Chapter 87 - Pickled Fish

Madam Liu felt slightly worried, “We need to fry it with oil? Do we have enough oil at home? Should I… go borrow some from your Auntie Zhou’s house?”

Xiaocao thought about it and said, “Yesterday, we didn’t use much of the one catty of soybean oil, so it should be enough! But, we need white sugar to make pickled fish. It might be too late to buy it now… I wonder if Auntie Zhou has some…”

The Zhou Family was known as one of the more well-off families in the village. The husband was a capable earner outside, while the wife had also earned a decent amount of money by raising chickens. Madam Fang was never harsh and strict towards her children. If they wanted to borrow sugar from someone in the village, her family was probably the most likely to have it.

Madam Liu took off her apron and smiled, “I’ll go ask. About how much do you need?”

Xiaocao replied, “It’s just seasoning, so a small handful it enough…”

“A small handful? Cao’er, you don’t know about the price of white sugar, do you? One catty cost two hundred sixty copper coins! The small handful that you want is probably dozens of copper coin! Although your Auntie Zhou indulges her children, she won’t buy so much of it.” Yu Hai couldn’t help but remind her.

Xiaocao stared at him in shock, “What? Sugar is that expensive! Oh my, an ordinary household seriously wouldn’t be able to afford that…”

Madam Liu rolled her eyes and laughed, “White sugar isn’t something that commoners eat. What kind of fish dish are you making? It needs such an expensive condiment. Will you even be able to get a profit?”

Xiaocao looked at the hundred or so fish pickled in the pot and made the calculation in her mind. If she sold each fish for one copper coin, she would be able to earn sixty or seventy copper coins without a problem. However, without seasoning the pickled fish with sugar, it wouldn’t taste as good. If she put a little less… it should be okay?

“Mother, I’ll go to Auntie Zhou’s house with you.” Xiaocao took a few bites of the sweet potato in her hands, and then stuffed it into Little Shitou’s hand. She stood up and followed Madam Liu out the front door.

After walking around three hundred meters from their house, they knocked on the Zhou Family’s front door. A handsome youth, who was twelve or thirteen years old, opened the door. He had a healthy tan and a pair of crescent-like eyes. The corners of his lips were curled up slightly, which gave off the impression that he was smiling even when he wasn’t. He appeared very likeable and eye-catching at first glance.

“Wenhua! Why didn’t you follow your father to sell goods today?” Madam Liu was slightly surprised to see the teen and couldn’t help asking.

Zhou Wenhua coughed a couple times and a heavy breathing sound came from his chest. He suppressed the itchy sensation in his throat, swallowed his saliva, and said, “When I came back yesterday, I took off my clothes because I felt hot. As a result, I caught a cold and didn’t feel very well. So, my father told me to rest at home for a few days. Cough, cough… Auntie Yu, Little Sister Xiaolian, are you guys looking for my mother?”

Madam Liu asked with concern, “Have you seen a doctor yet? Don’t drag a minor illness into a major illness just because you have a good constitution.”

“Doctor You had already checked on my condition and opened a prescription. I’ve taken two doses of medication and feel a lot better now. Cough, cough… Mother! Auntie Yu and Little Sister Xiaolian is looking for you…” It seemed like Zhou Wenhua firmly believed that she was Yu Xiaolian, so Xiaocao just smiled and didn’t correct him.

Madam Fang came out of the house and saw the mother-daughter pair. She smiled and said, “Xiaocao, you came back from the docks! How was business today? Your braised food tastes so good, so there must be a lot of customers. Wenhua, this is Little Sister Xiaocao, not Xiaolian. Xiaocao has a slightly paler and smoother complexion than Xiaolian. She’s also a little shorter. If you don’t look closely, it might be hard to distinguish them. It’s also reasonable for you to make a mistake.” 

Zhou Wenhua touched the back of his head in embarrassment for recognizing the wrong person. His mouth that smiled frequently curled up and he said, “So it’s Little Sister Xiaocao ah! In the past, Little Sister Xiaolian was always the one who came with Auntie Yu, so I thought it was her. I heard from Shanhu that your health has gotten better now. Congratulations!”

The twelve or thirteen year old youth was already such a good speaker. As expected, he had the quality of a good salesman. Xiaocao smiled at him and said, “The last few times I came, Brother Wenhua wasn’t at home. It’s inevitable for you to have mistaken since it’s the first time we’ve met. Sometimes, my mother also mixes us up when she isn’t paying attention! Well, there’s nothing I can do since we have the same face.”

Zhou Wenhua was amused by her seemingly helpless expression. His chest had felt stuffy due to his illness, but he felt a lot more comfortable now.  

“Auntie Zhou, do you have any sugar at home? I want to make a new dish, but I’m lacking a few condiments…” Xiaocao looked at Madam Fang expectantly, fearing that she would say no. If they really didn’t have it, then she probably wouldn’t be able to make the pickled fish today…

Madam Fang smiled and said, “What a coincidence! If you came a day earlier, then we really wouldn’t have any. Yesterday, when your Uncle Zhou came back from selling goods, he got forty or fifty copper coins worth of sweets for the children. Since he had the money, he might as well buy more meat, or white rice and wheat flour. But, he bought that expensive stuff instead… Linglong, bring the remaining sweets from yesterday for Little Sister Xiaocao to try!”

Though Madam Fang was complaining, there was a hint of smile in her eyes. To Madam Fang and her husband, it didn’t matter if they had to suffer a little, but they couldn’t let their children be like their younger selves, inexperienced and ignorant. They didn’t want them to be treated like country bumpkins when they go to town.

Xiaocao took a look at Zhou Linglong’s hands and realized the so-called white sugar were chucks of sugar similar to that of rock sugar. No wonder it cost one copper coin per piece.

