Eel Met - Steamed Rice Field Eel in Black Bean Sauce
Once upon a time, there lived a kingdom of little girls who grew up pretending to be Cinderella or some fairy tale princess. One little child missed the memo and spent her time pretending to be George of the Jungle, Hans Solo or James Bond instead.
I am convinced I was an intrepid adventurer in a previous life incarnated into a keyboard thumping and whisk-carrying Livingstone of the kitchen.
Visiting any market is an adventure in itself. I like discovering new and interesting ingredients, condiments or herbs and often purchase these with no clear concept or recipe in mind. Impulse buying? Or a latent throwback to some tomb raiding instinct – acquire first, ask questions later!
On my last trip to Carrefour, I foolishly meandered past the fishmonger on route to the bread counter. Neatly cocooned in its cellophane and polyform coverings was a glistening, golden fish. Or half of it, it seemed. The topaz hue was eye-catchingly unusual and peering curiously closer, I spied the words “rice field eel” on the label.
Having never been near a rice field except in the cars on route to or from airports in Thailand or Indonesia, I did not even know that there were eels in rice fields! And this was some big eel, not the slim and gloriously varnished mahogany of the unagi I adore. Unfortunately, my favourite fishmonger was not on duty so I could not consult her on the eel and the ways of cooking it. The fishmonger who was on duty was my least favourite, often heckling me for my telephone number, so I quickly grabbed my new discovery and made a hasty exit.
Once home, I packed the eel carefully and put it in the freezer while I did some research on relevant recipes. That was a couple of weeks ago as I swiftly forgot all about it, being distracted by other more enticing recipes. Until today, when prying through the bowels of my freezer, I unearthed the frozen fossil formerly known as a rice field eel.
The sense of adventure kicked in again and I decisively took the eel out to thaw while I explored my cookbooks, recipe files and the Internet for any recipes involving rice field eels. Strangely enough, I found many recipes for fresh water eels but none for rice field eels. Had I ventured into a culinary hinterland where no rice field eel has ventured before?
The vibrant colour of this eel cast dreamy visions of lush, verdant rice fields dotted with the mobile pyramids of bamboo hats, while plumes of aromatic vapours rose languidly from thatched kitchen roofs. My fertile imagination painted a rosy sunset with swaying trees as bustling housewives grilled amber rice field eels over a coal stove. I was on a mission now. I had to find a way to cook this eel to fulfill all my romantic musings.
I contemplated cooking the rice field eels unagi style but I had a suspicion that the flesh might not be tender enough. Finally, in desperation since the eel had been thawing for a while now, I decided on a recipe for eel in The Chinese Health, Beauty & Rejuvenation Cookbook by Ng Siong Mui. While the recipe called for a live eel and not rice field eel, I was betting that the black bean sauce involved in the recipe would mask the strong, fishy odour of the rice field eel without casting it completely into the background.
As usual, I did not have all the ingredients for this recipe and was too lazy to head out to the shops, so I decided to adapt and innovate according to what I had on hand. In other words, I winged it.
Steamed Rice Field Eel in Black Bean Sauce
½ rice field eel (tail end)
2 heaping tbsp black bean & garlic sauce
- the original recipe called for 1 tsp each of salt, sugar and light soy sauce mixed with 1 tbsp each of chopped, fermented black beans & chopped, preserved tangerine peel and 2 tbsp of oil
1 tbsp orange flavoured oil
- to make up for the lack of preserved tangerine peel
1 tsp finely sliced leeks
- I’d run out of spring onions which the original recipe required
½ tsp finely sliced chilli padi
- that’s bird eye chilli as I really wanted the blatant heat to offset the saltiness of the black bean sauce as I found the original recipe too boring for me
1. Clean the eel well and chop it into bite-size chunks. I realised that the eel was bloody hard to hack, even with my trusty cleaver, and I ended up with fairly large and uneven chunks. I am so going to work on my upper body strength after this …
2. Place the fish in a single layer in your steaming dish
3. Drizzle the orange flavoured oil over the fish
4. Spread the black bean sauce evenly over the fish pieces
5. Steam the fish for 10 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. I typically use my bamboo steamer but use any kind of steamer if you do not have that.
6. Garnish with the leeks and chilli padi
7. Serve hot with steamed rice so that the rice can absorb the flavourful sauce
I paired this with a simple stir-fry of red cabbage and Chinese lettuce as I wanted to balance the black bean sauce with a cleaner palate. I also rather fancied a vibrant juxtaposition of colours which the royal-hued cabbage and the youthfully green Chinese lettuce elegantly fulfilled. I deliberately kept this side dish very simple and slightly bland to cut the exuberant saltiness of the sauce.
Stir-fried Red Cabbage & Chinese Lettuce
2 cups sliced red cabbage
1 bunch of Chinese lettuce, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tbsp ginger, minced
Ground white pepper
1. Heat about 1 ½ tsp of oil and sauté the garlic and ginger till golden and very fragrant, ensuring that they do not burn. Those of you who asked me how … stir, woman, stir and lower the heat! *Shakes head in exasperation*
2. Add the cabbage and stir fry for about 1 minute. Since the cabbage is a lot hardier, you would cook this first before adding the more tender lettuce.
3. Add the Chinese lettuce and continue stir-frying
4. Add salt & pepper to taste and continue cooking till vegetables are just beginning to soften. Do not overcook so you can retain the crunch and colour of the cabbage
I really enjoyed this meal as it is the first time in a week that I could actually taste anything! I know this because I realised that I had added a little too much black bean sauce or should have tempered it as it was a little too salty. Thankfully, I had plated this with the stir-fried vegetables and rice so the combination worked well.
The biggest shocker was the rice field eel. I did not imagine that it would be so boney. The enormous number of feathery but highly tangible bones made eating it extremely fiddly. Each mouthful was a gingerly traipse through a minefield of bones. It was very tasty but I am not sure if I would repeat that kamikaze mission. It is definitely not something you would ever serve to children.
I would give the steamed eel a 8/10 for flavour but will have to deduct major demerit points for the high danger quotient. Healthwise, it would score a 8.75/10 by virtue of the side of vegetables.
So here ends my culinary adventure of the day. While I did not have to wade through a sludgy terrain to catch my rice field eel with a steely machete, I did do battle with a murderous myriad of spiny bones. I feel tough and brave now like Lara Croft. Just call me Craft, Lara Craft, Bone Raider.
Categories - Fish Tales, VeggieMight