Strange Flavor Fish

怪味魚

In China, the presentation of a whole fish—either steamed or deep-fried as here—traditionally concludes the meal on a bountiful note. “Here is fish” is the homonym for “here is abundance,” so everyone leaves the table feeling full of fish and symbolic richness. It is much like ending a meal with a cornucopia of fruit, our own Western emblem of plenty.

  • This is my favorite Chinese fish dish, bar none—a crisp whole fish topped by a vinegar-spiked sauce with bits of garlic, chili, ginger, and scallion. It was the creation of Po-fu’s gutsy Shanghai-born wife, who would pitch the fish into the oil with the proficiency of an expert bowler. In her sauce there is no cornstarch to dull the flavors, which are boldly tart, tangy, sweet, and spicy all at the same time—“strange,” meaning marvelous, and delicious. If you have never before fried a whole fish Chinese-style, this is an addictive place to begin.
  • This is a very easy dish, involving more drama than work. Frying the fish takes 5–10 minutes and making the sauce takes an additional 1 or 2. You may pan-fry or deep-fry the fish, as you like. I prefer deep-frying for its speed and the convenience of not having to turn the fish, but you may opt for pan-frying if that seems more comfortable.
  • The main requirement is a bright-eyed, red-gilled, thoroughly fresh fish with a firm, sweet flesh. I like porgy best. Sea bass, pompano, rock cod, fluke, and flounder also work well with the tangy sauce, though a whole flounder can be a bit cumbersome to fry if you are not equipped with a large wok. For a big crowd, fry two smaller fish rather than one giant one. This is far simpler and makes more sense, unless you have a 24-inch restaurant-size wok, a professional Chinese stove, and a good deal of gumption.
  • Take the several minutes to chop the topping ingredients by hand. In this dish, the textures are as striking as the taste.

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Ingredients

  • 1 exceptionally fresh porgy, sea bass, pompano, rock cod, or other firm, sweet-fleshed white fish, 1½–2 pounds after gutting—thoroughly scaled and gutted, head and tail left on
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

Aromatics

  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh garlic
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green and white scallion
  • 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes

Liquid seasonings

  • 2 tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce
  • teaspoons well-aged Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ cup hot water
  • 6 cups corn or peanut oil, for deep-frying
  • or
  • about 1½ cups corn or peanut oil, for pan-frying

Method

Preparations

Clean the fish meticulously as directed. Flush the cavity and the outside of the fish clean with cold water, then pat it dry inside and out.

Once cleaned and dried, the fish may be bagged airtight in plastic and stored for up to 24 hours in the coldest part of your refrigerator (not the freezer). If your refrigerator is not very cold, put the wrapped fish on a rack directly above a pan of ice. Bring to room temperature before frying.

As much as 1 hour in advance of frying, score the fish from collar to tail on both sides, as described above in TECHNIQUE NOTES. Sprinkle the fish evenly inside and out with the salt, then rub the salt into the cavity and down into the score marks with your fingers.

Put the minced aromatics on a small plate, with the chili flakes off to one side. Combine the liquid seasonings, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Put a deep serving platter in a low oven to warm. Line a heatproof plate or baking pan with a triple thickness of paper towels. Have the towel-lined tray, the combined seasonings, and a large wok or pot lid alongside your stovetop. For deep-frying, you will need a large ladle and a large Chinese mesh spoon. For pan-frying, you will need a large heatproof spoon or shallow ladle and a broad flexible spatula.

Option 1: Deep-frying the fish

Choose a large wok or a deep, heavy skillet large enough to hold the fish comfortably with inches to spare. If you are using a wok, make sure it is balanced securely on the stove with a wok ring or overturned burner grid. Heat the pot over high heat until it is hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, leaving at least 1½ inches free at the top of the pot to accommodate bubbling. Heat the oil to the dense-haze stage, 400° on a deep-fry thermometer. While the oil is heating, pat the fish thoroughly dry, inside and out.

Grasp the fish securely by its tail. Holding the lid in your other hand, carefully lower the fish at arm’s length into the oil, gently letting go of the tail once a third of the fish is submerged. If the oil is sufficiently hot, the fish will erupt into bubbles on contact. Use the lid to shield yourself from spatters, holding it just above the pot and slanting it sharply away from you so the steam can escape. As the fish fries, spin it slowly in the oil to prevent it from sticking, and ladle the hot oil steadily and evenly over the top.

