One of the favourite hawker foods in Singapore is fishball noodles. You would not catch me eating fishballs from hawker stalls though, not even if there was no more food left on this planet. I'd rather die. Most of the fishballs here have not been anywhere near a fish, being made mostly of fillers and artificial everything they really qualify as fake food. I have grown up eating home-made fishball for years and it is not too impossible to make.
The recipe here is truly a family recipe. My father obtained it from a fishmonger in Ipoh oh, 30 years ago. Now it has been passed to my husband, who usually makes it. I shy away from making this as it needs a strong forearm. It has only three ingredients: fish, salt and pepper. Some people may use a salt solution, that's perfectly acceptable. To make it even more tasty, one can add chopped reconstituted dried squid, dried sole or shitake mushrooms. But this recipe does not contain any pork or flour. The paste for fishball can be shaped into balls or cakes (hence fishcakes), so I am using the terms fishball and fishcake interchangeably here. Of course, it can also be modified with spices and herbs to make it spicy, Thai, Indian and so on.
Husband bought the fish from the wet market. Supermarket fish may not be as fresh. Saitoh makes sweet fishcake, but are terribly bony. Yellowtail would be a good candidate but they come in small sizes and would make for much hard work. Husband got instead, 2 medium sized whole mackerels. The criteria for the fish is that it can be processed into a gluey paste, and these are only examples, your fishmonger may suggest better substitutes.
At the market he overheard this conversation:
Old Lady #1: Mackerels are very fresh today. Only $8 per kg from that seller.
Old Lady #2: Wow, really!
So husband went to the seller and asked to buy some mackerels.
Fishmonger: Mackerel cost $8.50 per kg
Husband: But that old lady said you charged her $8
Fishmonger: Oh.... OK lor.
The whole fish is gutted and scaled by the fishmonger. At home, the head is cut off, and the fish filleted. A spoon is used to carefully scrap the flesh from the skin and bones. Sometimes, like here, the fish may have some roe, which is delicious panfried and dipped in salt and pepper.
The paste is then seasoned with a little salt and white pepper. White pepper more than salt. Now comes the tough part. Using just a metal spoon, the fish meat is "mashed and smashed" against the side of the bowl repeatedly, to try to work the flakes into glue. An alternative method is to use two cleavers and repeatedly mince the fishmeat on a chopping board, though I've never seen this technique before. The paste is about done when the colour turns 2-3 shades paler. To test the texture, a blob is cooked in some boiling water. It should have a chewy almost bouncy texture, with absolutely no trace of fish flakes, although it will not be as bouncy as commercial version. This part may take 40 minutes if you have strong forearm, otherwise you can do it for one whole day and it would still not glue-ify.
Then the paste is shaped into either balls or cakes, and panfried till cooked.
(The white balls shown here are the commercial version) It can be boiled of course, but I prefer it fried, as it can then be cooled and packed in Tupperware and frozen for future use. The cakes are sliced and then cooked with vegetables or in a konlo noodles. Fishballs are very popular with adults and children, just make a dipping sauce to accompany it. Another use for the fish paste is to stuff it into vegetables like bittergourd rounds, wedges of eggplant, beancurd sheets and tofu to make Yong Tau Fu. The two mackerel yielded about 25 pieces of fishcake. Whatever you do to it, the taste is still of briny, sweet fish, and its firm bite and wonderful texture makes it the perfect alternative to meat.