My father was born in a village on an island, which faces another small island, Taiwan, to the east across a 110-mile wide of ocean named Taiwan Strait. The gap, a small distance like two-hour drive between LA and San Diego, kept my father away from his hometown for more than 40 years. While raising a family in Taiwan, he rarely talked about his past; and we children didn’t learn to ask. Some information was revealed while our family had fish for meals. He mentioned that his family fished for a living. Thus they never had a meal without fish. It explained why we too, had fish every day.
My father, not my mother, was in charge of grocery shopping. Early in the morning, he rode his bicycle to the street market, walking through the dark, narrow alleys tucked between small wooden houses. Under tin roof and dim lights, the market was crowded with shoppers nudging their shoulders and yelling to the vendors who were busy in explaining, measuring, receiving, and changing money. For decades, my father was one of the rare male shoppers in the market. He came home with vegetables, meat, and of course, fish. They were tied in bunches with long straws and dangled on the handles of his bike. After passing the groceries to my mother, he headed to work. I heard the mamas of Taiwanese neighbor commented admiringly to my mother, “Only a husband who is from the mainland could be so considerate and helpful!” I found out that my mother felt this comment embarrassing, “He has to do it because I am so bad at buying groceries!” Her tone was somehow self-degrading.
I liked to watch Mom clean up fish. She cut open its belly, pulled out some stuff that’s dark red, mushy, and slimy. Then she opened the fish cheek and drew out a soft, fan-like thing. She told me that they are intestine, liver, stomach, and gill. The worst task was scaling, which she forced the knife against the direction the scales covered the skin and scraped them out. It made a mess while the scales flew around. If they stuck on your skin, an ugly wart would form later, and to get rid of it required a self-induced surgery that the razor would give you lots of pain and blood. I went through the agony before, so I stepped away when mom fearlessly fought with the scaling. One thing she emphasized specifically was the gallbladder. ”If you don’t get rid of it totally, the bitterness would ruin the whole fish!” She warned. After the cleaning, she slashed the meat diagonally two times on a whole fish and made it three equal parts. She sprayed some salt on it before cooking.
Most of the fish were simply fried with oil. Mom first sauteed ginger in vegetable oil. When the oil started to burn, she put in the fish. The wok sizzled immediately and soon smoke with a fishy aroma filled the kitchen. Mom turned the wok this and that way to make sure all sides were cooked; then she flipped the fish. Sometimes the skin would be stuck to the pan, and it required careful scratching and repairing to keep the fish a whole. The fried fish was crunchy on the skin and juicy inside.
Mom also made the fish in sweet and sour sauce. After she fried the fish, some water, soy sauce, salt, vinegar, and sugar were put into the wok. She then covered the lid and cooked it with low heat until the sauce became thicken. When we had guests, Mom liked to cook fish this way. The strong flavor of sweet and sour overcome the taste of fish, but it always boosted everybody’s appetite. I learned that when the fish smells too “fishy,” this is the best way to cook it.
My father made a unique fish dish. The fish had to be the kinds of swordfish or tuna that have no small bones. After he sauteed it, he carefully picked out all bones. Then he added oil, salt, soy sauce, and some sugar to the fish. With slow heat, he pressed the meat to open with a spatula and kept breaking and smashing it in the pan. Eventually, the meat was ground into tiny pieces and turned brown. He continued stirring it until it was dry. By his choice, sometimes he made it crunchy, sometimes more soft. We called the dish 魚鬆 in Chinese, or “shredded fish” in English. The dried shredded fish could be stored in the jar for many days’ of use, but most of the time we finished it right away. It goes with steamed rice or congee perfectly. Our home-made fish dish later became a popular canned food item in the grocery stores.
