While sesame seeds are valued by Chinese cooks mainly as a source of aromatic oil, they are also often used whole—in candies, as a garnish, or as a crisp coating for deep-fried foods. Here, they are absolutely delicious as a brittle crust for thin slices of deep-fried fish. Served alongside is a garlic and ginger-sparked dipping sauce to provide a refreshing lift of color and sweetness.
Lay the fillet flat, run your fingers against the grain, and remove any bones you find with a tweezer or needle-nose plier. Keep your fingers pressed flat against the fish and around the bone when deboning, so the bone pulls free without tearing the flesh (see TECHNIQUE NOTES). Rinse the fillet with cool water, then pat dry.
Spread the fish flat, then use a cleaver or sharp knife to cut it lengthwise into strips about 2 inches wide. Holding the cleaver on a sharp diagonal to the board, cut each strip crosswise with the grain into slices about ¼ inch thick. Holding the knife on an angle broadens the slice.
Blend the marinade ingredients until smooth and thick, in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, a blender, or by hand. Combine the fish slices and the marinade in a small bowl, stirring with your hands to coat and separate the slices. Seal airtight with plastic wrap, then refrigerate 1–24 hours to set the marinade and infuse the fish with its flavor.
Remove the fish from the refrigerator and stir to distribute the marinade.
Spread half the seeds evenly in a large baking pan or pie plate, then spread the fish slices next to one another in a single layer on top. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining seeds, then press with dry fingers to make the seeds adhere. Arrange the coated slices in a single layer on a wax paper-lined plate or baking sheet, seal airtight and refrigerate the fish 1–4 hours prior to deep-frying. Discard the excess sesame seeds.
Make the sauce as directed. Cover the pot so the sauce stays hot, and put a small sauce bowl and a serving platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm. Have a tray lined with a double thickness of paper towels, a large Chinese mesh spoon, and a pair of cooking chopsticks or a smaller mesh spoon alongside your stovetop. Remove the fish from the refrigerator.
Heat a wok or deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add oil to a depth of at least 2½ inches, then heat the oil to the light-haze stage, 350° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a single piece of fish comes to the surface within 3 seconds, surrounded by gently sizzling bubbles. Adjust the heat so the temperature does not rise.
Slice by slice, slip the fish into the oil with your fingers from the side of the pan, frying as many slices at one time as have room to float. Maintain a steady temperature so the slices continue to rise to the surface within several seconds.
The first slice is done when the seeds turn pale gold and the fish floats high on the surface of the oil, in 2–3 minutes. Pluck it from the oil with the chopsticks or small spoon, deposit it in the large spoon, then add a fresh slice of fish to the oil. Continue until you have 5 or 6 slices in the spoon, then spread them on the paper towels to drain.
If you are frying a double or triple batch, dredge the oil of seeds midway through frying and put the paper towel-lined tray in the oven to keep the first batch warm while you fry the remainder. Do not hold the slices in the oven more than 5–10 minutes.
Once all the slices are fried, arrange them on the serving platter around the sauce bowl and scrape the sauce into the bowl. Pass the dish, inviting your guests to help themselves to a crusty slice and dip it in the sauce. In my house, this is finger food, though you may use chopsticks if you wish.
When cool, strain, bottle, and refrigerate the oil for future frying.
Leftover fish slices make good cold nibbles, or may be reheated in a hot oven wrapped tightly in foil. They grow a bit oily with reheating, but will be snatched up nonetheless.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.