Chinese sweet and sour fish ready in 20 minutes. No deep-frying needed. Visually appealing and balanced in flavour. Ideal for the busy diner. Also a great choice for special occasions. A must for Chinese New Year.
Growing up in a small town near the Gobi desert in North-west China, fish was a rare treat on the dinner table. Yet, for the Chinese New Year (the Spring Festival), a whole fish was a must. In the Chinese language the character “余” (abundant) has the same pronunciation as the word 鱼 (fish), therefore we say that eating fish brings good luck: 年年有余 (May you get more than you wish for every year). Although I didn’t care very much about this superstitious belief, fish is part of my childhood memories of New Year celebrations and my favourite way to enjoy it was with sweet and sour sauce.
Many may agree that to Western diners sweet and sour is one of the most famous flavour combinations in Chinese cuisine. But I find that this great flavour has been misinterpreted by many European Chinese restaurants (especially takeaways). The problem is that the sauce doesn’t contain the right balance of flavours. Often they are just far too sweet. Also, the meat to sauce ratio isn’t always appropriate. No matter what the meat, whether pork, chicken or fish, an excessive quantity of sauce makes them taste identical.
Fish in a sweet and sour dish is commonly coated in batter and then deep fried. To be honest with you, this is not my preferred way to cook it. It’s time-consuming, greasy and somehow it undermines the natural taste of the ingredient, especially when too much batter is added.
My version of sweet and sour fish dosen’t involve deep-frying. You only need to use 2 tablespoons of oil to seal the skin. The sauce is rich, appetising in colour and beautifully balanced in flavour. Most importantly, you may substitute some of the condiments by ingredients more commonly available in Western kitchens: replace white rice vinegar with apple cider vinegar, use white wine in stead of Shaoxing rice wine. It won’t go wrong, I promise.
My culinary fans in the Red House are not used to eating whole fish with all the bones inside. They think it’s too fussy and messy. But they do love the stunning presentation (you can be sure you are eating a FISH) which would be a great choice to impress your guests for an important dinner party. Actually Chinese cooks believe that the inedible parts of the fish contribute to the general flavour.
As you can see, I use rainbow trout which has less small bones and thus is more child-friendly. Sea bass is a great choice too for this dish (my personal preference). Try it if you are a patient eater and good at dealing with bones.
Unlike in my childhood, now we can enjoy sweet and sour fish anytime of the year. It doesn’t even have to be a weekend special because it’s very simple to prepare. 20 minutes is all you need to finish this good-looking, flavour-bursting dish (Note: Don’t forget to ask the fishmonger to gut and descale the fish. This will save you lots of time and hassle). Only three steps needed as shown in the pictures above:
- Coat the fish with corn starch and chop the fresh ingredients
- Seal the fish skin in hot oil, then stir in the chopped ingredients
- Pour the sauce mixture in, then cook with lid on
Done! No complications, no special methods and quite difficult to fail. Give it a try, I’m sure you’ll love it.
Hope you enjoy making it. Have a yummy day!