Sea Bass with Chinese Spices

My favourite Chinese restaurant in the sixties was closed down by the health inspector. I never suffered a bad stomach after eating there, but the chef had taken to keeping live poultry in the kitchen, which is against the rules.

The sort of Chinese restaurant I like features food which many find bizarre. You probably don’t normally tuck into chicken feet and jellyfish, but you shouldn’t be prejudiced against trying these interesting flavours and textures.

The one unifying feature in Chinese restaurants is the consistent rudeness of the waiters, but I discovered the reason for this when I worked in Soho. Most of these chaps gamble their money at Mah Jong or on horses. How much tip you leave is therefore considerably less important than whether luck smiles on them. It has now become part of the treat to be served with curled lip and averted eye, and I would miss it if I weren’t. There is more than one sort of hospitality, and in Chinese restaurants the food’s the thing.

There are plenty of good Oriental supermarkets in larger cities, with large choice of noodles, specialist cooking equipment and Chinese spices, including five-spice powder, a mixture of star anise, anise pepper, fennel seed, cassia and cloves. (And if you find out why disgusting bright red food colouring is so much prized in Cantonese cooking I would be obliged if you would let me know.)

The flavour of sea bass marries well with Chinese spices and treatment. A dish without butter or cream will allow you to eat a creamy starter or dessert, and yet finish the meal not feeling queasy with cholesterol.

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Ingredients

  • 1 × 2 lb (900 g) sea bass

Sauce

  • fish bones
  • trimmings from all the vegetables
  • 1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and crushed
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce, preferably Japanese
  • 1 pinch five-spice powder
  • 6spring onions, trimmed and chopped

Vegetable garnish

  • 1 carrot
  • 1 leek
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 courgette

Method

The vegetable garnish

  1. Peel the carrot; trim the leek; halve and de-seed the red pepper; trim the courgette. Keep all the trimmings for the sauce.
  2. With a potato peeler shave the carrot and then the courgette into thin slices. Cut into thin strips.
  3. Cut the leek into manageable lengths then slice into long, thin strips. Wash them carefully and pat dry.
  4. Slice the red pepper as thinly as you can and mix it together with the other strips of vegetables.

The fish

    I prefer to use fillets from larger fish rather than several small fish. The dish is like pot au feu and you should drink the cooking liquors as well as eat the fish. This is much easier if you have no head or bones to contend with.

  • Carefully scale the fish with a sharp knife moving from the tail towards the head.
  • Use the same sharp knife to remove the fillets from the fish following the line of the spine from head to tail.

The sauce

  • Cut the fish bones into 2 in (5 cm) pieces. Mix with the trimmings from the vegetables, and add the ginger and garlic. Pour on a pint (600 ml) of water and bring to the boil. Allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Strain the stock into a new saucepan. Add the soy sauce and boil to reduce by about a third.

To Complete

  • Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C) Gas 6.
  • Place the fillets of fish in a casserole or roasting tray with the skin side upmost, and pour your soy-flavoured stock over them.
  • Bake the fish in the oven for about 10 minutes until just cooked.
  • Carefully lift out the fillets, keep warm, and pour the sauce into a saucepan. Re-boil and cook the garnish vegetables in this liquor, only a minute or so if you have cut them really thinly.
  • Place the fish fillets on individual plates, and arrange the vegetables in a little bundle on top of each. Finish the sauce with a pinch of five-spice powder and the chopped spring onion, then pour this around the fish.
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