Once the bubbling has died down and you can put the lid aside, watch carefully to gauge the moment the fish is done. When properly fried, the score marks will be golden at the top and bright white at the base, in about 3–5 minutes. As soon as you think it is done, lift the fish from the oil on the mesh spoon. Do not overcook the fish or it will be dry. If you pull it out too soon and the inside is still pink, just lower it back into the oil on the spoon.

Hold the fish briefly above the oil to drain, then transfer it to the towel-lined tray and put the tray in the oven while you make the sauce.

If frying a second fish, raise the oven temperature to 225° and wait however long it takes—anywhere from 3–10 minutes—for the oil temperature to regain 400°. It must be smoking hot, or the fish will not be crisp. Dry, fry, and drain the second fish in the same manner. It will take a bit longer to fry.

If possible after frying, do not move the oil and use a heavy skillet and another burner to make the sauce. Pause a minute to wipe the stovetop clean with a damp cloth. It takes only seconds now and becomes a chore later on.

Once the oil cools, strain and bottle it for future frying. Traditionally, oil used for frying whole fish is only reused for fish, but use your nose to judge its fishiness and decide its fate. Oil used for frying a single fish is often perfectly suitable for general frying.

Option 2: Pan-frying the fish

Choose a large, heavy skillet at least 2–3 inches bigger than the fish, to allow you to turn it with ease. Heat over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add oil to a depth of ½ inch, then heat until the surface is covered by a dense, shimmering haze and the oil is nearly smoking. While the oil is heating, pat the fish thoroughly dry, inside and out.

Hold the fish securely by its tail. With the lid held in the other hand to shield you from spatters, place the fish in the pan at arm’s length. If the oil is sufficiently hot, it will erupt in loud bubbling on contact. Use the lid to contain the spattering, slanting it sharply away from you to allow the steam to escape.

Brown the fish on the first side over high heat for about 2 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-high, and continue to cook it for 3 minutes more. While the bottom is cooking, ladle the hot oil continuously and evenly over the top of the fish. Loosen the fish with the spatula, then carefully turn it over with the help of the spoon. Brown the second side over high heat for about 2 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook the fish for 2–3 minutes more. The timing will differ depending upon the thickness of the fish and the heat of the stove, so use your eyes to judge. The fish is done when the outside is brown and crisp, and the flesh visible through the score marks is glossily white and firm. Do not overcook the fish. It should look moist when it leaves the pan.

Carefully lift the fish from the oil, supporting it from beneath with the spatula and spoon. Transfer to the towel-lined tray, then put the tray in the oven while you make the sauce.

If frying a second fish, raise the oven temperature to 225° and dredge the oil of any debris. Raise the heat under the skillet to high, add oil to restore the depth to ½ inch, then wait as long as required for the oil to reach the near-smoking point. Do not put the fish in prematurely, or it will not be crisp. Dry, fry, and drain the second fish in the same manner. Expect the second fish to take slightly longer to cook.

Put the fry skillet aside to cool, and proceed immediately to make the sauce.

Making the sauce

As soon as the (last) fish is put in the oven, heat a small, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 2 tablespoons of the frying oil, swirl to glaze the bottom, then reduce the heat to medium. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a bit of garlic, add the garlic, ginger, and scallion to the pan, nudging the chili flakes in last and adjusting the heat so they foam without scorching. Stir until fully fragrant, 20–30 seconds, then stir the liquids and scrape them into the pan. Stir gently, bring to a simmer, turn off the heat, and taste. The sauce should be boldly sweet and spicy, with a tangy edge of vinegar. Adjust, if required, with more sugar to bring out the spiciness.

Quickly slide the fish onto the heated platter. Pour the sauce evenly over the fish, scraping the minced bits on top, then serve immediately.

To eat the fish, use the score marks to help lift the flesh neatly from the bones. Eat all the special morsels—the sweet fish cheeks (which should go to the guest[s] of honor), the soft flesh near the tail, and the succulent bits which cling to the bones. When it is time to flip the fish over, it is traditional that two people do it together with their chopsticks, one turning the head while the other turns the tail.

Leftovers may be boned, covered with sauce, and refrigerated, sealed airtight. They are good chilled, when the juices gel in a spicy aspic and the flesh is slippery-smooth.

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