Monday, 2 April 2012

West Lake Fish In Vinegar Sauce

Zhejiang, being the Land of Fish and Rice, has a wide variety of fish dishes. One of the famous fish dishes is a local delicacy from Hangzhou, which is the West Lake Fish in Vinegar Sauce or the Xi Hu Cu Yu. In Hangzhou, their dishes are usually named after a famous place or a famous person and usually have some fascinating stories behind them.
Xi hu Cu Yu is sometimes called as "Sister Song's Treasure". The interesting story behind it is about the death of the older brother, and Sister Song, the wife cooked the fish with sweet and sour sauce to stimulate the appetite of the grieving younger brother. The sauce is sweet and sour, as a symbol of the sweetness of life, and sour to remind them of the sour oppression for the commoners and for their grieving. Having eaten the fish with sweet and sour sauce, the younger brother left town. He was greatly moved by the significance of the dish he just ate and he made sure to earn fame and fortune before he went back to Hangzhou to avenge his elder brother and to look after his sister-in-law.
In other versions of the story, the younger brother became an authority several years after, and in one banquet that he attended, the same dish which is the fish in sweet and sour sauce was served. He was surprised and asked the host who cooked the dish. He found out that it was his sister-in-law who had been a helper to avoid reprisal.
This dish may be named after the beautiful and ever famous water wonderland, West Lake, but do not worry because any white fish can be used for this recipe.
Here are the ingredients:
  • 1 Whole Fish - approx 2 lbs (grass carp, snapper, sea bass or any white fish)
  • 6 cups water
  • 4 - 5 slices of ginger
  • 1 stalk scallion - finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar - or black (Chiangkang) vinegar if available
  • 1/4 cup sugar - brown or white sugar can be used
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp rice wine
  • 2 tbsp cornstarch
  • Pinch of salt
  • Chinese Celery (Qin Cai) - for garnishing
In the traditional way of preparing this dish, the fish is put in a basin of water and starved for 2-3 days to remove any muddy taste.
  1. Wash or rinse the fish. Make sure to remove gills, and scales. Using a sharp knife, slice 2 or 3 diagonal cuts on each side of the fish.
  2. If you want to make it artistic, slice 2 - 3 diagonal cuts on one side of the fish. And then on the other side, you can also slit the flesh from the tail up to the head of the fish. Do this by gently pressing on the fish while slicing from the tail, and along the backbone.
  3. In a large pot, bring the 6 cups of water to a boil together with the scallion and ginger. Make sure to have enough water to cover the fish so you don't have to turn the fish as it may break the flesh.
  4. Poach the fish for about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain, and then set aside.
For the sauce:
  1. Boil ½ cup of water. The water used to boil the fish can be used because of the added flavour from the ginger and scallion. Alternatively, chicken stock may be used.
  2. Add in the soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar. Simmer over a medium heat to dissolve the sugar.
  3. Mix the rice wine and cornstarch in a bowl, before pouring it in to thicken the sauce. Make sure to stir constantly to avoid lumps.
  4. Remove from heat and season with salt. Black pepper is optional.