Sweet and Sour Fish, one of the favorite dishes in my family

Sweet and Sour Fish, one of the favorite dishes in my family

This is one of the most popular Chinese dishes in Southeast Asia, and has numerous versions. At fancy Chinese restaurants sometimes an entire fish is deep-fried for it.

When I was young, the popular cliché dish at Chinese-American restaurants, a dish I thought was wonderful in my innocence before living in Asia and having real Chinese food, was “Sweet and Sour Pork,” crispy batter-fried pork pieces in a gluey sauce with chunks of pineapple and bell pepper. But it was a cut above the “Chop Suey” and “Chow Mein.” (Nowadays, the non-authentic, popular clichés at Chinese-American restaurants include “General Tao’s Chicken” and “Mongolian Beef” and “Shrimp Rangoon.” See my blog post of 9/2/2019 for a very tasty, if not really Chinese, “Mongolian Beef.”) 

Photo: Maria Dondero. Platter: Marmalade Pottery, Athens GA
In Asia, the only sweet and sour dish I recall encountering was sweet and sour fish. It was a revelation. That dish has become one of the favorites in my family, often requested for birthday dinners.

The version here, with squares of fish fillet, is practical for home cooking. Grouper would be my preferred fish, but tilapia, which many people frown on, makes a surprisingly good dish and is more economical. In fact, the sweet and sour fish I had in Northern Thailand, distant from the sea, was made with local farm-raised tilapia.

The recipe serves six to eight when accompanied by unsalted white rice and a stir-fried vegetable side dish. Preparing sweet and sour fish is a little elaborate, but it’s a party dish and a centerpiece. The effort is worth it.

1-1/2 pounds (thawed if frozen) skinless fillet of white fish, such as grouper or tilapia
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon rice flour (for crispness), or 1 extra tablespoon flour
Oil for frying (like canola or sunflower oil, not olive oil)
1/2 red bell pepper
1 small-medium carrot*
1 large or 2 smaller green onions
6 sprigs cilantro leaf

1 large clove of garlic
1/2 inch fresh ginger
1 tablespoon oil
3/4 cup water
3 tablespoons soy sauce
5 tablespoons vinegar (white or cider)
1 tablespoon tomato catsup
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil (available at Asian groceries)

Pat fish dry with paper towel, and cut it into 2-inch squares. Sprinkle with salt and grated ginger and mix to coat. Allow to sit in a bowl at least ten minutes while preparing the other ingredients. Push fish to one side of the bowl and with a fork, beat egg with the water, flour and rice flour. Combine with the seasoned fish, to coat, using your hands to mix evenly. Set aside until ready to cook.

Prepare vegetables and stack in piles on a plate. Remove stem, core, and seeds from bell pepper. Cut into long slices 1/8-inch wide. If more than 3 inches long, cut them in half. Peel carrot* and slice it on a long diagonal 1/8-inch thick. Pile up the slices and cut them lengthwise into 1/8-inch matchsticks. Cut green onion, white and green parts included, into long diagonal slices 1/8-inch thick. Stack a few up at a time and cut in half lengthwise, so as to shred. Pick over and rinse cilantro leaves.

Prepare sauce ingredients: Finely mince garlic and ginger and set aside. Mix water, soy sauce, vinegar, catsup, sugar, cornstarch and salt in a bowl, then add sesame oil. Taste and adjust with sugar or vinegar to make sweet-sour.
Double batch for serving a crowd.

Heat the oven to warm, for storing the fried fish.

Heat several tablespoons of oil in a non-stick frying pan. Fry fish, part at a time, turning once or twice, until golden (do not overcook). Remove fish from pan, placing it on a warm platter and keep it in the warm oven. Finish cooking fish, adding more oil if necessary.

Remove all except 1 tablespoon of oil from pan, or add oil if necessary to obtain about 1 tablespoon. Fry carrot strips about 1-1/2 minutes over medium heat, stirring. Add minced garlic and ginger and stir and fry about 15 seconds or until fragrant but not browned. Add peppers and fry another half minute. Stir sauce mixture to mix the starch around and add to the pan, stirring. Simmer until boiling and thickened. Remove from heat. Taste, and add salt if necessary.

Arrange fish pieces on serving platter. Spoon sauce and vegetables over fish. Garnish with shredded green onion and coriander sprigs.

*Note: Pineapple is sometimes used in this dish. If desired, replace the carrot with 4 to 5 rings of pineapple, either fresh or canned, cut into small pieces. Stir them into the pan when adding the sauce ingredients.

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