She chose an egg-sized piece of sugar from the pack. It was about an ounce of sugar, which would cost around fifteen or sixteen copper coins. She smiled and said, “Auntie Zhou, I want to use the sugar to make food, and then sell it at the docks. How much was this chunk of sugar? I can’t let you guys suffer losses when I’m making money…”

Madam Fang looked at her and smiled, “With our family’s relationship, why are we talking about money? Your Brother Wenhua isn’t feeling well and doesn’t have any appetite. Yesterday, he ate the braised food that I brought back and had endless praises for it. He even ate another bowl of rice. When you complete your new dish, just make sure to send Auntie some!”

Xiaocao thought about it and nodded, “Alright! Even if you don’t say it, I won’t forget to let you guys have a taste. Thank you very much then. It’s getting late, so I need to go back to fry the fish…”

On the way back, Madam Liu didn’t say anything, but inwardly muttered: ‘Although the fish didn’t cost any money, the seasonings and oil cost at least thirty or forty copper coins… Would we really be able to make a profit?’

Upon returning home, Xiaocao first prepared all the necessary seasonings and ingredients. When the fish was almost done being salted, she poured in half a catty of soybean oil in the cauldron on the stove and heated it up. She sprinkled some water into the pot when smoke began emerging from the pot. This would remove the fishy smell in the soybean oil.

Then, put out the fire under the stove and wait until the heat of the oil was reduced to seventy percent hot. At that time, put in the salted fish and fry them one by one.

The stoves in the countryside usually had two cauldrons, one on each side. Normally, one was used to cook dishes, while the other was for steaming rice. Xiaocao put the chopped scallion, ginger, and garlic into the other pot and spread it out evenly into a layer. The fried fish was placed orderly on the bottom of the pot, with the bigger ones on the bottom and the smaller ones on top.

After taking out half of the oil that was used to fry the fish, put the remaining oil into the fried chili shreds and stir-fry to get an aromatic scent. Then, add in vinegar, sugar, yellow wine, scallion, ginger, garlic, pepper, fennel, Chinese cinnamon, and other spices. After that, she sprinkled some soy sauce in it. Seeing that there wasn’t enough water in the soup, she added an appropriate amount of mystic-stone water inside and cooked it on high heat.

When the soup was ready, she poured it onto the fish in the other pot and covered it tightly with the wooden lid. She had even specially instructed Little Shitou to pick up several rocks to put on top of the lid. After it was simmered over low heat for about thirty minutes, she extinguished the fire under the cauldron and opened the lid to let it cool down.  

The pickled fish tasted the best when it was cooled. Xiaocao picked out several smaller ones and let her parents, Xiaolian, and Little Shitou taste them. The pickled fish had a savory and sweet taste that also had a hint of spiciness. It brimmed with the fragrance of the oil. After being fried and stewed, the bones in the fish had already become so soft that they just melted in the mouth. Even the fish’s head could be chewed and swallowed without any problem. No parts of the fish would be wasted.    

“It’s pretty good! Delicious!! Go and give some to your Auntie Zhou…” Madam Liu couldn’t bear eating another fish after she tried one. All these fish needed to be sold for money!

Xiaocao filled a plate with over twenty pieces of fish and told Little Shitou to send it over. She got a ceramic jar and put all the remaining fish inside. She had to rush to the wharf and sell all the fish before the dockworkers went home for dinner.

Xiaolian saw that she had been busy selling and cooking food all day long and didn’t even have time to rest. Thus, she said, “Little Sister, why don’t I go to the docks with Little Shitou?”

Xiaocao had gotten up early in the morning and rushed to the docks. When she finished selling the braised food, she went to the market to buy pig’s head and other ingredients and seasonings. She didn’t even have time to catch her breath when she got home and went to catch fish. After that, she cured the fish to make pickled fish. Thus, she must have been really tired today.

Considering the fact that she would have to walk for nearly two hours, she seriously didn’t know if she could make it. These past couple days, Little Shitou was already familiar with the selling process, so there probably wouldn’t be any problems. However, she was still worried and reminded them,

“For the bigger fish, sell them two for one copper coin. Try to sell the bigger ones first. Later, if the smaller ones don’t sell very well, then sell three for one copper coin. Anyways… just try to sell as much as possible.”

Little Shitou confidently said, “Don’t worry! I will definitely accomplish my mission!”

After watching Xiaolian and Little Shitou leave, Xiaocao didn’t rest either. She had to braise all of the cleaned pig’s head, pork tripe, and pig intestines in order to sell them tomorrow morning.

Seeing that the pig’s head and marinade were already in the pot and just needed to be simmered over low heat, Madam Liu urged her daughter to quickly go rest,

“I can take care of the rest… In the future, you just need to be responsible for the preparation of the marinade. We can take care of the rest. You don’t have to do everything yourself! Your health just got better, so don’t tire yourself out!”

Xiaocao nodded and said, “Okay, okay! I know Mother is better at controlling the fire than me! I’ll just be a supervisor then!”

When she went out of the kitchen, she saw her father making a new net pocket. So, she went closer and said, “Father, it’s still early, so why don’t we go catch some more fish in the pond?”

Yu Hai was slightly interested, but he looked at her with concern and said, “Aren’t you tired? You should go back to your room and rest for a while! As for fishing, I’ll go try it out tomorrow morning…”

Based on her observation these past few days, Xiaocao had noticed that her family had the typical ‘strict mother and loving father’ combination. Generally, Madam Liu took on the ‘bad cop’ role and was responsible for disciplining and rebuking the children. On the other hand, Yu Hai was the one who pampered and spoiled the children, especially Xiaocao. He rarely refused her requests.

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