Monday, September 23, 2013

Ever eaten Qinghai cuisine? Be prepared for a delicious surprise...

 Qinghai in China's far west is not famous in China for its cuisine, but the few things from there that I have tried have been terrific, so this low profile is a puzzle to me. Its cuisine is a great cross between so many influences—Han Chinese, Hui Muslim, Tibetans—that you just know the food here has to be good.

One such dish is this flavorful, gorgeous, and yet quite easy fish that is decorated with a “flower” cut design so that the meat of the fish blooms in the hot oil as it fries, crisping up into petals that, when done, make the fish look indeed much like a pinecone. A tangy sauce is then poured over it and toasted pine nuts complete the transformation from fish into a tasty work of art.
Flower cut
Similar preparations are found throughout northern China and down through the Yangtze River area. The version called Squirrel Fish (sōngshŭ yú 松鼠魚) is a classic Hangzhou dish, for example, and then there is Shandong’s Sweet-and-Sour Fish (tángcù yú 糖醋魚), plus any number of similar recipes that coat fresh- or saltwater fish in a light batter, fry it until crisp, and then drape it with a refined sauce. 

Since fish goes so well with slightly sour notes like lemon and vinegar, it is understandable that here in China its sauce will sometimes contain sweet-and-sour notes. And because it tastes so good and looks so nice, the sauce is often red from ketchup and buzzes with bits of aromatics, like ginger, green onion, and garlic.
Some might even have some pine nuts in the mix, but the recipe below is exceptionally successful in this regard, for the fish is not only make to look a bit like a pinecone but even has the nuts to carry the fantasy a bit further.

Pinecone fish
Sōngzĭ yú 松子魚
Serves 4 to 6

Fish and batter:
2 pounds (more or less) fileted fish with the skin on (rock cod, amberjack, or carp are all good)
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup rice wine (Mijiu)
¾ cup cornstarch, divided

1 pound bok choy or other greens
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sea salt

Lower the fish gently into oil
4 cup peanut or vegetable oil (used all right if it smells fresh)
¼ cup pine nuts
4 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
¼ cup minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup catsup
2 tablespoons light colored (apple or rice) vinegar
1 cup unseasoned chicken stock
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup cool filtered water

1. Rinse the fish and pat it dry with a paper towel. Lay the filets on a cutting board with the skin-side down. Working on one filet at a time, make parallel slices ¼-inch apart down the length of the filet that cut through the flesh but not through the skin. Then turn the filet 90 degrees and, starting with the thicker end, make deep diagonal slices ¼-inch apart through the flesh all the way down the body but again not through the skin. Repeat with the other filet. Mix together the salt, pepper, rice wine, and half of the cornstarch, and then gently massage this into all the crevasses on the cut side of the fish; don’t be concerned if bits of fish fall off, as they can be fried too and tossed on top of the filets with no one the wiser. Let the fish marinate in this while you prepare everything else.
Fried up & crispy

2. Rinse the vegetables well, shake dry, and cut the bok choy lengthwise into quarters or the spinach or other greens into 2-inch lengths, discarding any tough pieces. Heat a wok over high heat, add the oil and salt, swirl these around, and then stir-fry the vegetables until barely done. Use the vegetables to make a next on a serving platter.

3. Heat the oil in your wok over medium heat and add the pine nuts. Gently fry these until they have turned a light brown, and then use a slotted spoon to remove them to a small bowl.

4. Coat the marinated fish with the other half of the cornstarch: Working on one piece at a time, pick up each piece of fish by the tail end and scatter the cornstarch into the crevasses so that the cut pieces do not stick together. Gently lower the filet into the hot oil and fry on the cut side first until it is lightly browned. Use two spatulas to carefully turn it over, fry briefly on the other side, and then transfer the filet to the vegetable-lined platter. Repeat with the other filet, reserving any leftover cornstarch in the bowl for the sauce. If you have any broken bits of fish left over, fry these too and then scatter them over the fried filets. Drain the oil out of the wok, leaving only about 3 tablespoons.

5. Lower the heat under the wok to medium and add the green onions and ginger. Stir these around in the hot oil to release their fragrance, and then add the salt, ketchup, vinegar, stock and sugar, and bring these to a boil. Mix the leftover cornstarch with the water to make a slurry, and pour as much in as needed to thicken the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then pour this over the fried filets. Sprinkle the tops with the toasted pine nuts and serve immediately.

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