A fish dish is an indispensible part of every Chinese family’s New Year’s Eve feast. It’s practically a tradition in rural areas for wizened grandmothers to stalk the dining room table, shooing children away with the warning, “Don’t touch the fish! Otherwise, we won’t be blessed with good fortune next year!”
In China, fish and fortune are finely intertwined, as illustrated by the hengpi (横批, horizontal scrolls) bearing the couplet 年年有余 (nián nián yǒu yú, have surplus year after year) that are pasted over doors during Spring Festival.
The door itself or adjoining wall may also be emblazoned with paper-cuts carrying the same inscription, as well as pictures of a golden carp carried by a chunky little chap of unknown origin. The association with good fortune is extended further by the fact that 余 (yú, surplus food and money) and 鱼 (yú, fish) are homonyms, helping elevate the fish to a kind of Spring Festival good luck mascot .
Back in the mists of time, 鱼 was also a synonym for “letter.” In ancient China, people often wrote letters on silk and concealed them in carp stomachs as a means of delivering information in secret. This was known as 鱼传尺素 yu chuan chi su (鱼传尺素, using a fish to deliver messages). This now long defunct practice was the primary influence on the later habit of folding letters wishing health and good wishes to friends and loved ones into a double-carp shape before mailing them.
Moreover, in the Tang and Song dynasties, noble lords wore fish-shaped talismans 鱼符 (yú fú, fish-shaped talismans) as a means of showcasing their wealth and nobility, while Buddhist monks and laity still use a wooden fish (木鱼 mùyú) drum to keep tempo while chanting sutras. Fish are also traditionally one of the sacrifices necessary to properly perform the rituals associated with worshiping one’s ancestors.
While most of these traditions have fallen by the wayside, their resonance can still be felt through the hallowed status accorded to the fish dish every New Year’s Eve. In North China, one of the most popular dishes during Spring Festival is Squirrel Fish (松鼠鱼, sōngshǔyú). A commonplace at boozy Jiangsu banquets, this quirky dish is essentially a tribute to sweet and sour. In the grand Chinese tradition of naming food after strange things they look like, Squirrel Fish is so named because of the crosshatch technique used to cut into the fish flesh, which after being deep-fried opens up the body and positions the head and tail like a jaunty squirrel. The whole fish is deboned before frying to give it further lift.
Freshwater fish such as yellow croaker, carp and Mandarin fish, also known as the Osmanthus fish (桂鱼 guìyú), are the most commonly used bases for the dish. Legend has it that that during Emperor Qianlong’s extensive tour of the south, he caught sight of a particularly frisky carp and, delighted by its apparent zest for life, ordered it to be cooked immediately. In an attempt to capture the fish’s former joie de vivre, the chef focused on giving it a reanimated-look when he fried it. Others say that the origin of the dish’s name lies in the squirrel-like squeaks and squeals that erupt from the flesh when hot sauce is poured over it.
The dark brown fried fish is crisp on the outside and tender and yielding on the inside, and as “more-ish” on the palette as any deep-fried delight. However, it’s the sauce that makes or breaks a good Squirrel fish—it should be sufficiently piquant, singingly sweet and sour enough to titillate even regal taste buds. Often served in a retina-damaging shade of orange in restaurants, a home-made squirrel fish should be a little more subtle and elegant, in keeping with its royal heritage.
• 1 fish (carp, yellow croaker or Mandarin fish, around 1 kg) 鲤鱼 lǐ yú / 黄花鱼 huánghuā yú / 桂鱼 guì yú
• 1 quarter of onion 洋葱 yángcōng
• 50g bamboo shoot (diced in cubes) 竹笋 zhúsǔn
• 50g carrots (diced in cubes) 胡萝卜 húluóbo
• 50g sweet corn kernels (tinned or frozen one are all ok) 甜玉米 tián yùmǐ
• 50g frozen peas 豌豆 wāndòu
• 50g pine nuts kernels 松籽仁 sōngzǐrén
• 2 tablespoons cooking wine 料酒 liàojiǔ
• 1 tablespoon minced ginger 姜 jiāng
• 2 tablespoons tomato paste 西红柿酱 xīhóngshìjiàng
• 2 tablespoons ketchup 番茄酱 fānqiéjiàng
• 1 tablespoon sugar 糖 táng
• 2 tablespoons white vinegar 白醋 báicù
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce 生抽 shēngchōu
• 8 tablespoon water 水 Shuǐ
• 1 teaspoon salt 盐 yán
• 1 teaspoon ground black pepper 黑胡椒粉 hēihújiāofěn
• sesame oil 香油 xiāngyóu
• 80g corn flour (to dust the fish) 玉米粉 yùmǐ fěn
• Vegetable oil to fry the fish 植物油 zhíwùyóu
1. Remove the head of the fish and split the underside of its “chin” to flatten it. Set aside for later use.
2. Remove the spine by filleting the fish from head to tail, being careful not to cut the tail. Slide the knife lengthwise beneath the backbone to detach it from the flesh, and remove. The tail will stay attached with both sides of the fish’s body.
3. Remove the glossy underside of the stomach, which is a bit bitter. Score the flesh with your knife, cross-hatching the meat side without cutting through the skin. The meat should now be portioned into small square blocks. Season with one teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon pepper and two tablespoon cooking wine.
4. Pour the cornstarch onto a plate and dust the fish and head, removing any excess.
5. Heat some oil in a pan or wok and fry the head until golden brown. Remove the head and drain it on kitchen paper. Now add the fish, holding it by the tail for the first few seconds to set the shape. Fry for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Drain it on kitchen paper. Place the fish and the head on a serving plate.
6. For the sauce: add the tomato paste to the wok and heat for a few seconds (this will remove the tinny flavor and a bit of the acidity). Add ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and water. Mix well and then add the vegetables and ginger. Stir again and bring to a boil. Add salt to taste. Dissolve 3 tsp of cornstarch into 6 tsp of cold water and mix this into the sauce to thicken. Turn down the heat, drizzle in some sesame oil and pour the sauce over the fried fish. Finish off the dish with some pine nuts, and it’s ready to serve!