There are few foods I dislike. As my palate has matured over the years, I’ve added more things to my “like” or “will tolerate” columns than I have to my “don’t put in front of me” column. I’ve tried many kinds of foods in China for the first time, and although I can’t say I like all, I can find something to appreciate in most dishes, even—on occasion—intestines and the infamously stinky chou doufu. However, fish stands out from all the others as something I’ve liked and disliked in cycles,an irregularity that goes much deeper than just flavors or consistency.
When I was young, I ate loads of fish. Raised in a Catholic background, my family abstained from red meat on Fridays, instead choosing to make our dietary sacrifices with mouth-watering fish fries. These are usually community-oriented gatherings where people can eat fried seafood with abandon, a pious person’s red-meat-free heaven. To this day, I still get nostalgic at the sight of fried fish, shrimp or hush puppies (cornbread) on a menu. Although catfish and tilapia, the varieties usually used in fish fries, are somewhat devoid of taste, they provide large, meaty filets ideal for feeding a lot of people at once. From a young age, I expected fish to be enjoyable, easy to eat and as substantial as any other meat.
Later on, I learned a love for different kinds of fish, especially salmon and snapper, but the thought of eating anything but boneless filets never entered my mind until I was on a trip to India. Being offered a whole barbecued fish, I wondered how one would go about even beginning to eat it, head, scales, fins and all. Did one bite through the skin? Rip off the head? I didn’t even know where to begin, so I rejected the offering. Ironically, my first meal in China was fish. Not yet knowing how to communicate, I let a waitress choose my dish for me, and out came as a massive sheet noodle wrapped around some filling, also known as chang fen. Inside was white fish, and the first bite was a fast lesson in chewing with care in the Middle Kingdom.
My interest in fish began to wane, and soon I had decided that I didn’t like fish in Chinese food. Although I still loved the meat itself and developed a fondness for sushi, it was just too much trouble to eat in local dishes. On occasion, you get boneless fish or fish with the bones so soft that you can chew them up and swallow them without putting your insides in danger of piercing. But, faced with never really knowing if I’d be so lucky when ordering fish, I simply choose not to.
Although I stopped seeking out fish on my own, I continued trying it when other people ordered, and eventually I realized that I love the way the Chinese steam fish. Made deliciously mouth- numbing in Sichuan dishes or simply with fresher ingredients in Cantonese dishes, steamed fish is an art here, and as I’ve eaten more and more of it, I’ve realized how much I just miss fish. As I’ve started to eat it more, I’ve slowly learned to eat it more carefully, gracefully spitting out bones or, when in doubt, depositing a whole mouthful of them slyly into a napkin. Even more helpful, after years of living in South China, my tolerance for seeing the head on a fish has increased.
Recently, I stepped it up another notch and cooked whole fish on my own for the first time, wanting to master fish and get over my fear of eating it whole. With plans to barbecue at the beach, I went shopping for a feast. I bought a large fish, not knowing at all what kind of meat it had. I watched, suppressing my horror, as the man selling it snatched it out of the water, threw it into a mesh bag and proceeded to whack it on the ground until it stopped moving. He sliced it open while it was still somewhat alive, removed the organs and then offered it into my reluctant hands. There was no turning back.
I had no idea how to remove the scales, cut it, debone it or clean it further, so I didn’t. I simply pulled it out of the bag and put it on foil over the fire in hopes that it would cook evenly and not make me sick. I guessed completely when seasoning it, but in the end it didn’t matter. Fish takes care of itself. If you like the taste of the meat, it doesn’t need much else. The result was delicious, and my experiences eating and cooking fish had evolved to a new level. From the taste-covering fried batter on boneless filets of my childhood to fresh-from- the-sea and essentially unaltered whole fish, I’ve learned to stop worrying about bones and fish eyes and love eating fish.
- 1 fish, organs removed and rinsed
- Vegetable oil
- Ground 5-spice blend
- Chili powder
- Magi seasoning
- Brush, for basting
- Whisk/stir oil, magi and spices in a cup.
- Slice three diagonal cuts into each side of the fish.
- Put fish on foil over the fire. Baste the top with seasonings.
- Let cook until slits on upper side have begun to open or until desired, continue basting.
- Flip fish with tongs and baste other side.
- When fish is cooked through, remove from direct heat and serve.
Serving Size: 2-4 people (for a medium sized fish). Serve with white beer or white wine.