For the most part, visual and linguistic coincidences form the basis of what is to be served or not served on Chinese New Year. The pomelo fruit is traditionally eaten because of a phonetic resemblance to the Chinese word for ‘prosperity,’ and dumplings are thought to resemble the money-containing red envelopes that are gifted to friends and family. Similarly, it is auspicious to serve whole fish as part of the festivities because the Chinese word for ‘fish’, yu, is similar to the Chinese word for ‘plenty’ or ‘abundance’. The fish must be served with head and tail intact to symbolize completeness and ensure a good start to the new year. It’s even recommended to eat two whole fish – one on New Year’s Eve, and one on New Year’s Day – to maximize your chances at success and prosperity. Cultural background aside, serving whole fish on the dinner table is both visually beautiful in its own right and a nice celebration of what nature has to offer.
In my write-up for Cantonese steamed fish, I made the bold claim that the Chinese way of steaming fish, along with Japanese nigirizushi, is the best way to prepare fresh fish. I still stand by that, for the most part, but there are some qualifiers to that statement. For example, while steaming is excellent for a delicate, flakey fish like flounder or striped bass, a more oily and strongly-flavored fish like mackerel or pompano may take better to broiling or pan-frying. Pompano, in particular, is great for stovetop frying due to its flat profile and tough skin that remains intact in high heat cooking. Like mackerel, it has a rich and fatty flesh but its flavor is milder and not as fishy as mackerel is notorious for. A wok is used here because it is non-stick and wide enough to accommodate two fish – if cooking only one fish, a smaller pan can be used. This recipe calls for the same aromatic-infused sweet soy sauce served with steamed fish. Pompano is so flavorful though, that it would probably be okay with just some salt and pepper.
wok-fried pompano // ginger + scallion
- 2 large golden pompano, cleaned, scaled, and gutted
- 4 tbsp Shaoxing cooking wine, other rice wine, or dry sherry
- 1 large chunk of ginger, minced and sliced into strips
- 1-2 bunch scallions, chopped and julienned
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped and minced
- 1 bunch cilantro
- ½ cup sweetened soy sauce
- 1 lime, sliced into discs (optional)
In a wok or large skillet, heat 2 tbsp of cooking oil until shimmering hot, swirling the oil around to ensure thorough coverage. Fry the pompanos for 4-5 minutes on each side over medium-high heat, occasionally swirling the oil so that it makes contact with all sides of the fish. The pan must be hot enough but not so hot that the oil is smoking. The goal is to keep the fish from sticking and cooking it through without burning the exterior. As the skin cooks, it fill form a crust that will be easy to lift off of the pan – if you feel resistance when trying to flip the fish, continue cooking for another minute or so.
Meanwhile, take a small amount of chopped garlic, ginger, scallions, and cilantro (reserving some scallions and cilantro for garnish) and stir into a ½ cup of soy sauce that has been generously sweetened with about 2 tbsp sugar. Microwave the mixture for 30 seconds to infuse the flavors into the sauce.
Near the end of cooking, add the Shaoxing cooking wine along the perimeter of the wok and continue cooking over high heat for an additional minute. Transfer the fish to a plate, season with the infused soy sauce, and garnish with cilantro, scallions, and sliced limes.