The answer lies in three words: gelatin, fat, and emulsion. As the fish cooks, gelatin-producing parts of the fish, especially the bones and skin, release the gelling substance to the soup. Rigorous boiling during the final stage of cooking breaks oil into tiny drops, which are stabilized by gelatin, creating an amazing emulsion that gives the soup its signature creaminess and color.
Interestingly, bouillabaisse, the famous Provençal fish soup, uses the same technique and emulsion process. It does not look milky white mainly because of the use of saffron, an important ingredient in bouillabaisse that both colors and flavors the dish.
As compared to the French bouillabaisse, this Chinese fish soup uses minimal seasonings to highlight the natural flavors of the fish. For that reason, using really fresh fish is key. Mild-flavored white fish, such as black sea bass or striped bass works well for this dish.
Once you have the right fish, you’re on your way to making a milky and tasty fish soup, with a little help from the following tricks:
- Lightly browning the fish first not only enhances the flavors of the soup, but also keeps the fish in shape without breaking apart during cooking.
- Keep the cooking liquid at a boil throughout cooking, to maximize the release of gelatin.
- Lard is traditionally used for this dish and does give you the best result. Vegetable oil is a fine substitute if you prefer.
- Acid or salt decreases gelatin’s strength, so only season the soup at the last minute.
What if you followed these tips and your soup still does not come out milky enough? Well, you could always “cheat” by adding a little milk…
Chinese-style milky fish soup
Makes 2 servings
Medium-sized whole black sea bass or striped bass, about 1.2 lb (540 g); scaled and gutted. Make 3 or 4 diagonal cuts on each side of the fish.
1 oz (30 g) red bell pepper, cut into thin matchsticks
One-inch ginger, crushed
2 scallions, white and green parts separated; green parts cut diagonally into thin slices
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon lard, or substitute vegetable oil if you prefer
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Heat the vegetable oil in a hot wok or skillet over high heat. Pat the fish completely dry and add to the wok. Lightly brown both sides of the fish, about 2-3 minutes.
- Transfer the fish to a plate. In the same wok, add the ginger and white parts of the scallions. Stir fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in the Shaoxing wine and stir for another 15 seconds. Add 2 cups of water and bring to a boil.
- Return the fish to the wok and cook, covered with a lid, for about 15 minutes. Make sure you keep the liquid at a gentle boil and turn the fish from time to time. The soup should start to turn opaque or white. If not, cook a little longer.
- Remove the lid and add the lard. Bring the liquid to a rolling boil and cook for a few minutes until the soup achieves the desired milky color as a result of the emulsion.
- Season with salt and a generous amount of ground white pepper. Garnish with the bell pepper matchsticks and sliced scallions, and serve immediately.
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