You might believe that fishcakes, along with fritters and croquettes, began as members of the thrifty Leftovers family.
But in fact, early medieval English cooks made fishcakes from fish stomachs, which many might consider carrying thrift just a little too far. There is actually a fishcake recipe, on page 170 of Madeleine Pelner Cosman’s Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony, which calls for 1 cup of fish stomachs. (For those of you with a weakness for all things medieval, at least of the English type, Cosman’s book might be an answer to some of your prayers. Her extensive bibliography includes archival material and a tabular guide to the manuscripts she used in her survey of medieval English cookery. However, she doesn’t give the sources of the original recipes and includes non-period ingredients to many of the recipes. That said, the bibliography and illustrations are worth the price of the book, as are many of the quotations from old manuscripts. For greater scholarly integrity, look at work by Terence Scully, Odile Redon, and Barbara Santich.)
Nevertheless, the fish stomach thing intrigues, so on we go.
Fortunately for us, English colonists had the guts to abandon some of the old ways and made fishcakes from meatier leftovers and their recipes form the basis of most seafood‑type cakes eaten today in the U.S. And in Asia cooks still use fish guts, mostly the stomach. Dishes like Gar Por Bla (Fish Stomach Soup), Gang Tai Pla (Southern-Style Fish Soup with Fermented Fish’s Stomach) or Perut Ikan (Nyonya Pickled Fish Stomach Curry) leave many people from Thailand or Malaysia quivering with nostalgia, in the same way Americans yearn for pot roast and gravy.
All seafood cake recipes contain an aromatic seasoning, a binder, a filler, and seafood pieces. Onion is the usual aromatic, although some cooks include celery and green pepper as well. Eggs, cream, milk, or mayonnaise act as binders for such fillers as bread crumbs, flour, or mashed potatoes. Fish or other seafood used in seafood cakes range from meaty flakes taken from skeletons of poached fish to crabmeat, shellfish, salt cod, fish fillets, and smoked fish. Essentially a seafood hash mixture, the resulting cakes — dredged in flour or bread crumbs and fried in a skillet in butter, lard, or oil — taste of the sea, if done right. (Of course, canned fish or fish from the lake work in the recipes, too.)
Served with a wedge of lemon and a dash of hot sauce, fishcakes make great appetizers. Or try a fishcake sandwich, but be sure to have plenty of tartar sauce on hand.
Strong‑stomached cooks might try fish-stomach cakes, too!
A Delicate Fish Cake
1 cup luce or salmon or flounder “Stomachs” or fresh fish fillets, cut small (1/2 pound)
1 cup or more beef broth
1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 t. brown sugar
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. powdered ginger
3 egg whites
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1 t. milk
2 T. oil for frying
2 T. butter for frying
Fresh dill or parsley, chopped
In large, heavy frying pan or skillet gently poach fish in enough beef broth to cover, until just done, about 7 minutes.
Drain fish or fish stomachs, discarding broth. Gently flake with a fork or cut into small slivers. (If using fillets, be sure to eliminate all bones.)
Combine grated cheese, flour, sugar, salt, and ginger. Combine fish with dry mixture.
Beat egg whites until light and frothy. Carefully fold into fish-and-cheese mixture.
Slowly heat oil and butter in heavy skillet.
Beat the yolks, whole egg, and milk. Wetting hands in egg, form thin fish wafers or patties. Immediately sauté in skillet, turning once, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve warm.
Garnish wafers with chopped fresh parsley or dill.
From: Fabulous Feasts – Medieval Cookery and Ceremony, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman George Braziller, fourth printing 1989, p. 170.
Smoked Mullet Fishcakes
2 stalk celery, chopped finely
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 T. oil
1 egg, lightly beaten in a large mixing bowl
4 T. cream or milk
3/4 c. fresh bread crumbs, not packed
2 T. chopped parsley1/4 t. cayenne pepper
Pinch of fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 smoked mullet, picked over, bones and skin removed (or other smoked fish of choice)
Flour for dredging
2 T. butter and 3 T. oil for frying
Sauté the celery and onion until limp. Scrape into the bowl with the egg. Add all the remaining ingredients except for the mullet. Gently flake the mullet into the mixture and stir lightly with a wooden spoon until well mixed.
Form mixture into 8 patties. Dredge patties in flour. Let set on a lightly floured cookie sheet. Heat the oil/butter over medium‑high heat in a 10‑inch cast‑iron skillet. When grease is bubbling slightly, but not browned, slip in four patties. Fry until golden brown, about 4 minutes on each side. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen