My Citizens – prepare your palates, for the Emperor of the Empirical, the Dragon of Dramaturges – YOUR TFD! – is now girding His metaphoric loins to provide you with the first of His three freshwater recipes from the East, as promised in My previous posting! As freshwater fish recipes are usually not My favorites, I have excoriated the scourge of Truth upon My tender flesh to remind Myself that many of you LOVE fish recipes – and I shall not disappoint TFD Nation in the slightest!
To start with our tour of Asian freshwater fish recipes – I bring you to the jewel-like West Lake of Hangzhou city in Zhejiang province China, where sweet and sour fish has been taken to the ultimate heights of gastronomic supremacy! Even I must bow in accordance with the far-flung canon of Chinese recipes as well as its vast history of several thousand years! No gloppy, neon-red clingy horror that is Chinese-American sweet and sour in this recipe – this is a forged steel razor blade of flavor across your palate, as it was always meant to be!
There are different versions of the history of the dish and story. One theory is that the dish is based on a dish called CuLou fish 醋搂鱼from the Qing dynasty 清朝 and the recipe of which can be found in the book SuiYuanShiDan 随园食单 from the 18th century. One of the most well-known stories about the dish goes like this:
A long time ago, there were two brothers from the Song 宋 family. The local villain Zhao 赵 saw the beauty of Mrs Song, the wife of the elder brother, and killed the husband in order to marry her. The villain Zhao had cooperated with the local government that, Mrs Song and younger brother had no way to fight against him. Mrs. Song helped the younger brother to escape out of the town. Before they separated, she cooked fish with sugar and vinegar as his last meal.
She explained the sweet and sour flavor would remind him the ups and downs in life today and hope he would worked hard for his future. This is actually a well-known metaphor in Chinese that the life is like the meals with five flavors: sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, salty. It is true that bitter is a kind of flavor in Chinese cuisine.
The younger brother left the town and he joined the army and became a famous general. He visited his hometown and punished the villain Zhao who killed his brother but couldn’t find Mrs. Song. One day, he was having lunch in a restaurant and tasted a fish dish just like the fish cooked by his sister-in-law and luckily found out Mrs. Song worked in the kitchen – the family was finally reunited.
Another story is far older – as a very popular Hangzhou dish, some say that West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy can be dated back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279). In this story, it’s said that a woman nick-named Sister Song operated a restaurant outside the ancient Qiantang Gate near the West Lake, Hangzhou, serving delicious fish soups.
One day, Zhao Gou, Emperor Gaozong of the dynasty visited the lake and happened to have the fish soup. He spoke highly of the soup and awarded Sister Song. After that, Sister Song Fish Soup became renowned. Later, Sister Song developed her cooking skills and invented another dish – West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy. Currently, at Lou Wai Lou Restaurant (Tower Beyond Tower) in Hangzhou, people can still enjoy delicious and authentic West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy to this very day.
Different Chinese regions have different methodologies for making sweet and sour fish – unsurprising given the breadth of China’s borders! The Cantonese way of cooking sweet and sour fish is to deep-fry the cornstarch-coated fish and blanket it with a sauce made of tomato ketchup, white vinegar and sugar, with some colorful vegetables thrown in. Some find the white vinegar and ketchup too sharp for their personal taste – I do not, but that’s just me.
The Shanghainese way is to pan-fry the fish and finish the cooking with ginger, soy sauce, sugar, wine and black vinegar. The combination works very well except – as with most Shanghai-style dishes – it tends to be too sweet for Western palates.
Hangzhou, a city 2 hours by car from Shanghai in the province of Zhejiang, is famous for several dishes and one of them is West Lake vinegar fish, which uses similar ingredients as the Shanghainese vinegar & sugar fish, but the fish is poached, making the flesh softer, moister and less oily, and then a balanced sweet and sour sauce is poured over it. To many Chinese, it is the perfect mid-point between Cantonese and Shanghai-styles of cooking sweet and sour fish – and now, I take it even further to perfection!
