Features 4 minutes 17 January 2022

6 Ways to Cook Whole Fish

Four chefs from MICHELIN restaurants spanning Taiwanese, Sichuan, and Cantonese cuisines share their flavour combinations and techniques for six whole fish dishes.

Lunar New Year fish Chinese Cuisine

In Chinese cuisine, cooking and serving whole fish is both delicious and auspicious. Different Chinese regional cuisines have their own takes on whole fish, with various cooking techniques from deep-frying to steaming developed over time to bring out the best flavours and textures. How can you adopt some of these cooking techniques at home? Six chefs from MICHELIN-listed restaurants in Taiwan show you how.

Pan-Fried Silver Pomfret (Photo: Mountain and Sea House)
Pan-Fried Silver Pomfret (Photo: Mountain and Sea House)
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Taste of Taiwan: Pan-Fried and Taiwanese Qilin-style Steamed Fish

A classic Taiwanese whole fish dish is pan-fried silver pomfret (though with pomfret becoming increasingly rare in the market, this can be substituted with other fish). Executive chef Leo Tsai of one-MICHELIN-starred Mountain and Sea House (pictured right) explains that the ideal cook is to get the fish crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.

There are four things to look out for, he explains: first, how to select the fish. While home cooks always go for the bigger fish, they tend to forget about the size of the woks or pans they have at home. The fish needs to fit within the pan from head to tail to ensure even frying. Second, brushing on a layer of egg white on the fish before frying it helps to keep its skin intact. Third, scoring a fish to the bone helps shorten the frying time and allows the cook to check its doneness.

The last thing to watch is heat control, with the ideal being a medium-low fire. Gas stoves at home usually have two rings of open flames — using a small flame refers to the inner ring which concentrates the heat in the centre of the pan and results in uneven heat distribution; one should avoid that and make sure both rings are lighted and adjusted as low as possible.

Traditional Taiwanese Qilin or “Kirin”-Style Steamed Fish (Photo: Shin Yeh Taiwanese Cuisine)
Traditional Taiwanese Qilin or “Kirin”-Style Steamed Fish (Photo: Shin Yeh Taiwanese Cuisine)
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Chen Zhong-sheng (pictured left), the chef and founder of MICHELIN-listed Shin Yeh Taiwanese Cuisine shares about traditional Taiwanese qilin or “kirin”-style steamed fish, which spotlights an artful arrangement of the fish and other ingredients.

In Shin Yeh’s rendition, grouper is deboned, butterflied, and then sliced into ten even pieces. Slices of mushroom, ginger, and ham are arranged neatly between the pieces of fish and assembled back with the head and tail of the fish. The fish is then steamed for 10 minutes with rice wine and seasonings. The result is a beautifully plated whole fish that is easily shared among the whole table with equally distributed, layered flavours — a traditional technique worthy of preservation, to be sure.

Sichuan Style: Chong Qing Grilled Fish and Dry-Braised Fish

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Sichuan cuisine also carries unique cooking techniques for whole fish. Distinctive dishes include Sichuan shui zhu yu (boiled fish), Chong Qing grilled fish, and fish cooked with pickled vegetables. Hsu Fong-chin (pictured right), chef of MICHELIN-listed restaurant Ambassador Szechuan Court describes Sichuan-style Chong Qing grilled fish and the dry-braising method.

A mainstay of Chengdu city in the Sichuan province of China are eateries specialising in Chong Qing grilled fish. As the main star of the dish, the whole fish is often accompanied by different ingredients and a range of complex, layered flavours that vary from restaurant to restaurant. While the cooking technique for the fish is important, the soul of the dish is in the sauce, says Hsu.

Sichuan Chong Qing Grilled Fish with Jidouhua (Photo: Ambassador Szechuan Court)
Sichuan Chong Qing Grilled Fish with Jidouhua (Photo: Ambassador Szechuan Court)

Chong Qing grilled fish is served on specialised grilled fish stoves in Sichuan, but since most people might only have ovens at home, the chef recommends first pan-frying the fish before grilling it to shorten the cooking time. After pan-frying the fish on both sides, prepare the sauce of dried chillies, bean paste, ginger paste, fermented black bean paste, soya sauce and salad oil, cooking it first in a pot before adding stock. Once the flavours have blended together, the sauce is filtered and then poured over the fish. Bake the fish in a 160 degree Celsius oven for 15 minutes and garnish with coriander, white sesame seeds and chopped peanuts before serving. You can also add jidouhua (a Sichuan-style chicken tofu) to the grilled fish for a different variation.

