This post was originally in newspaper print: Sunday Times | Food and Lifestyle PG 46
(The story and extra info had to be cut out due to space constraints, please see the full story below)
May there be fish every year (年年有魚)
This phrase in Chinese-Mandarin is a beautiful New Year greeting. The pun is on the word ‘fish’ in Chinese-Mandarin that sounds like the word ‘surplus’, wishing others ‘plenty’ in the New Year (also known as the Spring Festival). This year the Lunar New Year falls on the 28th of January 2017 and it’s the year of the rooster.
Traditionally, a fish is placed so that it points at the most honoured guest and it’s said that you should always have leftover fish. But as I grew up there would always be a turntable underneath the feast, proving the first tradition unnecessary. Then secondly, as immigrants there’s an evident ‘don’t be wasteful’ mindset – which proves the second tradition lost too. Since my family grew up celebrating this holiday in South Africa some traditions, like those, were lost but it was still important that we celebrated this holiday.
A little background… This festive holiday is also known as the Lunar New Year as the calendar is based on a lunisolar calendar, unlike what’s observed in South Africa – the Gregorian calendar. This holiday celebrated all over where there are large Chinese populations, including my birth country Taiwan, obviously China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Today, as an adult, I’m no longer based in the same city as my parents; I won’t be celebrating with them this time. But, even though we aren’t physically together, it’s incredibly important for me to feel connected to my family and home culture to remind myself where I came from and to celebrate the Asian side of being an ‘Asian South African’.
I decided to cook a whole fish for CNY. Instead of going a very traditional recipe route, this fish is based on a simple recipe from my family’s humble beginnings as Asian South Africans in Bloemfontein.
Whole Soldier Fish and Peppers, in a Sweet and Sour sauce
Serves 4 | 30 minutes (excluding cleaning a fish)
- 1 whole
- 1 egg white
- 1 C of cornstarch
- Enough cooking oil to reach 1/3 of the fish height in the pan
- 1 green & 1 yellow pepper
Sweet and Sour sauce:
- 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 Tbsp tomato sauce
- 1 C water
- 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- Salt and sugar to taste
- Clean a whole fish, choose one with a versatile flavour. I got a beautiful soldier from Fish4Africa that comply with SASSI (sustainable fishing) regulations.
- I portioned my fish into three pieces to fit a regular frying pan (head, body and tail – this is what happens when you only really cook for two).
- Dry the fish as much as possible with paper towels, brush with egg white and dust with cornstarch.
- Heat the pan. Once the pan is hot, pour the cooking oil in and reduce to a medium heat.
- Once the oil is hot, place the fish into the oil (watch out it will splatter, arm yourself with the pan’s lid). Leave it for 4 minutes and turn the fish to fry the other side for another 4 minutes.
- Place the fish over a wire rack over paper towels to remove excess oil.
- In a wide saucepan, panfry the onions and peppers, then add rice vinegar, tomato sauce and ½ C of water, stir till even.
- Mix cornstarch with the rest of the water and add to saucepan once the vinegary sauce is simmering.
- Add salt and sugar to taste.
- Place fish on a plate, drizzle sauce, peppers and onions over it and garnish with fresh coriander.
Image below was used for the Lunar New Year feature in the Sunday Times newspaper, taken by my brother, Frank YH Lin and retouching (of the four sheets of cardboard into one solid background) by my friend Grethe Rosseaux.