Mắm chưng thịt is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. It's a blend of pork or chicken, crab meat, salted fish fillet in brine, bean thread noodles, mushrooms and eggs.
For this recipe, I used a mix of chicken breast and thighs. The flavor is reminiscent of the filling of a meat egg roll combined with the strong flavor of salted fish fillet in nước mắm (brine). The most common fish used for making steam fish cakes is snakehead fish, though mackerel or catfish can be used as well.
Servings: 7 mini fish cakes
1 pound ground chicken (see tips) 1 Dungeness crab (uncooked) 1 (6-ounce) salted snakehead fish fillet in brine (see tips) 1-1/2 teaspoons ginger garlic paste (see tips) 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 (2-ounce) package dried bean thread noodles 1 can straw mushrooms, drained and halved 6 fresh wood ear mushrooms, finely chopped 4 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped 3 tablespoons green onions, finely chopped 1-1/2 yellow onions, finely diced 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder 8 eggs 2 egg whites 1-1/2 teaspoons mushroom seasoning salt (or regular salt) 3/4 teaspoon egg yellow food coloring powder 1-1/2 teaspoons black pepper 1 tablespoon canola oil (or any neutral oil)
Prepping the crab:
Clean the crab, brush and rinse thoroughly. Place in a pot, add about ½ to 1 cup of water and bring to a boil for about 10 minutes (see tips). Transfer to an iced bath for about 3 minutes to stop the cooking process. Drain and discard all the liquid.
Remove and discard the abdominal flaps (the triangle-shaped tail). Lift and separate the back-fin with the rest of the claws by placing a large tablespoon at the bottom of the crab. Remove and discard the "lungs" (also known as Devil's fingers; they have a spongy texture); they're inedible.
Gently remove the crab meat from the back-fins (the inner chambers are filled with meat). Gently crack the claws using a meat tenderizer mallet and gather all the crab meat in a large mixing bowl.
Prepping the bean thread noodles: Place the dried bean thread noodles in a bowl. Don't forget to cut the little cotton threads and discard them! Soak them in cold water for 20 minutes and drain. Chop into 1 inch threads. Set aside.
Prepping the eggs:
Combine 6 eggs, 2 egg whites and the mushroom seasoning salt using a fork.
In another bowl, beat 2 eggs with the yellow food coloring.
Prepping the salted fish in brine:
Pat the fish fillet dry with paper towels. Remove and discard the bones. Thinly slice the fish. Pulse the fish into a fine powder using a mini-food processor.
Steaming and baking:
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Reserve 7 cilantro leaves for decoration.
In the large mixing bowl containing the crab meat, add the ground meat. Season with ginger garlic paste, chopped onion, red chili powder and black pepper. Using food service disposable gloves, mix the meat. Add the green onions, cilantro, sugar and 6 eggs and whites. Add the wood ear mushrooms, the halved straw mushrooms and bean thread noodles. Mix well. Check seasoning (see tips).
Lightly spray some oil on 7 (6-inch diameter) disposable pot pie pans. Remove the excess oil. Fill each tin with the meat mixture.
Fill a large pot with cold water until it barely touches the steamer level. It's important to start with cold water so the fish cakes cook evenly. Place all the tins in the steamer (I needed to stack 2 levels to fit all the tins), bring to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-high. Steam for about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow to rest for about 5 minutes. Remove the tins and transfer to a baking sheet. Evenly coat each tin with the 2 remaining eggs. Garnish with a leaf of cilantro in the middle of each tin and bake for 15 minutes until the top is dried.
Enjoy with Vietnamese rice (jasmine rice) or cơm tấm rice (see tips). Serve with sliced cucumber, pickled daikon radish and carrots, nước mắmsauce and / or tướng ớt (or Sriracha) on the side.
Eat with chopsticks!
I like mixing 1 part chicken breast with 1 part dark meat (chicken thighs). I find the result to be more moist, as dark meat is more flavorful and has more fat than chicken breasts. I usually grind the meat using the attachment of the KitchenAid. Just make sure to remove all the bones prior to grinding!
If it's in season, you can also make the fish cake with turkey. I love using the dark meat for more flavor.
For the crab cooking time, count approximately 8 minutes per pound.
I use snakehead fish fillet (mắm cá lóc in Vietnamese) but you can use any other fish such as catfish, mackerel (mắm cá thu) or cod fish. The fish is brined in fish sauce (nước mắm), salt and sugar. The fish adds a natural saltiness and characteristic strong flavor to the meat. The brining process is very similar to the procedure that is used to prepare anchovies. For 1 pound of meat, I usually use only one large fillet (about 6 to 7 ounces) out of the jar. Make sure to remove any bones while finely chopping the fish. You can find these salted fish in brine in any Asian store; they're sold in 15-ounce jars.
Fresh Wood Ear Mushrooms.
You can find straw mushrooms and wood ear mushrooms in any Asian store. I was pleased to find that my local Asian market now carries fresh wood ear mushrooms (I usually use the dried version) at the market today. They're grown locally in Half Moon Bay (CA) and they're sold in 6-ounce packages. They're flavorless but they give an interesting, chewy texture to the Asian meatloaf.
Little reminder on how to make freshly grated ginger: Clean the ginger root and remove any dirt. Peel the ginger root with a paring knife (or the edge of a spoon). Grate the ginger with a fine mesh Microplane. Gather about 1 teaspoon of grated ginger root.
I use ginger garlic paste a lot in my cooking. It tastes great and is very healthy for you as well. Place the chopped (or grated) ginger and 5 cloves of garlic in a blender, add about 2 tablespoons (or more) of water for a smooth flow. Transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator. You can keep this paste for at least a week in the refrigerator.
I buy egg yellow powder at the Indian store. It's also perfect for making macarons. If you don't have any, you can either omit this ingredient or use liquid yellow food coloring.
Cơm tấm is a Vietnamese specialty rice. It translates to broken rice. You can find it in most Asian stores.
A good way to check if your filling is properly seasoned is to sauté some in a frying pan with a little oil. If it's not quite seasoned, add more salt and pepper as needed to the mix. Once the fish cakes are in the aluminum tins, it's too late!
One of the most common condiments to serve with mắm chưng is Sriracha sauce. It's the red chili sauce with the green cap. For those who are not into spicy food as I am, you can serve them instead with a dipping sauce of fermented fish sauce base callednước mắm.