As a true Chinese gastronome, I have intimate familiarity with ALL styles of Chinese cuisine – even those barely-known outside of China, and that includes Shanxi province, where vinegar isn’t just a condiment or a flavoring – it is a WAY OF LIFE! 🙂 As such, I have applied My divine right as leader of TFD Nation to dare to make a most heretical change to the classic West Lake recipe! Specifically by including not just the classic Zhenjiang (a city of the nearby province of Jiangsu, not the province of the closely-named Zhejiang) black vinegar, but also Shanxi vinegar for added complexity!
You can find the locations of Zhejiang, Shanxi and Jiangsu provinces in the East of China as seen below!
Shanxi cuisine, or Jin cuisine, is derived from the native cooking styles of Shanxi Province in China. It is famous for noodles, fried flatbread (da bing) and sour tastes. The cuisine is also famed for using its locally-produced, homemade vinegars of different strengths, complexities and styles. Generally speaking, Shanxi cuisine is not well known to people outside the region. This is partially because Shanxi is less populated than other provinces in China and also because it is a very traditional region, with specific regional flavors.
As My version of this seminal sweet and sour recipe uses vinegars not just from Hangzhou’s native Zhenjiang reason, but also Shanxi (using two of the four great vinegar styles from China!), I shall quote from THE source of info in English on Chinese vinegars – supremevinegar.com!
Zhenjiang Vinegar (镇江香醋)
Zhenjiang, or Chinkiang, Black Vinegar is the most well-known and recognized of the four vinegars globally. Many vinegars available in Chinese restaurants and grocery stores in the West are explicitly Zhenjiang Black Vinegar or a similar tasting imitation. Zhenjiang is a city in the eastern province of Jiangsu, nestled next to Shanghai.
Zhenjiang Vinegar is reputedly over 1400 years old and has a huge reputation in China and its diaspora. Zhenjiang Vinegar’s primary ingredients are steamed rice along with wheat, barley, and pea. In addition, two types of Qu with different types of mold are used to add flavor and help with sacchrification. Finally, the vinegar’s flavor and color can be adjusted by adding water filtered through rice heated until black in color. The big brands include Hengshun and Gold Plum.
Shanxi Mature Aged Vinegar (山西老陈醋)
Shanxi Mature Aged Vinegar is from the east-central Chinese province of Shanxi. The capital of Shanxi, Taiyuan, is the same city mentioned in part one as having organized vinegar production for almost 2,500 years. Shanxi province was not far from the traditional Chinese capitals of Chang’An and Kaifeng giving it a close proximity to a high demand for quality, expensive vinegar.
Like the other three vinegars besides Zhenjiang Vinegar, Shanxi Vinegar is much less well-known outside of China and is typically not as readily available overseas. However, it is famous within China and is and an indispensable part of the cuisine and history of Shanxi. Legends state that in the Shanxi city of Jinzhong, when fathers looked for a suitable son-in-law, besides having financial means, he must have a vinegar urn of Shanxi Vinegar!
While vinegar has a long history in Shanxi province, the modern variety of the vinegar was developed in 1368 in a brewery called “Mei He Ju” in Qingxu county, Shanxi. The ingredients of Shanxi vinegar can be quite complex and contain sorghum, wheat, barley, bran, and pea. Shanxi vinegar does not use rice. Shanxi vinegar is fermented similar to Zhenjiang vinegar, however, the amount of Qu added can be large and up to almost 1/3 of the total mass. In addition, Shanxi vinegar is aged for at least a year with standard vinegar sold on the shelves being aged for three years. A premium brand aged 5 years is also available.
More information on the Shanxi love of vinegar (and their exceptional pickiness about it!) is related on pandayoo.com, excerpted here:
Remember when it was mentioned earlier that people in Shanxi were hesitant to talk about the sweet and sour dishes in Beijing restaurants? The most direct reason is that the popular sweet and sour taste in Beijing mainly depends on the distiller’s grains, or the seasoning vinegar used is not as delicate as the local aged vinegar in Shanxi.
