Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sweet and Sour Fish

Having just taught the chicken version of this dish at my Evening at Emory international cooking class, I was again reminded of the delights of sweet and sour fish when it was prepared -- not by me -- for my daughter Anna's birthday recently. I had forgotten how much I like the color and swirling tastes of this unlikely classic. Too much greasy sweet-and-sour-pork at cookie-cutter Chinese restaurants urged by waiters recommending what they thought Americans liked had to be overcome before I really appreciated the genre. That happened when I lived in Asia.

Originally a creation from southern China, sweet and sour fish is popular throughout Southeast Asia and is common in Thai banquets. It can be made as an entire fish lightly battered and fried, but that depends on access to very fresh whole fish. Here is another method, using chunks of fish fillet.

Although tilapia is an African fish (from Lake Victoria), it is now farmed in Thailand and China as well as in the US and can be purchased frozen far from the seacoasts. Buy the fish fillets still frozen and thaw in running cool water just before use. The recipe may look formidable in terms of ingredients, but it is not actually difficult to make, and all except the actual cooking can be done ahead of time. The recipe serves six, when accompanied by unsalted rice.

Sweet and Sour Fish Tim

1-1/2 pounds thawed skinless fillet of white fish, such as grouper or tilapia
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon rice flour (for crispness), or 1 extra tablespoon flour
Oil for frying (like canola or peanut oil, not olive oil)
1/2 red bell pepper
1 small-medium carrot
1 scallion (green onion)
6 sprigs cilantro (coriander) leaf

1 large clove of garlic
1/4 inch fresh ginger
1 tablespoon oil
3/4 cup water
3 tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vinegar (rice vinegar, white, or cider)
1 tablespoon tomato catsup or apricot preserve
1 tablespoon cornstarch or potato starch
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil (available at Asian groceries)

Pat the fish dry with paper towel, and cut it into 2-inch squares. Sprinkle with salt and grated ginger and mix to coat. Allow to sit in a bowl at least ten minutes while preparing the other ingredients. Push the fish to one side of the bowl and with a fork, beat the egg with the water, flour and rice flour. Combine with the seasoned fish, to coat, using your hands to mix evenly. Set aside until ready to cook.

Prepare the vegetables and stack in piles on a plate. Remove stem, core, and seeds from the bell pepper. Cut into long slices 1/8-inch wide. If more than 3 inches long, cut them in half. Peel carrot and slice carrot on a long diagonal 1/8-inch thick. Pile up the slices and cut them lengthwise into 1/8-inch matchsticks. Cut the scallions, green part included, into long diagonal slices 1/8-inch thick. Stack a few up at a time and slice lengthwise, so as to shred. Pick over and rinse the cilantro leaves.

Prepare the sauce ingredients. Finely mince the garlic and ginger and set aside. Mix the water, soy sauce, sugar, salt, vinegar, catsup or apricot preserve, cornstarch or potato starch in a bowl, then add the sesame oil. Taste and adjust with sugar or vinegar to make sweet-sour. (Be sure to stir well again before adding the sauce mixture to the cooking.)

Heat several tablespoons of oil in a non-stick frying pan. Fry the fish, part at a time, turning once or twice, until golden. Remove fish from the pan, placing on paper towel on a warm platter and keep in a warm oven. Finish cooking the fish, adding more oil if necessary.

Remove all except 1 tablespoon of oil from the pan, or add oil if necessary to obtain about 1 tablespoon. Fry the carrot strips about 1-1/2 minutes over medium heat, stirring. Add the minced garlic and ginger and stir and fry about 15 seconds or until fragrant but not browned. Add the peppers and fry another half minute. Stir the liquid mixture to mix the starch around and add to the pan, stirring. Simmer until boiling and thickened. Remove from the heat. Taste, and add salt if necessary, and adjust either the sugar or vinegar if necessary to make sweet and sour.

Remove the paper towel from under the fish and arrange the pieces on the serving platter. Spoon the sauce and vegetables over them. Garnish with the shredded scallion and coriander sprigs.

Note: Pineapple is sometimes used in this dish. If desired, replace the carrot with 4 to 5 rings of pineapple, either fresh or canned, cut into small pieces. Stir them into the pan when adding the sauce ingredients.


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