Mussels

In China mussels are considered unworthy of having a place on restaurant menus.

03-03-2012tolo mercadal

One of my favourite molluscs is mussels, partly because they are a nostalgia thing — as a very young schoolboy I used to collect them from the rocks on weekend trips to the beach at Helensburgh. We took them home where they were cooked over a high heat in their own juices — still my preferred way of eating them.

But I also love them because they are the only kind of shellfish I can afford on a regular basis: necessity is sometimes the mother of adoration. But even if I were a rich man I’d still be eating mussels because of all the members of bivalve family I find them the most versatile in the kitchen.

Unlike most other shellfish, they will happily take on even the most aromatic of herbs and the strongest of spices. Even powerful ones such as the curry spices and hot chillis won’t do them any harm.

You will find mussels in just about every cuisine on the five continents, with one exception: the Chinese don’t seem to eat them. Although I have read dozens of books on Chinese food and hundreds of articles, I had never come across a recipe for mussels or even seen them mentioned in any text.

And although I had been eating at Chinese restaurants since the age of 13, I had never encountered a dish of mussels. At one stage I thought mussels must be unknown in China.

But on a visit to London in 1990 I finally found a mussels dish at a Chinese restaurant. And two years after that I had them at the Mandarin, Majorca’s first Chinese restaurant that was opened in 1968 by Roman Chiang and his nephew Yeung. It wasn’t until 1992 that Yeung thought of slipping them into the Mandarin menu.

I use the word slipping because Yeung was the first Chinese cook to do mussels in Majorca and he did so without any fanfare so that other restaurants wouldn’t copy him. But others later found out (they were always quick off the mark to replicate any new dish Yeung introduced) so mussels appeared on the menus of other Chinese restaurants in Palma.

Soon after that I read that a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown and another in Toronto also did mussels. Even so, it’s hardly what you’d call a popular dish. But why not? We associate Chinese cuisine as one that has a place for anything that’s edible. Why are mussels so difficult to find on Chinese menus and almost impossible to come across in books and articles on Chinese food?

Eventually I asked Yeung about this apparent Chinese puzzle and he immediately cleared up the mystery of why mussels and Chinese cuisine don’t seem to go together. It’s not that there are no mussels in China — there are too many of them.

As mussels are so abundant, the Chinese look on them as being right at the bottom of the gastronomic ladder. They are considered unworthy of having a place on restaurant menus or in books.

Mussels are such a common food, available for the gathering in most coastal areas, that they are only eaten at home. Even in China you won’t find them on restaurant menus.

There’s something else that’s unusual about mussels and Chinese cuisine. The recipe for the mussels I had in London, those in San Francisco and Toronto I read about and the one Yeung put on his menu, were all exactly the same: they used salty black fermented soybeans as the main flavouring agent.

That first dish of Chinese mussels I ate in London in 1990 was a succulent mix of heady flavours that were most seductive. That was mainly because of the black magic of the fermented soybean with its earthy salty taste. The garlic flavour was also strongish and to top it all there was a nice touch of spicy heat. But mussels have a powerful presence of their own and they can take on all these condiments and keep their own flavours up front.

The aromas and tastes in those London mussels were so complex that I thought it had to be a dish of Chinese haute cuisine. But soon after that I learned that it’s quite the opposite: it’s easy when you know how.

At the time I found it somewhat strange that all four dishes of mussels I had heard of — in London, San Francisco, Toronto and the Mandarin — used the same ingredients and cooking method. It was as if there is only one recipe for Chinese mussels. This is how Yeung, who retired at the end of 2017, did is mussels with fermented soybeans.

  • When the mussels have been well cleaned and opened, discard the empty half shell and cover the others with the strained cooking liquid if they are not being used immediately.
  • Heat two tablespoons of sunflower oil in a deep frying pan or wok and over a lowish heat sauté two finely chopped cloves of garlic. Big ones. If they are small, use four or five. When the garlic has taken on a nice golden colour (this happens quickly, so you must stand over it and stir constantly) add two tablespoons of finely chopped black fermented soybeans and flakes of dry chillis to taste.
  • Add the strained mussels to the wok as well as two tablespoons of brandy, one of soy sauce, a little sugar and black pepper to taste. Stir well for two minutes over a higher heat, turning the mussels in the other ingredients so they absorb all the flavours.
  • Have ready a small glass of cold water into which you have dissolved a teaspoon of cornflour and add this to the mussels after stir-frying them for to minutes. Continue to stir vigorously and when the sauce thickens, which also happens very quickly, take the wok off the heat and stir in a tablespoon of sesame oil. Serve immediately.

Fermented black soybeans are very salty, so it’s a good idea to wash them before use. Even so, they will still have a salty taste and that, plus the soy sauce, will be enough salt for most people.

When I do this dish I like to include a few of the whole fermented soybeans because biting into one produces a tremendous concentrated taste sensation.

But Yeung was against doing that, saying it’s better to finely chop all of the fermented beans and have their taste dispersed throughout the dish. Try it both ways and see which you prefer.

Nutritionists and medical researchers studying the soybean and its derivatives in recent years have reported that high levels of cholesterol drop when soy protein is introduce into everyday diets. It is thought that soy products of all kinds increase the production of thyroid hormones which, after a complex interaction, lower cholesterol.

Soybeans and soy products, including those made o resemble chopped or minced meat as well as thin fillets, are widely available in health food outlets all over Palma and elsewhere. You can find black fermented soybeans in Chinese supermarkets in the Plaza Pedro Garau area and possibly in the bigger health food stores such as Yerbabuena in Carrer Cecili Metel 11 , one of the streets that runs from Plaza Patines (where the Celler Sa Premsa is) to Calle San Miguel.

Fermented soybeans used as a condiment can be added to many Chinese dishes including stir-fries and meat stews. They can also be finely chopped and used fusion style to make delicious tangy sauces for fish. These sauces are especially suitable for monkfish fillets and salmon steaks and suprêmes. Apart from their taste, the black beans add a nice contrast of colours.

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