The end result is that in the eyes of the people of Shanxi, the sweet and sour dishes in Beijing are only a thin “sweet and sour” taste, which completely deviates from the original meaning of the “sweet and sour” taste.
In fact, the result of this “deviation from the original meaning” is not just a difference in taste. For example, in the eyes of many Beijing locals, sweet and sour carp (which can even be extended to the four major domestic fish series in China) is not easy to cook. It’s not as easy as braising directly.
But for people in Shanxi, sweet and sour is the most standard practice of carp, and there is basically no one-the delicate taste of sour is only one side, and more importantly, old aged vinegar can easily suppress the fishy smell of freshwater fish. In Shanxi, it does not require particularly complex cooking skills to make sweet and sour carp that can be served on the table. But if you use other vinegar, things will be much more difficult.
Till today, it is still not easy to buy industrially produced good-tasting old aged vinegar in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province. After all, it is very difficult to strike a balance between “hometown flavor” and “industrial mass production”.
In fact, just recently, the China Federation of Light Industry and the China Light Food Industry Management Center jointly awarded Zhenjiang City, Jiangsu Province the national title of “vinegar Capital of China“. In response to this news, many self-media have worked very hard to come up with headlines such as “Jiangsu wins, Shanxi people are not convinced“, but the vast majority of reports on this incident fall on the fulcrum of industrial scale and market influence. as for the real taste of mature vinegar, no one mentioned it, no one knew it.
Vinegar wars of China!!!
So, in the interests of supreme harmony, I have taken it upon Myself to end this sour dispute (heh) once and for all by taking the heterodoxical stance of combining mostly aged Zhenjiang vinegar with some aged Shanxi vinegar to provide the missing ‘oomph’ that Shanxi natives demand in their sweet and sour fish! Peace through the might of TFD has been restored – and this recipe really benefits from My change, IMHO! I use only the best of both kinds of vinegar, of course!
The fish traditionally used in this recipe is whole, live grass carp from the West Lake, kept alive and starved for two or three days to help flush the ‘muddy’ flavor I despise in freshwater bottom feeders, resulting in a clean and purged fish. Some communities (Asian, Jewish) still sell live grass carp – if you are lucky enough to get one. just fill a spare bathtub and keep it alive for a few days (my great-grandmother used to do this with her carp – in preparation of making homemade gefilte fish!).
I fully recognize that most of us will not do this, of course – instead, TFD enjoys using trout, whitefish or perch in the U.S., zander in Europe or Arctic char in the north – tilapia fillet of the proper size is also an option, but whole fish is traditional in this recipe. There are also 3 different kinds of sugar in addition to 2 kinds of vinegar used in this recipe – Chinese brown sugar for depth, yellow sugar for gloss, and white sugar for ‘sharpness’ – trust Me, they combine perfectly in My stated proportions!
You’re going to need a few very specific types of Chinese ingredients, all of which I shall provide sources for in their respective links below – please do NOT substitute brands unless you have to – mine are the best choices, trust me.
These include Chinese brown rock sugar, Chinese yellow rock sugar, Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry, if unavailable), dark soy sauce, 6 Yr Aged Hengshun Brand black rice Zhenjiang Vinegar, Shanxi Ninghua Fu Yiyuanqing 8-year aged vinegar, sesame oil and genuine West Lake Lotus root starch – the classic and best thickener for sauces (potato starch will work, if you have to).
