It's still Chinese New Year, and one of the most important things you can serve at a meal during these two weeks is fish. If you are preparing this next year for New Year's Eve, you should leave at least half of it for the following evening's dinner, along with the words "nian nian you yu" 年年有餘. What this means is "may every year have plenty." And you say that because "plenty" in Chinese sounds just like "fish" (yú 魚).
The Chinese invariably include the head and the tail, as these represent wishes that run from the beginning to the end of the year. Besides, they're awfully tasty.
|Crispy cumin & juicy jalapeños|
In the desert areas, freshwater fish is traditionally barbecued in a way that resembles Xinjiang-Style Lamb Kebabs: The fish is butterflied, seasoned, and then skewered on long, thin sticks. Because fish are more delicate, though, these are angled a short distance from the fire so that they cook more slowly.
You can achieve something very similar if you roast the fish in a hot oven, as the olive oil crisps up the skin. I like the way that the cumin turns into crunchy bits that contrast perfectly with the juicy flesh. You can, of course, also barbecue this over a small amount of coals that are covered in white ash.
|Butterfly body, then flatten head|
Northwestern roasted fish
Xīnjiāng kǎoyú 新疆烤魚
1 whole mild fish (about 1 pound), like branzino, grass carp, bass, or tilapia
¾ teaspoon sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
2 teaspoons whole cumin
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 red jalapeño peppers, seeded and finely chopped
1. Heat the oven to 500°F, or its highest setting. Scale, gut, and clean the fish, and remove the gills. Slash the sides in the “willow leaf” pattern (page TK). If you like, remove the bones (or have your fishmonger do this). Butterfly it by opening up the fish completely along the belly—lay it with all the skin facing you so that you can flatten the fish by pressing along its backbone. Massage the salt into both sides of the fish and let it marinate for around 10 minutes.
|Ready to go|
2. Oil a broiler pan. Rub some olive oil on both sides of the fish, and try to hit every spot. Lay the fish flesh side up and sprinkle it with half of the cumin, garlic, and chili peppers. Roast the fish for about 8 minutes, or until the flesh is starting to brown. Remove the fish, turn it over, drizzle a bit more olive oil over the skin, and sprinkle it with the rest of the cumin and chili peppers. Roast it for another 10 minutes, or so, until the skin is golden and crispy. Plate the fish and pour the drippings from the broiler pan over the fish.