Throughout most of Asia, fish is cooked and served whole (head and tail intact) for good luck. “Whole steamed fish with scallions, shiitakes and cilantro is classic. Every household in China has this recipe,” says award-winning food writer and cookbook author Corinne Trang. Whole fish symbolizes abundance, she says, and so for special occasions like weddings and birthdays, it is customary and good luck to serve a whole fish at the table. “I will make it any time I want to have it, and that’s not necessarily attached to a holiday like the Chinese New Year.”
Fish also has symbolic significance because the Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for riches (abundance). California-based Chris Yeo, founder of Straits Restaurant Group in California, recommends cooking your fish for 8 minutes, as 8 is a lucky number. “It is customary to serve the whole fish last, pointed toward the guest of honor at the table.” He offers an interesting insight into the dish: The fish is never completely eaten, as leaving a little bit of it represents the family’s ability to “always have enough.” Chris, who co-authored The Cooking of Singapore (Harlow & Ratner, 1993), prepares his fish inspired by the flavors he grew up with in Hong Kong and Singapore.
The most-esteemed part of the fish, the head, is saved for the most-esteemed guest at the table. Corinne recalls the special moment when her father first offered the head to her and showed her how to eat it. “Being offered the head of the fish is a show of respect, because that is the most-prized and the most-flavorful part of the fish.”
Adapted from a recipe by Corinne Trang, award-winning cookbook author. Her newest book: Asian Flavors Diabetes Cookbook: Simple, Fresh Meals Perfect for Every Day (ADA 2012)
Total Time: 40 to 50 minutes
Prep: 20 to 30 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Yield: 2-3 servings
3 medium dried shiitake mushrooms
One (1-1/2-pound) whole striped bass or sea bass, cleaned and gutted (head and tail left on)
2 scallions (green onions), thinly sliced diagonally or julienned
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil or peanut oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon Xiao Xing rice wine
1/2 bunch cilantro, stems lightly trimmed but not removed
In a small bowl, cover the mushrooms with boiling water. Set aside to soak until softened, 15 to 30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms and discard the water. Cut away and discard the stems and julienne the caps. Set aside.
Set a bamboo steamer in a wok filled halfway with water, and place the wok over high heat. Put a heatproof oval plate in the center of the steamer rack and place the fish on top. Scatter the mushrooms and scallions on top. Then sprinkle the salt, pepper and ginger. Place the lid on top, and cook until the fish flakes, about 15-20 minutes.
Remove the plate from the wok and drain off any water, being careful the fish does not slip off the plate. While the fish is still very hot, drizzle the vegetable oil on top, followed by the soy sauce, the sesame oil and the wine, in that order. Garnish with cilantro and serve.
To serve, use a knife to make an incision along the body of the fish to the end of the tail. With a spoon, carefully push each half to the side. Lift off the bones and cut the bottom fillet into two pieces. Serve the fish in individual portions with some cilantro, mushrooms and sauce in the plate.
Monica Bhide is the author of “Modern Spice” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).