Classic sweet and sour fish with a modern street food twist

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t’s probably no surprise to anyone that sweet and sour sauce, as we know it in the U.S., is not a traditional Chinese condiment. Rare “sweet and sour” components of the cuisine were created with two main ingredients: sugar and vinegar.

When Chinese immigrants brought their cooking to the United States in the late 19th Century, Americans began to take notice. By the early 1900s, diverse restaurant patrons were a common sight in Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco.

“Knowing that Americans enjoyed the sweetened acidity of tomato-based sauces like ketchup, the chefs began to coat their meats in a stronger version of the sweet and sour sauces served in China,” wrote Kristine Wen in a 2018 Chowhound article titled “The History of Sweet and Sour Sauce.” They swapped the traditional rice vinegar for the more readily available white vinegar and, knowing their clientele, added ketchup. “These chefs had unlocked a shortcut to the complex flavor balance of Chinese cooking, and quickly reaped the profits.”

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Today, sweet and sour fish has become a celebratory meal in Chinese-American culture.

“I remember seeing this sweet and sour whole fish being served at countless festive banquets growing up in our little Chinese-American community,” says Dennis Chan, chef/owner of Blue Bamboo Restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. “At these occasions, each dish had meaning to what type of luck you can bring to your life. [The Chinese word for] fish is a homophone for abundance, and that’s certainly something you want to wish for guests.”

For his classical recipe, Chan used snapper covered with wok-fired veggies and a more complex version of American sweet and sour sauce — complete with ketchup. Find the recipe at the bottom of this post.

Transforming whole sweet and sour fish into a modern entrée called for a re-imagining of the entire concept. “In the Chinese culture, serving a whole fish at the dinner table with eyes and tail is common. Few chefs today will serve a whole fish with its head and tail intact. Some guests will never touch the dish if they see the head and tail,” Chan says. “We eat things differently now. We are a society of simple indulgences. A sweet and sour bao offers a beautiful simple indulgence that won’t have to wait for a special occasion.”

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Chan’s steamed bao buns are filled with fried pieces of snapper tossed in sweet and sour sauce and topped with julienned onions, peppers and scallions, fresh pineapple brunoise, balsamic vinegar pearls.

“Bao are served as a street food in Asia, and in big cities here in the west. They are soul-satisfying and comforting,” he says. “In restaurants, chefs are doing some really creative things to elevate bao to a new level. I’ve taken the classic elements of this dish, and recreated them into an exciting, tempting and satisfying version.”

Check out the recipes below:

Classic Sichuan Sweet and Sour Fish

1 whole fish 1#
½ cup sliced onion
½ cup sliced peppers
½ pineapple chunks
1 tbsp. Chinese cooking wine
1 tsp. salt
2 scallions
1 thumb ginger ,shredded
1/2 cup of cornstarch and oil for deep-frying

Sauce:

4 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp. cooking oil
4 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. rice vinegar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup water
1 tsp. chopped scallion
1 tsp. chopped ginger
1 6oz jar maraschino cherries
1/2 tbsp. cornstarch + 1 tbsp. water

Clean fish and make 3-4 vertical cuts on the fish. And then turn over the fish and make same cuts on other side.  Season with salt and cooking wine on the fish both on the surface and inside. Then place scallion and ginger shreds inside the fish and marinate for 30 minutes. Heat oil in a wok until 350 degrees Farenheit.

Coat the fish with cornstarch, inside and out. Place the fish in and fry until golden brown. Turn over as needed. Check temperature throughout cooking.

In a separate and smaller pot, add all the ingredients for sweet and sour sauce expect starch water and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in starch water and cook until the sauce is well thickened. Drizzle the sweet and sour sauce after the fish is transfer to serving plate.

Sweet and Sour Fish Bao

2 white fish fillets, each cut into 6 pieces
½ cup juilenned onion
½ cup julienned peppers
½ fresh pineapple brunoise
1 tbsp. Chinese cooking wine
1 tsp. salt
2 scallions, julienned
1 thumb ginger, shredded
1/4 cup of cornstarch and oil for deep-frying

Sauce:

4 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp. cooking oil
4 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. rice vinegar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup water
1 tsp. chopped scallion
1 tsp. chopped ginger
¼ cup soy sauce
1 6oz jar maraschino cherries
1/2 tbsp. cornstarch + 1 tbsp. water

Season fish pieces with salt and cooking wine. Add scallion and ginger shreds and marinate for 30 minutes. Heat oil in a wok until 350 degrees Farenheit.

Coat the fish with cornstarch, inside and out. Fry until golden brown. Set aside.

In a separate and smaller pot, add all the liquid ingredients for sweet and sour sauce and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in starch water and cook until the sauce is well thickened. Toss fish in sweet and sour sauce.

Toss vegetable ingredients together.  Assemble with steamed bun, Fish, and vegetable salad.

 

Recipes courtesy of Dennis Chan, Blue Bamboo.

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