Associated with abundance and good fortune, fish is a must-have for any Chinese New Year reunion dinner. A whole fish is a particularly welcome sight on the festive dinner table: serving a fish from head to tail symbolises a good year from the beginning to the end.
That is why the executive chef of one-MICHELIN-starred Cantonese restaurant Summer Palace Liu Ching Hai has created two recipes that make full use of a whole garoupa or snapper to ring in the Year of the Rat.
At Summer Palace, the whole live fish is cooked two ways: the fillets are deep-fried and served boneless with sweet and sour sauce, while the head and bones are simply steamed or used to enrich a soup. “The older generation tend to prefer steamed fish and they like the head and bony parts, whereas children and young people like fish that is deep-fried and boneless. My own kids don’t like bones in their fish,” he laughs. "This way, a whole fish can be utilised with no waste, while appealing to both young and old.”
Any fish with firm, white flesh can be used, but the chef recommends garoupa or red snapper for their large size and firm texture. The fish is first deboned and scored, then battered and deep-fried to make its flesh curl up in a lively shape like a squirrel. Liu creatively uses the collar of the fish to create the rodent’s head, and completes it with blueberry "eyes" and whiskers of noodles. The dish is garnished with fragrant pine nuts and served with a tangy sweet and sour sauce in an auspicious red hue.
The leftover head and bones of the fish can then be put to use in a soup or steamed any number of ways. The chef shares a recipe for steamed fish with a moreish gravy made with salted fermented black beans.
Deep-fried Squirrel Fish
1.2-1.5kg whole red or black garoupa, or red snapper
100g corn starch
1-2 tsp salt
A few strands of dried vermicelli or mee sua
Sweet and sour sauce
1. Clean the fish and chop its head off around the gills. Reserve the fish head for steaming.
2. Make another cut after the pectoral and pelvic fins (pic 1). Reserve the collar of the fish to form the “head” of the squirrel decoration.
3. Fillet the rest of the fish, removing the centre spine while leaving the tail on (pic 2). Reserve the bones for steaming.
4. Score the fillets in a cross-hatch pattern (pic 3) and season with salt. Leave to rest for 5 minutes before coating with corn starch.
5. Flip the fish, skin side down and secure with a toothpick (pic 4).
6. In a wok of hot oil, first deep fry the pectoral and pelvic fin section of the fish till golden brown, then follow with the body of the fish (pic 5).
7. To plate, place the fin section upside down so the pelvic fins are on the top of the squirrel’s head. Stick the blueberries on as eyes and the vermicelli or mee sua strands as whiskers (pic 6).
8. Garnish with pine nuts and drizzle sweet and sour sauce over the fish to serve.
Steamed Fish Head
500g fish head and bones (reserved from recipe above)
10g spring onion, chopped
For the seasoning:
50g fermented black beans
10g ginger paste
30g garlic paste
5g coriander paste
10g corn starch
1. Chop the cleaned fish head into smaller chunks.
2. Mix all the ingredients for the seasoning together and pour it over the fish head.
3. Steam for 10 minutes.
4. Garnish with spring onions to serve.