Citizens, your indefatigable and beloved leader – the shining star of supernova brilliance who is TFD – has been sadly laid up the last week due to the white-hot agony of a kidney stone. That said, I battle forth from my literal sickbed to bring you yet another recipe of savory merit and historic significance! :)
Crispy on the outside, moist and tender inside, the Squirrel-shaped Mandarin Fish is indeed a legendary dish in Jiangsu cuisine (江苏菜), which is one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of China! You can learn a lot more about the 58 regional styles of Chinese cooking here.
In making this dish, a whole fish is deboned with the fillet still attached to the tail, the fillet is then cut in a cross-hatch pattern and when deep fried, will look like a squirrel in flight. The sauce served with it is sweet, slightly tangy and pleasantly red. Red is the auspicious color for the Chinese, so this sauce is extremely appropriate for the Chinese New Year. It is the signature dish of the premier restaurant of Jiangsu cuisine, known as Su Xiaoxiao.
Like many Chinese dishes, there are several legends and stories behind the recipe!
Apparently, a long time ago, an Emperor wanted to eat carp, but carp was forbidden by his own laws. Of course, being the Emperor, he wanted to get his way and told his chef that his head would be on the ground if he was not served carp. His chef then had to devise a way to make the carp un-carplike and using his unmatched kitchen techniques, made the fish to look like a flying squirrel instead.
Another 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.
As noted on theworldofchinese.com:
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.
Citizens, this is a delicious recipe and one that will totally shift your perspective on what “sweet and sour Chinese” is supposed to be – I urge you to try it forthwith! :) As I prefer a tangier sauce, I specify chili sauce instead of the classic ketchup, and have jazzed up the garnishes a bit as well with scallions, bamboo shoots, ginger, and slivered red bell pepper.
Battle on – The Generalissimo