Sweet and sour fish is a popular Chinese restaurant and home cooking dish. The fish is served whole, first lightly battered and deep-fried for flaky-tender meat and crispy skin, then doused in a bright, glossy, sweet, and tangy sauce for an impressive finish.
For an extra light and crispy batter, this recipe calls upon two secret ingredients: baking powder and water chestnut flour, which you can find in any Chinese supermarket. (Glutinous rice flour also works as a substitute.)
In Chinese households, fish is one of the many lucky foods traditionally eaten on Chinese New Year’s Eve, as part of a holiday feast rife with symbolism. In Chinese, the word for “fish,” “yu,” has the same pronunciation as the word for “surplus” or “abundance.” The accompanying blessing, “nian nian you yu,” thus expresses wishes for abundance and prosperity—or fish—in the coming year.
Chinese people also often serve fish whole, with both head and tail intact, in line with another saying: “you tou you wei.” The phrase is literally translated as “to have both a head and a tail,” and means to always finish what you’ve started.
The upcoming Chinese New Year won’t come around until Jan. 25. So if you can’t wait that long, this would make a deliciously auspicious addition to your New Year’s Eve dinner this Dec. 31—or any day of the year.
Chinese Sweet and Sour Fish
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
For the fish and marinade:
- 1 (2-pound) whole sea bass, cleaned
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 6 thin slices ginger
- 3 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces
For the sweet and sour sauce:
- 4 tablespoons ketchup
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 1/2 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 3 thin slices ginger, finely minced
- 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 2 scallions, white parts finely chopped and green parts julienned
For the batter:
- 1 cup cornstarch
- 4 tablespoons water chestnut powder (or can substitute glutinous rice flour)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 3/4 cup water
- 4 cups vegetable oil, for frying
First, prepare the fish. Make 4 evenly spaced diagonal cuts into each side of the fish, cutting down to the bone but being careful not to completely cut off the flesh. Transfer to a shallow plate big enough to fit the length of the fish.
Season each side of the fish with salt, making sure to lift up the cut flaps to season the exposed flesh as well. Pour rice wine evenly all over and inside the fish, lightly rubbing it into the skin and flesh. Stuff the ginger and scallion under the cut flaps and inside the fish; sprinkle any remaining pieces on top. Let sit for 20 minutes to marinate.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. In a large bowl, combine the ketchup, sugar, rice vinegar, salt, and chicken stock and mix well. Set aside; we’ll finish the sauce after frying the fish.
Now, make the batter. In another large bowl, combine the cornstarch, water chestnut flour, baking powder, salt, egg, and oil. Pour in half of the water and mix well. Then add the rest of the water and mix again until completely smooth. The batter should be quite thin.
After 20 minutes, remove all the ginger and scallion pieces from the fish. Pour the batter over the fish and use your hands to distribute it evenly, making sure that the entire fish, including underneath the cuts, is coated.
In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil to 350 degrees F. You can test the oil with a small amount of leftover batter: Add a few drops into the oil, and if they immediately float to the surface and start to bubble, the oil is ready.
With your non-dominant hand, hold the fish by the tail over the oil. (Wearing gloves or holding the tail with paper towels will help make sure that it doesn’t slip.) With your other hand, use a ladle to carefully spoon the hot oil over the fish for about 1 minute, to set its form. Then, put the fish fully in the oil and let deep-fry for about 4 minutes, flipping it halfway through, until golden brown. Take out the fish and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. When the fish is no longer dripping oil, transfer to a serving plate.
Now, finish the sauce. Prepare a cornstarch slurry by mixing together the cornstarch and water until smooth. In another pan over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add in the garlic, ginger, and the white part of the scallions, and stir-fry over medium-high heat until the aroma is released, about 30 seconds. Pour in the sauce, then add the cornstarch slurry, and stir until thickened.
To serve, pour the sauce over the fish and top with the julienned scallions.
Recipe by CiCi Li. CiCi Li is the producer and presenter of “CiCi’s Food Paradise” on NTD. Join her in discovering the world of Asian home cooking at CiCiLi.tv.