Fish and seafood

Fish and seafood

By
Fuchsia Dunlop
Contains
7 recipes
Published by
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
ISBN
9781408869239
Photographer
Chris Terry

In many parts of China, fish ponds and canals were always a part of village life. Carp and catfish fed on weeds and smaller creatures in the water, and provided flesh for the dinner table as part of a sustainable agricultural system. Other freshwater fish came from rivers, lakes and streams, while people living on the coasts had plentiful supplies of sea fish.

In an era when China is suffering the ugly side effects of reckless modernisation, it is easy to forget that this was a culture that once prized environmental stewardship. The first duty of a good ruler was always to keep his people well fed. The key to this was a sustainable food system, as the ancient philosopher Mencius (circa 372–289 BC) suggested in a statement that could be a manifesto for the modern environmental movement:

"Do not disregard the farmer’s seasons and food will be more than enough. Forbid the use of fine-meshed nets and fish and turtles will be more than enough. Take wood from the forests at prescribed times only and there will be material enough and to spare. With a sufficiency of grain, of fish and of material, the people would live without anxiety. This is the first principle of Princely Government."

At a time when supplies of sea fish are under strain the world over due to overfishing, and when fish-farming practices are creating their own environmental problems, it is hard to eat fish with a clear conscience. The best way to do it, perhaps, is to take a leaf from the book of traditional Chinese family dining and make a whole fish an occasional treat, to be shared by a group. This is the way the recipes in this chapter are intended to be used: a whole trout or sea bass, for example, with other dishes, can be shared by at least six people.

Some food writers in Britain are beginning to champion a revival of carp and other freshwater species as a way of dealing with dwindling ocean fish stocks. If supplies of carp become more available, it will be worth remembering the exciting Chinese repertoire of recipes for it and other freshwater fish. All the recipes in this chapter (bar that for clams) can be adapted to use with many kinds of fish.

Fish are typically served whole on the Chinese dinner table, with guests helping themselves to little pieces of their flesh with chopsticks. When I’m serving guests at home, however, having shown them the whole fish, I often ease the flesh from the spine with a spoon and fork, then lift out and set aside the backbone, head and tail to make things easier. I always remind people, though, that one of the most prized morsels in Chinese terms is the tiny piece of flesh in a fish’s cheek (on one occasion in Hangzhou, I was privileged to try a grand old dish made with the cheeks of 200 fish). In some coastal parts of China, it is considered bad luck to turn a fish on a plate as this suggests the capsizing of a fishing boat, so people always remove the backbone to get at the flesh underneath, rather than flipping it over.

A whole fish is an essential part of the New Year’s Eve feast, because the auspicious phrase nian nian you yu is a pun, meaning both ‘have fish year after year’ and ‘have a surplus year after year’.

Some tips on choosing and cooking fish

–Always use the freshest fish you can find: look out for bright eyes, blood-red gills and shiny flesh that bounces back when you poke it with a finger.

–To refine the flavour of a fish and dispel what the Chinese call ‘off tastes’ or ‘fishy flavours’, rub it inside and out with a little salt and Shaoxing wine and place a crushed spring onion and a crushed piece of ginger in its belly. Leave to marinate for 10–15 minutes before cooking, and discard any juices that emerge from the fish.

–When frying a fish in shallow oil, rubbing a little salt into its skin will help keep the skin intact and prevent sticking.

–When steaming a fish on a plate, place a spring onion or two, or a wooden chopstick, beneath its body, to enable steam to circulate between it and the plate.

Recipes in this Chapter

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