Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dry fried flounder

This is one dish that is so appealing and unusual that it could be an instant classic once word gets around.

I'm talking about whole Dry Fried Flounder, a direct translation of the most common Chinese name for this dish, ganjian longli, although once in a while you find it called xiangjian longli (fragrant fried flounder). It's another one of those dish names that obviously wasn't thought up by a poet or a PR man. Straight to the point. And that makes this recipe even more of a pleasant secret.

I've ordered this dish for years, and some restaurants turn out spectacular versions, others not so great. So I figured, what could be so hard about this? Why not make it myself? Easier said than done. Even Chinese-language cookbooks and online resources were less than any help. The most that anyone could offer in the way of advice was Dry Fried Flounder Fillets, which is really missing the point.
Secrets finally revealed!

Why do you need the whole fish? Simple: you want to enjoy the tiny bones that form the fringe of fins on a flatfish. When fried correctly, they turn into crunchy needles that are every bit as lovely as the meat. In fact, you will find that they are what everyone fights over. They're like tiny potato chips and offer a fantastically tactile experience.

It's taken me quite a while to figure out even where this dish originated, too. This is enjoyed throughout Taiwan, and for that reason a large number of Chinese restaurants here that are run by Taiwanese will offer Dry Fried Flounder on or off the menu. 

But this definitely doesn't taste like Taiwanese food. As best as I've been able to ferret out, it most likely came from Fujian, or even Chaozhou, that seafood-loving area just over the border from Fujian on Guangdong's coast.
The crunchy frill

Be that as it may, what really is important is how to make this. I have tried frying it with a cornstarch coating, a light batter, and so forth, but they were all dismal failures. That meant repeated visits to my favorite restaurants as I tried to break the Flounder Code. (Not that I'm complaining.)

Finally I realized that there was absolutely nothing on the fish. The Chinese name suggested that by calling it "dry," and it took a while to figure out that that was what was meant. The second word, "fried," actually means "pan fried," but whenever I pan-fried the fish, I ended up with a soggy mess, so this name really was throwing me for a loop.

And then it hit me: this needed super high heat, lots of hot oil, and deep frying. Once I did that, the problem was solved. 

Whole flounder freshly gutted

There were a couple of minor explosions as the fish hit the oil, with flaming hot fountains of oil flying around. Very dramatic. So this is what I did: after salting and marinating it, the fish was wiped super dry, and even the cavity and the inside of the head were made as dry as could be. This kept the sputtering down and also allowed the heat of the oil to stay high, so the fish fried very quickly and the frills crisped up like a dream.

Cooking this yourself has all sorts of advantages. The first is, of course, that you can use the freshest fish available. Second, your oil will be fresh, too, and that is so important, not just taste wise but health wise. And finally, flatfish are generally so cheap that you'll laugh at the restaurant prices from now on.

So here it is, my beloved personal recipe for one of the great Chinese recipes that no one talks about. Serve it with rice and a vegetable; that's all you need.

Dry fried flounder 
Ganjian longli 乾煎龍利  
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main entree

Scrape off the scales
1 whole flounder or other flatfish, about 1 pound (see Tips)
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
6 cups (or more) frying oil (see Tips)
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
3 green onions, trimmed
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
3 tablespoons filtered water or stock
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce, or to taste
½ teaspoon sugar

1. Gut the fish by cutting under the chin and removing the small pouch of organs; scrape out any black skin in there, as this is often very bitter. Remove the gills, too, which look like pink eyelashes. Scale the fish by scraping a knife from tail to head on both sides of the fish; when you are done and all the scales have been washed off, the fish should look pink rather than gray. 

Scaled pink fish
2. Pat the fish dry with a paper towel or two and lay it on a cutting board. Use your knife to cut diagonal slashes a little more than an inch apart, from about a 10:00 position down to a 4:00 position; these should go all the way down to (but not through) the bones, and cover the entire width of the fish body, but do not cut into the frills around the edge. Flip the fish over and do the same thing. (Make sure that the cuts use the same angle on both sides so that when you hold the fish up to the light, you can see XXX marks down its body. This keeps the fish from falling apart as you fry it, while allowing the meat to cook very quickly.)