My parents also made many kinds of fish soups. The most memorable one for me was the fish that’s hard to deal with. It was milkfish (虱目鱼), which hide tons of small bones in its meat, but its soup was delightedly flavorful. Mom chopped the fish into three or four pieces, and sauteed it with a little oil and ginger, then boil it in water. The fish with shiny silver skin floating in the clear water made the soup looked like a nice pond. The spicy ginger enriched the soup’s oceanic flavor. However, this fish often became the nightmare of the children for its hostile thin and lengthy bones. The only friendly part of the fish is its long strip of belly fat. My parents always saved this part for us. The younger you were, the more you could get. My young siblings also enjoyed the clean fish meat after my parents picked all the bones out for them.
Our daily consumption of fish created more chances to swallow bones by accident. I experienced that horrible and painful incident several times. When it happened, my father performed a ritual to save us. When someone cried in terror, first, he calmly picked a big chunk of rice with the chopstick, then he topped it with a big piece of fish meat; (The fish had to be scanned carefully and made sure it was bone free.) Next, he drew the chopstick in the circle on top of his bowl, three times clockwise, then another three times counterclockwise. Sometimes he quietly murmured something. Finally, he stuffed the rice and fish into the sufferer’s mouth and ordered, “Swallow it all at once!” The sufferer forcefully took a swallow, followed by a big cup of water my mom handed over. The ritual always worked magically. “Why does it work?” We children wanted the answer. “Because it always worked for me when I was a kid.” He said proudly.
The character “fish” in Chinese has the same pronunciation of the character “surplus.” People say “年年有魚 ” as the New Year greeting. While it means there will be surplus every year, it also sounds like there will be fish every year. My parents followed the tradition; they would deep fry a big fish until it turned hard and brown. On the day of New Year’s Eve, we held a ceremony to memorize our ancestors. The oval-shaped plate that held a wholesome fish was within many other dishes displayed on the table as the offerings. We believed the fish would bring us a year of prosperity.
Like people in the old generation, my father was not used to publicly express his feelings — particularly when he was homesick. Expressing the homesickness could cause big troubles in the era that censored and diminished any possible “spies” of Communist China. He may miss his family and hometown deeply, and eating fish might be an efficient remedy for lessening his homesickness. In memory of the fish dishes, my homesickness is connected to his history. However, his past was mostly unknown. For this, I have great regret.
我的父親出生在一個小島上，它隔著175公里的台灣海峽，與另外一個小島 -台灣 – 遙遙相望。這個隔距，大約相當於台北到台中，而開車只須兩小時的時間。這樣短小的距離，卻成為我父親四十年無法回到家鄉的鴻溝。他在台灣成家立業，卻極少談起過往，我們孩子們也沒學會發問。有一些知識，都是在我們吃飯的時候得到的。他提往事起來，說他們家是捕魚為生，所以飯桌上永遠都有魚擺著。這也解釋了為何我們家也是天天吃魚的來源了。
爸媽也常常做魚湯。我記得的最深刻的，是一種吃起來很難應付的魚湯 – 虱目魚湯。那魚滿身藏著細刺，煮出來的湯卻是滋潤甜美。媽媽把魚剁成三、四塊，再用薑片在少許的油裡爆香，放入魚，加上水，接著等水煮沸了，魚也熟了。那銀亮的皮膚在清澈的湯裡閃爍，這湯看起來就像一塘清淨的池子。辛辣的薑片更讓海水味濃的湯水益加甜美。但是，這魚卻常為我們孩子帶來噩夢，因為它的刺太多了！唯一還友善的部份是它長長肚子的那條魚油，柔軟滑嫩又滋味濃稠，爸媽常把那部份留給孩子們，年紀越小，得吃的機會越多。爸媽也總為小弟妹們把骨刺全挑出來，讓他們安心無慮地把魚吃下肚去。
中文字的「魚」和「餘」– 剩餘 — 是同聲的，所以新年春節我們都說「年年有魚（餘）」，祝福大家年年萬事不缺，剩有餘錢。為了討吉利，我們家也遵循傳統，在供桌上擺上一個橢圓盤，上面躺著一條大魚，供奉祖先神明，為新年討好彩頭。吃了魚，我們對未來一年的豐足充滿了信心。