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The Fish I Cook to Remind Me of Home

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When I was 6 years old, my mom and I took the long flight to the States to join my dad after a year of separation. He had immigrated a year earlier to build the foundations of a home and a life for us to move to.

Photo by Jenny Huang

It was my very first time on a plane and, looking back, I don’t think my young mind could fully grasp that we were moving halfway around the world—permanently. It would be a long time before I would see the faces of my grandparents and friends. Throughout the flight, I ran through an overwhelming rollercoaster of excitement and confusion: Would I be able to make new friends? What would this new home be like?

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“You will have so many unimaginable opportunities,” my mom told me over and over again.

Photos by Jenny Huang

When the plane finally landed, it was nighttime and, with exhaustion setting in, my first impressions of my new home came at a blur: My father’s familiar face and figure emerging from the crowds, so ecstatic to finally see us; strangers all around us, pushing and shoving, speaking a language that I didn’t understand.

It finally dawned on me that we would not be going back to Sichuan. We got into the little car my dad had purchased and I drifted off in the backseat, my head swimming with questions.

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Photo by Jenny Huang

My story, like so many others who immigrated to this country before and after me, is one of parents looking to provide better lives for their children. For me and my family, Chinese New Year is a time for us to celebrate everything that we were able accomplish by coming to the United States.

A fifteen day period of renewal, Chinese New Year is a time to honor the past and ensure a plentiful year. Though we didn’t observe all of the traditions typically associated with the holiday, my mom always made sure that we focused on what was most important: family and friends. For her, and her mom before her, food and family have always been intimately connected. Cooking was the way she demonstrated her care for the people she loved.

Photos by Jenny Huang

My mom would often start preparing for the New Year’s eve dinner days in advance. My dad would even pitch in and make his tang yuan (glutinous rice balls). A symbol of unity, tang yuan is traditionally eaten on New Years Day. The fillings often varied, but my favorites were those filled with black sesame paste and laced with the bitter rind of tangerines. A whole fish, or two, was always on the menu as well, since the phonetic pronunciation for fish in Chinese is the same as that of plentiful. It is believed that cooking and eating fish—with head and tail intact—will bring a year that is prosperous from start to finish.

This fish in particular has been a part of my mom's cooking since I lived in China, before I had full grasp of my memories. I imagine that my parents would break off little chunks of the fish to feed to me even as a baby. As I grew older, I learned to pick around the big bones for the meat, always making sure to be careful not to swallow any smaller bones. Each tender morsel acted as the perfect vehicle for carrying the wonderfully spicy and pungent sauce to my mouth.

This recipe is my take on the fish that my mom would make. It is bold in flavor with generous amounts of the three key ingredients of Sichuan cooking: fermented broad bean chili paste, Sichuan peppercorn, and dried chiles. Along with the big three, I also pickled some young ginger and fresh chiles for added punch. This dish is simple to make but truly worthy of being the centerpiece to any New Year’s celebration with your family and friends.

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Braised Barramundi in Broad Bean Chile Sauce with Pickled Chiles and Ginger

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Serves 4

For the quick-pickled chiles and ginger:

  • 3/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 3/4 cup red Thai chiles
  • 1 1/2 cups young ginger, cut into thick hunks

For the braised Barramundi:

  • 2 pounds whole barramundi
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup grapeseed oil or other neutral oil
  • 3 to 5 dried whole red hot chiles, such as Thai
  • 2 star anise pods
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
  • 2 tablespoons Pixian broad bean chile paste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fermented black beans
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
  • 4 tablespoons green onion whites, finely sliced
  • 8 to 10 pickled chiles, destemmed and cut on a diagonal (recipe above)
  • One 3-inch nub pickled ginger, cut into thick slices on a diagonal (recipe above)
  • 3 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons light soy sauce, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons potato starch, or as needed
  • 2 tablespoons pickling brine (recipe above)
  • Green onion tops, for garnish

Will you be making this to celebrate Chinese New Year? Tell us in the comments below!


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Tags: chinese new years, whole fish, barramundi