Dry-Braised and Deep-Fried Yellow Croaker (Photo: Ambassador Szechuan Court)
Dry-Braised and Deep-Fried Yellow Croaker (Photo: Ambassador Szechuan Court)

Dry-braising is also a common fish cooking technique in Sichuan cuisine, used in delicious dishes like doubanyu (fish in chilli bean sauce) and dry-braised yellow croaker. Both saltwater and freshwater fish can be used in this cooking technique. At Ambassador Szechuan Court, the central spine of the fish is removed and the flesh marinated in a mixture of green onion, ginger and rice wine for about 15 minutes. The fish is then skewered from head to tail to retain its shape while deep-frying. The chef then makes a sauce of chao tian jiao (facing heaven chillies), honey, soya sauce, sugar, and green onions and pours it on the fish. The restaurant’s crispy yellow croaker dish sports a bright-red colour and a sweet-spicy flavour that pairs well with the fish's fresh flavour.

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Cantonese Cuisine: Oil Poaching and Jian Feng fish

Because the Guangdong province and Hong Kong are both close to the sea, Cantonese cuisine places a huge emphasis on fish and seafood, with diverse techniques applied to cooking fish.

Chen Guo-hua (pictured left, Photo: Chen Ching-yi), manager of MICHELIN-listed restaurant Celebrity Cuisine touches on two of these methods: jian feng and oil poaching.

White pomfret and golden threadfin are commonly used varieties for jian feng, where the fish is fried in shallow oil to seal in its juices. Chen suggests selecting a seawater fish about one catty in weight and lightly marinating it in salt before air drying it for one to two hours before frying. The amount of oil used is also very important: too much and the fish will become too dry and crispy, too little will result in a poorly cooked fish without much fragrance.

Fry the fish in a shallow wok of oil until golden and drain it, leaving just a little oil in the wok. Stir fry some garlic, shallots, ginger, and green onions and place the fish back in. Add a splash of Shaoxing wine down the side of the wok and pour the seasoning sauce (usually a mixture of stock, soya sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and dark soya sauce) over the fish. The sauce is reduced quickly, penetrating deep into the fish.

Celebrity Cuisine’s dish of jian feng pomfret fillet. The technique for frying fillets is essentially the same as whole fish except that it is served with no sauce at all, whereas a whole fish would be served resting on a bit of sauce. (Photo: Celebrity Cuisine)
Celebrity Cuisine’s dish of jian feng pomfret fillet. The technique for frying fillets is essentially the same as whole fish except that it is served with no sauce at all, whereas a whole fish would be served resting on a bit of sauce. (Photo: Celebrity Cuisine)

This Cantonese method is similar to Taiwanese-style ban jian zhu, a hybrid cooking technique of pan-frying then simmering. “Ban jian zhu results in a saucier finish, whereas Cantonese pan-frying is distinguished by only a small amount of sauce left behind in the cooking,” explains Chen, adding that a good jian feng fried fish should be fragrant and have a properly prepared sauce, elements that depend on the chef’s mastery and experience.

The oil-poaching method is also one of the representative techniques of Cantonese cuisine. A familiar dish might be oil-poached marble goby, a traditional Cantonese dish that is fast disappearing from modern menus as the younger, more health-conscious generation shy away from the heavy use of oil.

Oil-Poached Marble Goby (Photo: Celebrity Cuisine)
Oil-Poached Marble Goby (Photo: Celebrity Cuisine)

This method requires a twice-removal technique. The fish is first put in hot oil at about 150 to 180 degrees Celsius when the oil is bubbling. The cold fish brings the temperature down so that the oil stops bubbling. At this point, the wok is heated up again slowly on a small fire till it bubbles again before the fire is turned off or the wok removed from the heat. This is the first removal from the fire.

When the oil cools down enough such that the fine bubbles disappear, return the wok to fire and heat up the oil again. When it starts to bubble, remove from heat or turn off the burner again to cool down. This is the second removal from heat. When the oil bubbles have fully dissipated, heat up the wok again, and then pour cold salad oil down the side of the wok and cook on medium-low heat. The technique, called the “yin-yang oil” method, forces the excess oil out of the fish while retaining all its flavours.

The fish is then drained and topped with scallions before hot chicken oil is poured over it so that the scallions release their fragrance into the fish. The fish is then served with a seasoning sauce of superior stock, fish sauce, soya sauce and sugar. This laborious technique coaxes out the tenderness of the fresh fish and exemplifies the mastery and dedication of the chef.

This article was written by written by Chen Ching-yi and translated by Rachel Tan. You can read the original text here.

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