Sesame is beloved throughout China. Foods in the north probably could not exist without either their toasted seeds or creamy paste. A close second for this devotion would be the cuisines along the lower Yangtze.
I developed this dish in order to combine my own delight in these little seeds with mild fish filets, chunks of fresh garlic, and the rich piquance of black vinegar. The results are — if I may be so immodest as to say myself — stellar.
A particularly delicious discovery was that using nothing other than sesame seeds as the breading works perfectly, and, unlike any other breading I can think of, they do not get soggy. Sauces can therefore drizzled over them with impunity, and the sesame will still stay crunchy.
This is a great dish for family meals or even the fanciest dinner, as most of it can be prepared ahead of time. Only a quick turn in some hot oil is needed at the last minute.
Zhīmá yúpiàn 芝麻魚片
Jiangsu (in style)
Serves 4 to 6
Fish and marinade:
1 pound mild-flavored fish filets (skinned and boneless)
1 large egg white
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
White half of a green onion, finely minced
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
½ cup coarsely chopped garlic
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup black vinegar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons or more sugar
10 tablespoons (or more) raw white or unhulled sesame seeds
Oil for frying
Green half of a green onion, thinly sliced
1. Start this dish at least 2 hours before it is to be served. To prepare the fish, rinse it and, if necessary, cut it into pieces around ¼ inch thick. Then, trim the filets into pieces between 2 and 3 inches long. Run your fingertips over both sides of the fish and use tweezers to pull out any bones you find. Pat the filets dry.
2. Place the egg white into a sealable container and lightly beat the white until it is foamy. Mix in the rest of the marinade ingredients. Add the filets to the marinade, toss them around so that they all become coated, cover the container, and chill the fish for at least 2 hours and up to 8 hours before cooking them.
3. Next, prepare the sauce by placing a wok over medium heat. When it is hot, pour in the oil and add the garlic. Gently fry the garlic until it is lightly browned, and then stir in the rest of the ingredients. Bring the sauce to a boil over high heat, taste and adjust the seasoning, and reduce the sauce until it is thick and bubbly.
4. Pour the sesame seeds into a rimmed plate. Have a clean baking sheet for the coated fish ready. Dip one slice of fish at a time into the sesame seeds, turn it over, and pat the seeds all over. Place the coated fish slice on the baking sheet and repeat with the rest of the fish until all of them have been coated. Discard any leftover marinade and sesame seeds.
5. Just before serving, have a rimmed platter next to the stove and place a skillet over medium heat. When the skillet is hot, pour in about ¼ inch of oil. As soon as a chopstick inserted in the oil bubbles all over, add the coated fish slices one piece at a time. Do this in a couple of batches so that the fish pieces are not crowded. Fry the fish on one side until it is a golden brown, gently flip it over to fry the other side until it too is golden, and arrange the cooked fish on the platter. Repeat with the rest of the fish until all of it has been fried.
6. Bring the sauce to a boil again, immediately pour it over the fish, sprinkle on the green onion slices, and serve.