In America, we typically think of our holiday meals as centered around a large land animal, like bulbous ham, a fleshy lamb leg, or a giant turkey. But in the Chinese custom, it’s hard to throw a proper feast without a whole, juicy fish making a grand appearance. Much faster to cook than, say, a prime rib roast, a whole fish can make a formidable centerpiece at your holiday table—and there’s nothing wrong with serving surf and turf.
There’s a Chinese maxim that says serving a fish intact, from head to tail, brings good luck. That’s why it’s often seen on tables during Chinese New Year. But you don’t have to wait around another month until the Lunar New Year comes around. Fish is a nutritious protein; it can add variety and flavor but also cut down on an otherwise calorie-heavy, not-always-heart-healthy holiday meal. There's no reason why the Lunar New Year—or good luck—can’t be celebrated early.
Cooking whole fish can scare the scales off of many home cooks. But if you trust yourself enough to cook a good steak to medium-rare, then you’re ripe for conquering the whole-fish test next. Since every piece of meat and every fish is sized and shaped a little differently, doneness is all about perception. Keeping bones within the flesh of a whole fish, however gutted, will increase the cooking time if you’re accustomed to cooking only fillets. The bonus is that it’ll increase the moistness and flavor of your finished product. Plus, undercooked fish will have a telltale translucence, which you can immediately resolve by cooking it a bit longer. And overcooked fish is not as much a worst-case scenario as overcooked beef. It’s fine, actually.
First step: find a good fishmonger. If a market sells whole fish, it’s a good sign to begin with—they have enough demand from customers who presumably trust it and come back for it. Say you caught a fish or came about one by happenstance? In any case, just look into its eye, and freshness will be told. If the eye appears to be clear, bright and healthy, like a living fish, it’s mighty fresh. Buying a fish whole as opposed to fillets grants you the opportunity to see those shiny eyes and tell if your fish is fresh, without having to do the smell-test. It’s also economical. But of course, the catch: If your fishmonger won’t scale and clean the fish for you, you’ll have to take it home for the task yourself. Fortunately, we’ve got a how-to on that.
Now that your shopping is done you’re probably wondering how to prepare your oh-so-fresh whole fish to its fullest. The traditional Taiwanese seasonings of fresh basil and chopped red chilies form an appropriate palette to display this time of year. Sprinkle on as much or as little of them as you like, but the classic Taiwanese-style pan-fried fish has plenty of both, along with fresh ginger and garlic. The whole shebang is smothered with some soy sauce and rice wine so you don’t have to worry about not having enough moistness from your fish. It’s a saucy, salty, sweet, herbal and faintly spicy explosion on a plate. But underneath all this mess is is the purity of a really fresh, whole fish. Celebrate it. Savor it. And cook it all which ways, for friends and family, any time of the year.
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