My version of this recipe includes all the secret restaurant tricks to making this successfully (and yes, that include a tiny bit of optional MSG – omit it if you so prefer) and is truly the ne plus ultra of this recipe to be found anywhere on the Web. I hope you enjoy Phase 1 of Operation ‘Fish-supper’, and stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon Ultimate Chinese West Lake Sweet and Sour Fish – 西湖醋鱼
- For the fish:
- 1 whole freshwater fish, about 26 oz. or 800g, or 2 smaller fish – TFD enjoys using trout, whitefish or perch in the U.S., zander in Europe or Arctic char in the north – tilapia fillet of the proper size is also an option, but whole fish is traditional in this recipe
- 3 slices fresh ginger root
- 1 scallion, slits cut in stalk and tied into a knot
- For the ultimate sweet and sour sauce:
- 2 Tbsp. pounded Blooming brand Chinese brown rock sugar bar (if you must, you can use light brown sugar instead)
- 2 tsp. pounded to powder Lung Po Rock Chinese yellow rock sugar
- 1 tsp. white sugar
- 2 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. Pagoda 8 Years Aged Shaoxing Huadiao Rice Wine (No Salt) rice wine (medium-dry sherry can be substituted)
- 1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. Lee Kum Kee Premium dark soy sauce (this is NOT regular soy sauce!)
- 2 1/2 Tbsp. Hengshun Brand black rice Zhenjiang Vinegar, 6 Yr Aged
- 1/2 Tbsp. Shanxi Ninghua Fu Yiyuanqing 8-year aged vinegar (this is My VERY heretical preference for added palatal complexity – you can just use Zhenjiang Vinegar instead for an authentic version)
- 1 tsp. freshly-ground white pepper
- 1/2 tsp. Accent or Ajinomoto brands MSG (TFD addition, very optional)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 Tbsp. West Lake Lotus starch (100% pure, no sweeteners or Osmanthus) whizzed in a spice grinder, combined with 2 Tbsp. water (cornstarch is an adequate substitute, or use potato starch, which is a better choice)
- 5 drops Kadoya brand sesame oil – yes, DROPS, use a medicine dropper- if it’s easier for you, use 1/2 of a 1/8 tsp. measure of the oil
- For garnishing:
- extra shaoxing and black vinegar
- Scale, de-gill and gut the fish. Turn it belly-up and split it in two from head to tail, cutting to one side of the backbone, but leaving a flap of skin so you can open the fish like a book. Splay the beast out, as you would a spatchcocked chicken.
- You will now have a thin side and a thick side (with the backbone), Make three deep gashes crossways in the thick side (which will enable the heat to penetrate more evenly).
- It’s a good idea to have your fishmonger do all this for you in advance, btw! Start preparing the fish as soon as you get home, or leave in the fridge for no more than a few hours if you must.
- Sprinkle a little shaoxing and black vinegar over the fish flesh and leave it for a few minutes while you get the water ready.
- ⅔ fill a wok or big pot with water, add the ginger and scallion (this is to remove any ‘fishy’ odors) and bring to a rolling boil. The water must be boiling rather than merely simmering, so the fish cooks quickly, but not boiling so furiously that its flavor disappears into the water.
- Place the fish in the water, cover until it come back to the boil, and gently boil, allowing 3-4 minutes for a medium (600-800g) fish, or just two minutes for smaller fish. Ladle hot water over the thickest part during cooking. When the eyes of the fish begin to pop out, the fish is done.
- Use two large spatulas to carefully transfer the cooked fish to a warmed platter, and let the residual heat finish the cooking while you prepare the sauce.
- Discard cooking water, ginger, and scallion. Wash out wok, and add chicken stock. Return the wok to medium-high heat and add the soy sauce, shaoxing, MSG (if using) and sugars, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the vinegars and white pepper.
- Mix the lotus root slurry again and stir ½ into the sauce. Bring to the boil to thicken into a dark glossy sauce – it should just coat the back of a spoon. If necessary to thicken to that consistency, add in ½ of the remaining lotus root starch solution. ONLY if still needed to thicken the sauce, add in the last portion of lotus root slurry. Remove from heat and stir in drops of sesame oil.
- Pour the sauce over the fish and serve whole. Provide chopsticks so your guests can pick out morsels of fish directly from the platter, and have a bowl or two available for the bones.
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