3. Lay the fish on a platter and rub the salt into both sides. Sprinkle it with the 2 teaspoons rice wine, and let it marinate for 10 to 20 minutes. At the end of this time, drain off all of the marinade and pat the fish very, very dry. Wipe out even the inside of the head and cavity so that there are no drops of water to explode in the hot oil. Then. lay the fish on a dry paper towel while you prepare everything else.

4. Pour enough frying oil into your wok so that it is at least 1½ inches deep; this will ensure that there is enough hot oil to rapidly fry the fish and make it both crispy and succulent. Heat the oil over high until it starts to smoke. While you are waiting, prepare a serving platter, and have a pair of cooking chopsticks, a wok spatula, and either a spatter screen or a large lid ready. Also, make the sauce in the next step so that it is ready when the fish is.

Slash the flesh to the bone
5. Prepare the sauce in a small pan by heating the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over high heat until it is sizzling, and then adding the green onions. Stir them quickly over the high heat to release their fragrance, and then add the rest of the rice wine, water or stock, soy sauce, and sugar. Bring the sauce to a boil, taste, and adjust the seasoning. Turn off the heat under the sauce.

6. While the oil is heating up, clear the kitchen of children and pets and anyone who will get in your way. 

7. Holding the fish by the tail in one hand and either the spatter screen or the lid in your other, slide the fish into the hot oil and immediately cover the wok with the screen or lid, as the water in the flesh will start to explode. This will die down fast, and if you can, keep your grip on the tail so that you slide the fish around so that all of it gets a chance to brown. There is no need to flip the fish over if you have enough hot oil; just use your spatula to lightly press down on the fish and scoot it around. When the fish has fried for about 5 minutes, slide the tail end in so that all of the tail fin gets fried, too; this is a very thin part of the fish, so it will fry up fast. 

Deep fry the whole fish
8. Depending upon your fish, the heat of your stove, and the depth of the oil, the fish will be ready in about 7 to 10 minutes. It should be a golden brown all over, the fins and frills will be browned and crispy, and the meat will have pulled away from the bones where you slashed the flesh (see the top photo). Place your platter next to the wok. Use your spatula to scoop down under the fish body and your chopsticks to steady the tail end to lift up the fish, drain off the oil, and place it carefully on your platter. If you feel uneasy about this, use two spatulas, or even ask someone to help. (Turn off the heat and push the wok to the back of the stove out of harm's way and let the oil cool completely.)

9. Bring the sauce to a quick boil and pour it over the fish. Serve immediately.


The bones inside the flesh will be hard and are inedible. Do not serve this to people who are unclear on this point, and this includes children, as they could choke on the hard bones.

Use whatever local flatfish you have that is sustainable and tasty. This link gives some  good suggestions.

Do not use a fish that is much larger than a pound here unless you have a restaurant-sized wok. The ratio of fish to hot oil is important, and if the fish is either too thick or too long, it won't cook fast enough and will crumble.

Pour the sauce over the fish
Be sure to use a large amount of oil here. This is crucial to achieving the correct balance of crisp edges and succulent meat before the skeleton cooks too and the fish dissolves into a sodden mess.

Salting the fish helps draw out more of the moisture, since water in hot oil explodes. Also, it lowers the temperature of the oil, and the drier the fish, the faster it cooks. 

When drying the fish, don't skimp on the paper towels.

The oil can be reused, since flounder and other flatfish are very mild flavored. Just strain the cooled oil and store it in a cool, dark place, like the fridge. Toss it whenever it starts to darken or have a strong aroma.

Once you master this dish, make it your own. Season it with other aromatics, or even change the sauce. It's up to you.


  1. this is the best recipe ever. thank you so much!

    1. Thanks, Sandra. I'm thrilled you love it as much as we do!