern into each side of each fish, and rub cavity, skin and the inside of the cuts with salt.
3. Bundle up the spring onions and stuff them inside the cavity.
4. Push strips of ginger into the slits you made in the fish
5. Massage each side of the fish with the black bean paste, and coat with cilantro.
6. Put fishes on a plate in a steamer (I use a wok filled with water and a plate that sits on an upside-down bowl) and pour soy sauce over them.
Cover and steam for 15 minutes, or until fish meat is flaky but not dry. (I used foil to cover my wok. If you’re doing it this way, make sure to secure it so the steam doesn’t escape or you’ll end up with rubbery fish.)