I went to Taiwan a great mountain-climbing enthusiast and spent much of my first winter there hauling myself over rain-forest-covered terrain, communing with the spirit of one of my favorite Tang poets, a Buddhist monk named Cold Mountain. Aboriginal villages with tattoo-faced old women dotted the areas where I climbed, and there was always some friendly kitchen—usually that of the village headman—open to me and my companions. It was on one such trip that I encountered this simple stew of fish and tofu cooked in a Chinese sand pot and was captivated by its straightforward goodness and wonderful mixture of textures. It is a classic dish across China, from Shantung in the northeast to Yunnan in the southwest.
Soak the mushrooms in cold or hot water until soft and spongy, 20 minutes to an hour. Snip off the stems with scissors, rinse the caps to dislodge any sand trapped in the gills, and put aside.
Cut each square of tofu in half lengthwise, then crosswise into thirds, to yield 6 rectangles per square, or 18 rectangles in all. Cover with a generous amount of boiling water, cover, and soak until it is ready to be added to the casserole.
Cut the carrot on the diagonal into thin oblong coins, 1½ inches long and ⅛ inch thick.
Chop the fish steaks neatly into halves or fourths, to obtain rectangular pieces about 2 inches long and 1½ inches wide. For a clean cut use a cleaver or heavy knife and whack with authority. Remove all scales and traces of blood. Be fastidious; these can ruin the stew. Do not bother to remove the bone at this time. It retains the shape of the fish while cooking and may be easily removed later on.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, swirl to glaze the pan, then wait until the oil is hot enough to gently sizzle a particle of fish. Quickly arrange the pieces of fish side by side in the skillet, then fry for about 4 minutes, or until the bottom is firm. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady sizzle without scorching the fish. If it is sticking, dribble in an additional tablespoon of oil from the side of the pan. When the bottom is firm, turn the fish over carefully with a small spatula, then fry the second side. Expect it to firm more quickly, within 1½–2 minutes. Leaving the oil in the pan, gently remove the fish to the bottom of a sand pot or heavy casserole, arranging the pieces side by side in a single layer.
Lightly smash the scallion and ginger with the broad side or blunt handle of a cleaver or heavy knife to release their juices. Combine the scallion, ginger, mushrooms, carrots, and garlic.
Return the skillet to high heat. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a piece of scallion, add the combined ingredients. Stir-fry briskly for 2–3 minutes, until the mixture is evenly glossed and the fragrance is pronounced. Scatter the mixture evenly over the fish.
Combine the liquid seasonings, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour evenly over the fish, then bring the liquids to a hearty simmer over moderate heat. If you are using a sand pot, start over low heat and increase to moderate once the liquids are steaming and the pot is warm. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover the pot, and simmer 15 minutes.
At the end of 15 minutes, drain the tofu carefully. Gently scatter the pieces into the pot, poking them under the sauce and between the fish. Cover, simmer 15 minutes more, then turn off the heat.
Taste the sauce. Add salt and adjust the seasonings as required. The sauce should be an even balance of soy and sweet, laced with a heady aroma of vinegar. Remove the bones, arrange a few mushroom caps and carrot coins brightly on top, then sprinkle with a healthy grind of fresh pepper. Baste briefly to mix the pepper into the sauce and glaze the mushrooms.
Serve the casserole immediately, or—for fuller flavor—let it stand several hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator, then reheat over low heat until gently simmering. If you refrigerate the stew in a sand pot, be sure to bring it to room temperature before reheating, to avoid cracking the pot.
Serve the stew directly in the casserole. Or, transfer it carefully to a heated serving bowl and rush it to the table while the aroma is still pronounced.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.