I love fish markets. I stop by fish markets here at home in San Francisco, many times just to look. I go to fish markets on vacation (in fact, they are sometimes the reason I go on vacation). They provide an opportunity to learn about both local culinary traditions and natural history. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting Oakland Chinatown, where there were always tanks and tanks of live fish. In those days, almost 40 years ago, the predominant fish were Sacramento blackfish (Orthodon microlepidotus). Blackfish, like carp a member of the minnow family, are something of a rarity, a native California freshwater fish. Also called hardhead, steelhead, soong yue, and shad, blackfish is not a hardhead (a related minnow that apparently was also marketed), a steelhead (an ocean-going rainbow trout), or a shad (an ocean-going herring originally from the East Coast). A small commercial fishery supplying the Asian live-fish trade existed at Clear Lake and San Luis Reservoir. Growing up, I was only able to persuade my parents to buy a live one once; my mom steamed the fillets, and they were soft, tender, full of small bones, but with a good flavor.
Here was a native California fish that was used in a specific, local recipe (albeit with Chinese roots). Many menus in local Chinese restaurants still list steelhead. Intrigued, I began a hunt for rainbow raw fish salad made with blackfish/steelhead. I visited Bow Hon, and I saw only black bass. I asked if they still served steelhead, and they assured me that they did, and had irregular, weekly shipments. I therefore called weekly and visited on many occasions. I know I annoyed the owners with my persistent pestering, but I never did see a live blackfish, and I doubt they served them. I finally tried the fish salad, and it was good, but I was deeply disappointed to not have had steelhead.
I roamed markets in Chinatown, the Richmond, and the Sunset, and I found channel catfish, bullheads, carp, sturgeon, black bass, tilapia, silver carp/crucian carp/wild, overgrown goldfish, but never a blackfish.
In September of 2007, I spoke with the manager of Kirin Restaurant, which also serves rainbow raw fish salad. He said, “Steelhead is only so-so. It was popular because it was a cheap fish. We haven’t had it for two years—you can’t find it in the markets. We make our rainbow raw fish salad with sturgeon now.”
I suspect the reason for the absence is explained by the following:
an advisory regarding mercury accumulation in fish from Clear Lake.
Dejected, I resigned myself to not trying steelhead salad, steelhead jook, steamed steelhead…until Saturday. I was window-shopping on Clement Street with no intention of buying anything when I noticed a hand-lettered sign in one of the windows: “LIVE BRACKFISH”. I looked inside, and there they were: Live blackfish swimming in a tank, something I had not seen in years.
The next day, cooler in hand, I returned and selected two victims (the first fishmonger became frustrated with my insistence on choosing specific fish; he let fly with a long burst of Cantonese. I’m glad I don’t speak the language). The fish were whisked to Kirin. One was prepared into salad, the other was steamed.
The salad was less complex than the one at Bow Hon; it contained pickled ginger, cilantro, five-spice peanuts, fried noodles, fried won ton skins, and blackfish, sliced wafer-thin. The dressing was somewhat watery, but the dish overall was good. The fish was very mild, and was neither chewy nor soft—more al dente. My sister remarked that it had a “rough” texture. I didn’t understand until I ran my tongue over a slice. Indeed, it felt somewhat like sandpaper; I think this was due to the many fine bones that had been sliced extremely thinly, too thinly to be noticed when chewed.
The steamed fish was a winner. It was very tender, “buttery soft” in my sister’s words. The flavor was very mild, with minimal freshwater taste, and was terrific with the soy sauce and peanut oil. We both agreed that the taste and texture were familiar, and that we had had this dish at childhood banquets. We gorged until we could gorge no more, and left satisfied, having had a taste of the past and perhaps the future.