Chili Bean Whole Fish (Striped Bass) (豆瓣全鱼 Dou Ban Quan Yu)
February 13, 2021  Print
Yesterday was Chinese New Year, which is also known as the Lunar New Year. It’s the biggest holiday for Chinese people. Outside of China, many other Asian countries also celebrate Chinese/Lunar New Year as an official holiday. This holiday is like a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas for Chinese people. The eve before New Year is usually when families gather together for a reunion dinner (年夜饭, which literally translates to new year’s eve meal).
Every year, around Chinese New Year, tens to hundreds of millions of people all over China travel back to their hometowns to have the reunion dinner with their families (although this year is an exception due to the pandemic). For many migrant workers who work far away from their rural hometowns, it’s the only time they get to see their family. In this way, Chinese New Year is quite similar to Thanksgiving in the US. During Chinese New Year, children will also receive red envelopes with money inside from adult family members. That was one of the best parts of Chinese New Year for me as a kid.
I have now been living in the US for over 20 years. I must say, it’s actually kind of hard to celebrate Chinese New Year outside of Asia simply because there is not much of a celebratory atmosphere here unless you go to Chinatown or go to see a Chinese New Year parade.
In contrast, in China and other Asian countries, buildings and streets are covered in New Year decorations weeks before the actual New Year. At home, besides buying New Year goods in preparation for the reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, people also start cleaning and sweeping days before to welcome a new beginning and supposedly get rid of any bad luck leftover from the old year. This year, due to the pandemic, I’m sure there were way more people cleaning and sweeping!
As a family tradition, we always make a point to have an elaborate reunion dinner to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve regardless of whether we have other family members or friends joining. Now that my kids are starting to have a better sense of their surroundings, I especially want to preserve some cultural traditions for them and give them a sense of ritual by celebrating traditional Chinese holidays, including Chinese New Year.
Back to today’s topic. The reason this post is about chili bean whole fish (striped bass) is that a whole fish is always included in our Chinese New Year’s Eve reunion dinner. This has to do with the symbolic meaning attached to fish (note: for the reunion dinner, every dish has a symbolic meaning). There are two phrases relevant to fish in Chinese. The first, “有头有尾,” translates to: there is a head (beginning) and a tail (end). The second, “年年有余,” translates to: may you have surplus every year. Because “fish” and “surplus” in Chinese have the same pronunciation, a whole fish with its head and tail has always been used in the reunion dinner to symbolize prosperity in the coming new year.
So this year I cooked chili bean whole fish for our New Year reunion dinner. It always tastes great and looks super fancy. One ingredient you cannot substitute for is the chili bean sauce. I highly recommend getting the Pixian Douban (郫县豆瓣) from your local Chinese grocery store. Pixian Douban is a geographical protected indication , the same way certain cheeses and wines are under the protected designation of origin in Europe. It’s made only in Pixian, Sichuan using very specific methods.
Even though Pixian Douban looks a bit scary with its red color, it is not that hot at all. It gives out a combination of savory, subtlety sweet, and mild spicy flavor. Just to give you an idea about the spiciness, my 4.5 year old boy can eat this chili bean whole fish without complaining. The fish is full of umami, enhanced by the flavor of the Pixian Douban infused sauce but not overwhelmed by it.
If you are into Sichuan cuisine, Pixian Douban is practically in every one of the well-known Sichuan dishes. Some of the dishes that I posted about previously that use Pixian Douban include Mala (Spicy & Numbing) Dry Pot Chicken and Instant Pot Braised Beef Short Ribs with Carrots.
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Servings: 4-6 people
- 1 medium to large whole fish1
- 1 1-inch long piece of ginger
- 2 green onions
- ~5 garlic cloves
- a pinch of kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon Pixian Douban (chili bean sauce)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- ~1 cup hot water
- 1/2 teaspoon corn starch
- 2 tablespoons water
- Clean the fish thoroughly. Make sure the fish is gutted, descaled, and without gills.1 You can follow my directions on how to clean a fish. Removing the fins is optional. For more detailed steps, check out steps 1 to 3 from my previous post for Creamy Fish Soup.
- Cut three diagonal slits on each side and sprinkle the pinch of kosher salt over the body and inside the fish. Be sure to include salt in the slits. Leave the fish marinating in salt on the kitchen counter while preparing the other ingredients.
- Peel and mince the ginger and garlic cloves. Separate the white and green parts of the green onions and cut them into small pieces.
- Heat a non-stick pan under medium heat. When the pan is warm, add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, then gently lay the fish in the pan. When the fish skin becomes golden brown (about 2-3 minutes), carefully flip the fish. When both sides are equally browned, gently transfer the fish to a flat plate.
- Heat a large wok or well-seasoned cast iron pan under medium-high heat. When the pan is getting hot, add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Then immediately add the minced ginger, minced garlic, and white green onion pieces, tossing for 10 seconds. Then add the 1 tablespoon of Pixian Douban (chili bean sauce), mixing well with the other herbs (ginger, garlic, and green onions) until the oil has become red, about another 10 seconds. Add the 2 teaspoons of sugar, 1 teaspoon of soy sauce, and ~1 cup of hot water, thoroughly mixing. When the water bubbles, carefully add the lightly fried fish to the pan. The fish should be half immersed in the liquid. Use a ladle to scoop up the liquid and pour it over the parts of the fish that are not submerged under the liquid. Next, cover the lid and lower the heat to medium-low. Let the fish simmer in the liquid for about 5-10 minutes depending the size of the fish (5 minutes for a 1 lb fish, and 10 minutes for a 3 lb fish). Flip the fish once in between.
- When the time is up, remove the lid and carefully transfer the fish to a large plate. Return the heat to medium-high, and make some starch water by mixing the 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch with 2 tablespoons of water. Pour the starch water into the remaining flavored liquid and mix well. When the liquid thickens a bit, pour the thickened liquid over the fish. Sprinkle some green onions and enjoy while it is hot.
- Although this recipe works for any whole fish, I recommend a fish that is over 1 lb (450g). It can get a little too salty for a fish that weighs less. The fish I used here is a 1.5 lb striped bass (鲈鱼), but any mild flavored white meat fish should work, such as branzino, black bass, etc. Another nice thing about buying fish from Asian grocery stores in the US is that the store usually has service that cleans and descales the fish for free.
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