One of my favourite appetizers in the Chinese restaurant is the always popular crispy seaweed. This simple vegetable dish packs a powerful flavour punch. If you’ve read my delicious and easy Chinese barbeque ribs recipe then you will already know how I like to eat my crispy seaweed. It tastes great on its own, but I love to dip and roll my sticky foods into the seaweed thus coating the barbeque ribs, or morsels of sweet and sour chicken, with an extra layer of crispy umami deliciousness.
It is well known that what we call ‘seaweed’ is in fact leafy greens but less well known is the (relatively) secret ingredient that lifts the dish up from tasty to unbelievably morish. In some places, this arguably key ingredient is omitted but unless you are a vegetarian or cannot eat fish products then I would say it is essential. What is this special ingredient? Fish floss.
Fish floss is shredded fish, often tuna, that has been fried until it is a fine dry powder. This is the delicious light brown powder that you find (often in disappointingly small amounts) on your crispy seaweed in the Chinese restaurant. You can make this product yourself but it is much easier to buy a tin of the stuff pre-prepared. It can be a little expensive, however, a single tin will last you a long, long, time – even in the quantities I like to eat! Two or three teaspoons sprinkled over your crispy seaweed will already be a great deal more than your local Chinese is going to give you.
There are many brands available. However, I have found it a little hard to find some even in Asian supermarkets. Here, the internet is your friend. Remember, one can will last you a long time! Bear in mind that fish floss is not just for crispy seaweed. Many, many, recipes can be brought up a level with a light dusting of this magical ingredient. Asian friends of mine even add the stuff to their hamburgers!
The brand I use and enjoy is Mong Lee Shang Fried Fish.
Something that always comes up when we talk about crispy seaweed is the price. In the restaurants a small plate will cost around a fiver for what is, essentially, humble spring greens shredded and deep fried. As we have seen, the fish floss adds a little to the cost but in the quantities used per portion won’t add that much. So why the expense? Well, obviously, a lot of people love seaweed and are prepared to pay for the luxury and here the economics of supply and demand come into play; but there is another perhaps unexpected cost. This comes from the greens that you’ll be using.
The problem, more for the restaurants than you, is that for good crispy seaweed you will only be using the older, larger, greener outer leaves. The rest of the greens must either be discarded or used in another recipe. I have been reliably informed that a lot of restaurants will toss the middle of the greens but you don’t have to. The best thing to do is eat them. Humble they might be, but they’re good for you. Tell yourself that eating the healthy greens balances out gorging on the crispy seaweed and you break even!
Before we move onto the recipe, it would be remiss of me not to add a further point. Making delicious, restaurant quality, crispy seaweed is not very difficult but at the same time it is not exactly simple either. If you are anything like me, you will probably need a few trial goes before you can pull off amazing seaweed, cooked to perfection, every time. In all honesty, I was only really happy at around my 5th attempt and it was twice that before I was confident I could pull it off every time. Don’t be put off! It is worth it and your first few attempts will still be nice but just not as good as they’re going to be after some practice. Stick with it.
- A pan suitable for deep-frying
- A metal skimmer (to remove the cooked seaweed)
- A sharp knife to shred the greens
- Oil for deep frying
- 1kg spring greens
- Fish floss (to taste)
- Sugar (to taste)
- Salt (to taste)
Remove and wash the outer leaves of the greens and put the remaining inner leaves aside to be used later. Pat the leaves dry and roll into ‘cigars’ to be shredded (chiffonade if you want to get technical). If you like your crispy seaweed cut into thick strips, cut them thick; if, like me, you like them wispy thin, shred them finely.
You want the shredded leaves to be as dry as you can get them. Use whatever method you like, patting with a kitchen towel or using a (clean!) kitchen cloth will do. Some people use a hair-dryer! I do when I’m drying broccoli florets before coating in tempura batter, but they are a lot heavier than wisps of shredded greens and less likely to fly all over the kitchen.
In batches, very carefully add the shredded greens to the hot oil.
These will cook in seconds. How many seconds will depend on how thickly you shredded them. If you see them turning brown,you’ve gone too far.
Using your skimmer, remove the cooked seaweed, carefully shaking the excess oil back into the pan. Place on paper towels to drain further.
The hard part is over. Add your sugar and salt in the quantities you like before sprinkling the “secret ingredient” (fish floss) liberally over the top.