Red-Cooked Fish

Hongshao Yu

Flavor: Reddish-Brown: Red-cookedDinner: Menu

Whenever we want to test out an unfamiliar Szechwanese restaurant, we always order Red-Cooked Fish or hongshao yu. The only thing all red-cooked dishes have in common is soy sauce; what else goes into the wok depends on regional style and the ingenuity of the chef. Red-Cooked Fish is a good test of the talents of a chef and, more important, of the sensitivity with which he treats his ingredients. Even the most bravura performance should respect the fresh, pure flavor of the fish.

Mrs. Chiang’s Red-Cooked Fish succeeds brilliantly by any standard. An epicurean Frenchwoman for whom Mrs. Chiang once made the dish went into Gallic superlatives about it, and declared that carpe a la mode de Szechwan surpassed anything her own cuisine could produce. The sauce, which is enlivened by minced garlic and ginger, is fresh and spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. Its bright, clear flavor complements the more delicate one of the fish.

The key ingredient in this dish is hot pepper paste, or lajiao jiang. If you are cooking a carp or other fresh-water fish, you can substitute hot bean paste or ladouban jiang. This will transform a red-cooked fish into an equally famous Szechwanese classic, Hot Bean Paste Fish, or douban yu. The change produces a richer and more pungent sauce.

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Method

Preparation

1-½-inch piece fresh ginger Peel the ginger. Slice it into slivers about ⅛ inch thick, the size of a wooden matchstick. Set aside a third of the ginger slivers and mince the remainder until it reaches the consistency of coarse cornmeal.
4 cloves garlic Smash the garlic cloves with the flat side of your cleaver, then peel. Chop the garlic coarsely, into pieces the size of a match head. Add to the minced ginger.
4 scallions Clean the scallions, then cut them, both white part and green, into pieces 1 inch long.
1 whole fish (about 1-½ pounds), preferably sea bass or carp, or 2 small trout Have the fish cleaned and scaled, but leave the head on. Cut about 8 shallow gashes on each side of the fish. (This will enable the flavors of the marinade and the cooking sauce to penetrate the fish more easily.)

½ cup soy sauce

(scallions)

(ginger slivers)

Put the fish on a large plate and sprinkle the scallions, ginger slivers, and soy sauce over it. Let it marinate in this mixture for 20 minutes, turning it over once during that time. Then remove the fish from the marinade, but don’t throw the marinade away.

1 tablespoon cornstarch

½ cup cold water

Mix the cornstarch and water together in a small bowl and set aside.

Cooking

5 tablespoons peanut oil Heat your wok or pan over a moderately high flame for 15 seconds, then add the oil. The oil will be hot enough to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.
(half the shredded ginger and scallions from the marinade) When the oil is ready, throw in about half of the shredded ginger and scallions from the marinade. Stir-fry for about 1 minute, using your cooking shovel or spoon in a scooping motion to agitate the ginger and scallions around in the hot oil so they won’t burn and will fry equally. (Mrs. Chiang says that the fish has such a delicate flavor that it is necessary to fry the ginger and scallions first in order to alter the raw taste of the peanut oil.)
(fish) After the scallions and ginger have cooked for about 1 minute, put the fish in the pan. Let the fish cook for 4 minutes on each side. Since it is impossible to stir-fry a whole fish, you should tip the pan occasionally from side to side to make sure that every part of the fish is exposed to the hot oil. If the scallions and ginger begin to turn brown, just remove them. After the fish has cooked on each side, take it out of the pan. Some of the skin of the fish may have stuck to the side of the pan; don’t worry about it.

(chopped garlic and ginger)

3 teaspoons hot pepper paste

1-½ teaspoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

¾ cup water

1-½ teaspoons rice wine vinegar

(remaining fish marinade)

Now add the chopped garlic and ginger to the pan and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Continue to stir-fry the contents of the pan vigorously, at the same time adding the hot pepper paste, sugar, soy sauce, water, vinegar, and the remaining fish marinade.
(fish) As soon as the contents of the pan have come to a boil, return the fish to the pan and let it cook in the boiling sauce for 1 minute.
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry Add the wine and cover the pan. Let the fish continue to cook over a fairly high flame for about 5 minutes, then take off the cover, turn the fish over, and let it cook on the second side for 4 minutes longer. Remove the fish to a serving platter.
(cornstarch and water) Stir the cornstarch and water to make sure they are thoroughly combined, then pour the mixture into the pan. Bring the sauce (which should be rather concentrated by this time, since it has already boiled over high heat for a while) to a boil, stir it occasionally until it thickens and turns clear, then pour it over the fish and serve.

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