Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hangzhou West Lake Vinegar Fish

Westlake vinegar fish. Double the amount of sauce if your fish is big. Here, I didn't have enough sauce and instead left half the steamed liquid on the plate--not very presentable.

When I was about 16, my oldest bro came back from college in Hong Kong where he had a Shanghainese girlfriend. He told us that he noticed two distinct things about the Shanghainese: their food is black from all that soy sauce and they have higher and sharper noses than us Cantonese. That made me check out every Shanghainese's nose, and unfortunately for them, I disagree with my bro's observation. Longer, just slightly longer noses, yes, but not any taller than the average Cantonese nose. Staturewise, however, they tend to be taller. But bro was right about the color of their food though. While Cantonese food is colorful with fresh ingredients, Shangainese food tend to be a boring brown-black, simmered and stewed in soy sauce, wine and sugar--the famous 'red-cooking'. However, I have to admit, color is deceptive and nobody red-cooks and braises and stews better than a Shanghainese.

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 veg thrown in. I find the white vinegar and ketchup too sharp, and so this is my least liked way of cooking sweet and sour fish. 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 I find it a little too sweet. Hangzhou, a city 2 hours by car from Shanghai, is famous for several dishes and one of them is their Westlake 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, perfect if you don't want to fry, and then, a sweet sour sauce is poured over it. I kid you not, this is one really yummy way of cooking sweet and sour fish. It's so good I prefer it to the Shanghainese sugar vinegar fish, and even my MIL agrees.

I've simplified the recipe for home cooks. Do you know that most restaurants poach instead of steam (but they'll tell you the fish is steamed) their fish? Poaching cuts down on the cooking time. The water the fish is poached in is probably seasoned to the point of becoming a fish stock since they poach so many fish. Hangzhou vinegar fish is usually poached but I prefer to steam it; saves the trouble of lifting the fish out from the water. We don't get good freshwater fish here, unlike in China where all the fish they eat are from rivers and lakes--Westlake is the most famous lake in China (I think. I'm not a sino expert) although all I remember of it was mist, mist, mist-- and are surprisingly flavorful and tasty,whereas the ones we get here taste of mud. Which is why we prefer salt water fish although in terms of flavor, good fresh water fish is better. The best fish to get for this recipe, if you can't get a good fresh water fish, is fine-fleshed fish like the perch, bass, barramundi etc of about 800g to 1 kg. Grouper is good too but it should be less than, say, 1.5 kg. Don't get filletted fish. Chinese prefer their fish whole, bones on, probably because chopsticks are the perfect tools for picking at the fish . I find filleted fish boring to eat. Besides, deboned fish is for sissies.

Hangzhou Westlake Vinegar Fish
1 x 800 g whole fish, butterflied*
1 T shao xin wine
2 T of very finely-cut strips of fresh ginger
about 2 T spring onion strips

The sauce:
3 T light soy sauce
4 T black vinegar
4 T brown sugar (for color & it's not as sweet as white sugar)
1/2 t salt
1 cup chicken or fish stock (step 3)

1/2 T corn flour
2 T water
--mix well

sesame oil (optional)

* update 18/11/10: after my recent trip to Hangzhou, I realize that the fish must be butterflied to minimize the cooking time so that the flesh is tender. The fish will also look bigger when butterflied.

1. Remove the scales & clean the fish. If fish is thick, butterfly it. Make a couple of slashes on the thickess part of the body to help fish cook faster. Put the fish on a heat-proof plate and scatter ginger strips under and over the fish. Pour the wine all over the fish.

2. Steam the fish for 10-12 minutes depending on the thickness of the body. Test with a fork by flaking the thickess part of the body. If it flakes off easily from the bone, fish is done. Do not over cook.

3. While fish is steaming, put all the sauce ingredients (except for the cornflour and water) into a small pot and cook over low flame, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When sugar is dissolved, add 1 cup chicken stock*/poaching water to the sauce. When sauce boils, add the corn flour solution and stir well until sauce becomes shiny and thickened. Taste and adjust with more sugar or vinegar or salt to your liking.

4. Add a splash of sesame oil (if using) to the thickened sauce and pour it over the steamed fish. Sprinkle the fine spring onions strips on the fish. Serve hot.

*Note step 3: You can use the liquid from the steamed fish instead of the chicken stock but it may be fishy & also turns the sauce opaque instead of shiny & clear.


mummy.t said...

May God crowned you with His glory this evening as you give the talk n cooking demo :)Even as it is, you r already such a pretty n capable cook n mummy!
Thank you for today's fish recipe cos it is easy for a simple cook like me :P
Me a shanghainese too but a shameful one cos in name only *tsk tsk*
Cheers, MP :)

Precious Pea said...

So this is the famous "Tong Chou" (Sugar Vinegar) fish that i always hear about from those TVB series?? Looks good!

Just being kepoh, did your brother ended up marrying the Shanghainese girl??

worldwindows said...

Poaching kind of change the texture of the skin and juices migrate out? But then it get cooked all round. The problem with steaming is the underside. I won't get the steam. How can I get a kitchen contraption that can suspend the fish in the steamer so that it gets the full works!

PureGlutton said...

I just came back fr Shanghai and we ate this Vinegar Fish in Hangzhou too! Yours look pretty much like what we had there :-)

terri@adailyobsession said...

mummyt: thnx, went well last nite i think :D u a shanghainese? oh oh i better be nicer about them lol

pp: i am not sure but was it this color? if so, must be the same thing. u must cook it soon, ok? er, no, he didn't marry her (i did, a shanghainese i mean haha) & he didn't even finish his studies.

worldwindows:try butterflying the fish. tt fish in my photo is only one side; the other side kept for congee.

pureglutton: ah, so did u enjoy ur trip? waiting to read about it on ur blog:)

Unknown said...

Hi Terri, a very authentic steamed fish recipe. I personally prefer it steamed than poached most probably my cantonese root and my mother is also a great cook in cantonese cuisine, esp steamed fish. I am very impressed by your additional info on weigh of fish in order to get the desirable result.

Also, once again thanks for the good friday dinner at your house. Oh yes, forgot to mention my name, I am alice, ann brought me to the gathering, remember? Your chocolate moist cake was absolutely gorgeous!

NEE said...

cool you are giving talk and demo...really about time as well. don waste the talent.

thanks for recipes. a keeper for sure. we love fish but my fussy hub wants nothing to do with the fishy smell, not even a bit. think this is really appetizing.

terri@adailyobsession said...

alice: of course i rmber u!come visit us again soon

nee: ah, u must try it. use a small fish so tt if greg doesn't like it, u can finish it urself.

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