Monday, December 12, 2011

The garlicky little fish of Tianjin

Yellow croaker, or "yellow fish" (huangyu) in Chinese, is a great fish to get to know. The flesh is firm, the flavor is delicate, and it's a classic variety that suits so many of North China's seafood dishes. It used to grow wild off the cold shores of China, but overfishing has depleted these natural resources to the point where most yellow croakers are farmed. I have remained a bit wary of China's offerings, but have enjoyed Korea's farmed and frozen ones for over 20 years.

Recently I came across a new type of croaker that is only about four inches long and -- wonder of wonders -- completely boned through the back, so there are no little bones to fiddle with, not to mention no scales, guts, fins, or heads. The work has all been done, and all you have to do is defrost them. 

What I've made here is a dish my late mother-in-law used to love: croakers braised with lots of garlic. She used to call this type of cooking ngao in her native Tianjin dialect, but in Mandarin it is simply ao, or "braising." Tianjin is in Hebei province and serves as Beijing's major port on the Yellow Sea, so it's not that far from Korea as the crow flies, so to speak.

Frozen farmed fish from Korea
The fish are gently fried in oil until brown on both sides, and then garlic and the whites of green onions are added, along with some light soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, salt, and water. The fish simmer away in this simple sauce until the water has evaporated; a loud sizzling tells you that they are about ready. Just taste and adjust the seasoning, toss in the onion greens, cover them with a lid, and remove from the stove. The remaining heat in the pan wilts the greens, and the dish is done.

This dish is all about balance. There is just enough salt, vinegar, sugar, and oil in there to form perfect harmony. The vinegar is especially important because it tempers the fishiness, and then sugar cuts the tartness, while the salt wakes up the taste buds, and the oil mellows everything out. Lots of garlic is called for, but because it is cooked so slowly, its natural pungency turns into a gentle sweetness.

How the yellow croaker got its name
Although other areas of China would call this suanban yu, in northern China the "ban" is softened with that ever-present "er" sound, so it should be pronounced suanba'er yu. This name simply means that the fish is cooked with garlic slices.

Serve this with steamed rice so that you can enjoy every drop of the sauce, and have maybe a simple stir-fried vegetable and a fuss-free soup on the side. Dinner will be ready in under half a hour.

Garlic fish of Tianjin
Suanba'er yu  蒜瓣兒魚 
Serves 3 to 4 as a main dish with sides

10 to 12 small (4-inch) boned yellow croakers
10 cloves garlic, peeled
3 green onions, trimmed
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons light rice vinegar
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons filtered water

1. Defrost the fish, lightly squeeze the water out of them, and pat them dry (both inside and out) with paper towels. 

Onions and garlic
2. Trim off the hard ends of the garlic, as well as any green shoots inside the cloves, as they are bitter. Thinly slice the garlic. Cut the white parts off of the green onions and slice into half-inch pieces. Slice the green leaves on an angle into 1-inch pieces.

3. Heat the oil in a flat skilled over medium-high until the edges of the pan are hot. Carefully add the fish to the hot oil. (If the pan is already hot before you add the fish, they usually won't stick to the pan.) Lightly shake the pan to keep the fish loose, and adjust the heat so that the fish brown gently. Turn them over with a spatula, add the sliced garlic and the whites of the onions, and shake the pan again. As soon as the bottoms of the fish are golden, don't disturb them any more, as they might start to fall apart. Carefully pour off all but a tablespoon of the oil.

4. Add the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar,  salt, and water to the pan. Bring the liquid to a boil and allow the fish to simmer uncovered until the sauce has evaporated and the oil starts to sizzle. Sprinkle the onion greens on top, remove from the heat, and cover the pan. Let it sit for a couple of minutes to wilt the onions. Serve hot or warm.

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