People often ask me how I come up with recipe ideas. The answer is, rarely on purpose. Most of the time my brain just kind of throws an idea at me and sometimes I’m astounded. Maybe astounded isn’t the right word. Perplexed is probably more fitting. When my brain throws me a recipe, I’m often left wondering “Where did you find that? You don’t know anything about that.” Case and point: fish cakes. No, not the kind of fish cakes you find underneath tartar sauce or poached eggs. Believe me, I know ALL about those fish cakes. I’m talking about a very particular breed of fish cake. The kind of fish cake found in this Green Chili Fish Cake Pho.
I am, of course, very well acquainted with pho. I am incapable of not ordering it everytime it appears on a menu. It doesn’t matter where I am and, if I’m honest, it doesn’t matter how good it is. Initially, when I fell hard for the soup, I thought it was just a fling. A phase, not unlike that of the Great Spicy Tuna Summer of ’06. But it’s been nearly 10 years and this soup continues to hold me in its thrall. So yeah, I know pho, I love pho, I live pho. But fish balls? Not so much.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m going on about fish balls when the title of this post calls them fish cakes. Well, the proper term of the protein you find in this pho is “fish ball”, not “fish cake”. This is because I based my recipe on Hong Kong-style fish balls, which are typically served deep-fried and covered in a curry sauce. So, yes, these fish cakes are technically balls. I changed the name because I couldn’t quite get past the idea of fish testicles bobbing around in my soup. I have a dirty mind, often to my own detriment.
As an omnivore that advocates whole animal butchery and “nose to tail” cooking, I was very pleased with this recipe. This Green Chili Fish Cake Pho makes use of every part of a single fish. You use the fillets for the fish cakes and the bones and the head for the stock. If you really want to go for the gold, you can create some tasty crackling from the skin. Nothing is wasted, everything is appreciated and eaten.
You can, of course, skip filleting the fish by either asking your fishmonger to do it for you (just make sure they give you back the head and spine) or you can buy premade fish stock and fish fillets. If you go the premade stock route, reduce the amount of water you use to create the pho broth by half and stir in the fish stock in its stead. I do recommend filleting the fish yourself. It’s a handy skill and since you’re pureeing the fish, your fillets don’t have to look particularly pretty. Plus, you get to feel all smug about filleting your own fish. No one should underestimate the power of this feeling. Here’s a handy video to guide you.
The pho broth came together easily and without fuss. It made my house smell amazing and stimulated my appetite all day long. Unfortunately, the fish balls were not nearly as cooperative. Okay, I want to approach this subject carefully because it is not my intention to deter you from making the fish cakes. Here it goes. Making the fish cakes is…well, a little…gross. They don’t taste gross, it’s getting there that’s kind of gross. Basically, in order to make these fish cakes, you have to first make a fish paste. And that means you have to put fish in your food processor and blitz it until it forms a slightly grey sludge. Yeah, it’s gross. But, like I said, it doesn’t stay that way.
After the sludge phase, you drop the fish mixture into boiling water and solidifies into these bizarrely beautiful fish balls. It’s actually kind of a fun process – no two fish cakes leave the water the same. And, once they’re cooked, these fish cakes have a delightfully springy texture and a very pleasant kick. All in all, these fish cakes are definitely worth the sludge phase.
You may have noticed a herb in these pictures that you’re not familiar with. It’s called culantro or sawtooth or Mexican cilantro. It is native to Mexico and South America, although it is now grown worldwide. Culantro makes a frequent appearance in the cuisines of Thailand, India, Vietnam, and Laos to name a few. I added it because my favorite Vietnamese place always includes it as a garnish option for their pho and I have since formed a serious dependency. And I added it because I live in a kickass multicultural city that has such things readily available for sale. If you can’t find culantro, no sweat, you can still make this Green Chili Fish Cake Pho. Just sub the culantro for regular old cilantro and everything will be fine. Promise.
So, that’s the low down on this Green Chili Fish Cake Pho. It’s spicy, satisfying and oddly refreshing; everything a good bowl pho ought to be.
- 1 whole branzino or other firm white fish
- 1 yellow onion, quartered
- 1 (2-inch) knob ginger, halved
- 9 star anise pods
- 8 black cardamom pods
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 10 cups + 3 tablespoons of water, divided
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon demerara sugar
- Juice of 1/2 a lime
- 7 green chilies, divided
- 3 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons corn starch
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Fresh ground pepper
- 150g (5 oz) rice noodles
- 1/4 cup Thai basil, chiffonade
- 1/4 cup culantro or cilantro, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup beansprouts
- Remove the head from the branzino and set aside. Cut the fillets from the fish, reserving the spine. Skin the fillets and cut the flesh into chunks. Refrigerate the head, tail and flesh until ready to use.
- Place the onion and ginger on a baking sheet, cut side up. Broil until the flesh is blackened, about 15 minutes. Remove the onion skin and place both the onion and ginger in a large stock pot.
- Place the star anise pods, black cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds and coriander seeds in a large skillet over medium heat. Toast the spices until fragrant and on the verge of burning, about 5 minutes. Transfer the spices to a piece of cheesecloth and form them into a bundle. Add the bundle to the stock pot as well.
- Pour 10 cups of the water over the onions, ginger, and spices. Place the stock pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and let cook for 1 1/2 hours. Place the fish head and spine in the simmering broth and let cook for 20 minutes more.
- Pour the finished broth through a fine mesh strainer and discard the solids. Return the strained broth to the pot and place over low heat. Stir in the soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar and lime juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly.
- Place the fish flesh in a food processor. Add four of the green chilies and blitz until a thick paste forms. Transfer the fish paste to a bowl and add the remaining water, cornstarch, salt and black pepper. Stir to until very well integrated. The mixture should be perfectly uniform. I worked at mine for roughly 10 minutes.
- Fill a small saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Using a teaspoon, scoop the fish cake mixture into the boil water. Cook until the fish cakes rise to the surface and are springy to the touch, about 3-5 minutes. You should have 10-12 fish cakes, depending on the size of the fish you started with.
- Place the rice noodles in a large heat proof bowl. Bring a kettle full of water to a boil. Pour the boiling water over the noodles until fully-immersed. Cover the bowl and let sit for 5-7 minutes or until the noodles are tender.
- Divide the noodles and fish cakes between two bowls. Ladle enough of the broth over the noodles to almost fully immerse them. Garnish each bowl with basil, culantro or cilantro, beansprouts, and the remaining green chilies, sliced thin.
- Serve immediately with hoisin sauce, sriracha, sambal olek and lime wedges.