I would like to start by saying, “新年快樂, 恭喜發財, 年年有餘!” Happy Chinese New Year, wishing you wealth and good fortune, and year after year of plentitude! A brand new year welcomes brand new beginnings, and brand new adventures. To kick off, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank The Banana Times for the guest spot; I’m very happy and excited to write as a guest contributor for this site. In my spare time I write my very own blog called sweetsourbitterspicy. My focus at sweetsourbitterspicy is on food and its relationship to life, identity, and even love.
This week we celebrated Chinese New Year and I’ve always loved Chinese New Years! What’s not to love about it? As a kid I got little red envelopes filled with money that I used to buy snacks and comic books at the local convenience store. All I had to do in return for the red envelopes was say a few words and pour a couple cups of tea and that was it, “新年快樂, 恭喜發財, 年年有餘!” and the list goes on. I have clear memories of waking up on the first day of the Lunar New Year and making a pot of tea whilst heralding my parents with New Year greetings. This was a tradition in our house. There were other traditions and superstitions that we practiced; the one I remember the most was that we were forbidden to wash our hair on New Year’s Day. Growing up I never knew why, but after doing my own research years later I found out that by washing your hair on New Year’s Day, you would be effectively washing away your good luck for the year. Why good luck would choose to reside in my hair, of all places, I have no idea. I also wondered, why couldn’t good luck be washed away on other days of the year?
After serving up the tea I would run off to school, pockets filled with spending money. I grew up in Canada, and Chinese New Year was not considered a legitimate holiday, there was no day off from school. That would have made a good day even better.
If one needs other reasons to love Chinese New Year, perhaps this may persuade you. On top of the pocket money, there is the food. That is something that is never lacking in any Chinese New Years celebration. On the forefront of a CNY celebration is the family reunion dinner held on the eve of the New Year. Food, and plenty of it, is served to represent abundance and prosperity with hopes that the prosperity and plentitude will continue throughout the coming year. Let there be chicken, pork, vegetables, seafood, sweets, and let’s not forget the fish. A New Year’s feast is not complete without a whole fish served with its head and tail intact. A head and a tail represent a beginning and an end; it is something which is complete and can even be seen as cyclical. In agrarian societies, everything, including prosperity, depends upon reliable cycles. Fish has an important symbolic significance in Chinese culture. Fish symbolizes prosperity and water symbolizes wealth and money. The word fish (魚) and the word for plenty (餘) are homophones so, “Let there be fish” or “Let there be plenty” sounds pretty similar in Chinese. In China, food carries with it a lot of the symbolic weight and cultural meaning.
There is one fish dish that my mom traditionally makes during CNY and other holidays that always impressed and pleased crowds. It’s stuffed with beautiful ingredients and made to look round and fat; further enhancing the symbolic nature of the dish. Fat and round means one is prosperous and wealthy. This seems like a dish rife with symbolism. Symbolism overload if you will.
Stuffed Dace1 whole fish
- 1 500g (1lb) dace (鯪魚); whole
- 250g shrimp; peeled and deveined
- 250g pork shoulder; cut into 1″ pieces
- 4 1” pieces dried tangerine peel
- 50g water chestnut; brunoises
- 10g fresh ginger; finely chopped
- 2 green onions; finely chopped
- 1 egg yolk
- 1tsp sugar
- 1tsp salt
- 3 green onions; shredded
- 15ml (1tbsp) soy sauce
- 30ml (2tbsp) canola oil
Soak the dried tangerine peels in water for about half an hour to soften, or it may be soaked overnight in the refrigerator. Tangerine peel can usually be found in the dry goods section of any Chinese grocery. My dad tells me that the darker the color, the better the quality and the more prized. I usually just dry my own and they are usually not aged long enough to turn brown. Once it is softened, scrape away the white pith from the tangerine zest with a small knife. The pith will impart a bitter taste to the dish and should be removed. Finely chop the zest and set aside.
Dace can generally be found in Chinese grocery stores already gutted and frozen. Defrost and check the gill cavity to remove the gills if they are present. Also it may need to be de-scaled; their scales are rather large and hard and not palatable. To remove the scales I like to use the back (dull) side of a fish knife and run it from the tail to the head. Then the flesh of the fish will be completely removed from the skin, leaving the head and tail connected by the intact skin. This is the tricky part. One of the reasons why dace is chosen over other types of fish is because its skin is tough and quite resilient when it is raw. This is an important characteristic not to be overlooked as this fish will be man-handled and put through the ringer before it looks anywhere near presentable.
Take a boning knife and insert it along the fish’s spine and cut to separate the rib bones from the spine. Do this along both sides of the spine as indicated in the photo below. Cut the spine at the base of the head to detach the spine from the head. Pull out the spine and bend the tail back and forth to snap the spine until it too is separated from the spine, then the spine can be completely pulled out. Remove any flesh that is attached to the spine and place in a bowl.
The fins are the problem areas, as the flesh will get stuck at the fins where the bones are imbedded in the flesh. To circumvent a potential problem we’ll isolate the fins from the rest of the flesh. Feel for the bones and make incisions in the flesh just beyond the bones attached to the two pairs of fins; the first just behind the head (pectoral fins) and the second at it’s mid-section (pelvic fins). Cut only as deep as the flesh and take care not to cut the skin. It’s always better to err on the side of caution. Now we are ready to skin the fish. I’m sure there is more than one way to skin a fish but here’s mine.
Place a thumb at the incision that was made just behind the pectoral fins and use the tip of your thumb to separate the flesh from the skin. Continue to push your thumb along the length of the fish, taking care not to tear the skin. The skin is quite tough and resilient. Work carefully around the fins so that you don’t get poked and jabbed by them.
When you have the rib cage and the other flesh out from the skin, carefully separate the bones from the flesh using a sharp knife using a scraping motion. Also using the fish knife, scrape any flesh that is still attached to the skin and remove any fine pin bones; leaving the skin as clean as possible. One downside of using dace is that it is a particularly boney fish. It has many fine bones that need to be carefully removed. Do your best; you don’t want people choking on any stray bones. Here I am reaffirmed of my belief that cooking is ultimately an act of love. It demands from you a thoughtfulness for health and well-being of the people who will eventually consume your cooking; as well as a thoughtfulness for the happiness and enjoyment that the food placed before them will bring. Once all the meat is separated, run your hands through the reserved meat to check for stray bones that you may have missed. With a 500g (1lb) fish, I was able to get about 250g of meat. Place the fish skin in the refrigerator while you complete the stuffing.
Process each of the pork, shrimp, and dace meat separately in a food processor until smooth. Combine together in a large mixing bowl. Use your hands to “knead” the mixture and to check once again for bones that may have missed. Slowly add about 2 tbsp of cold tap water gradually as you squeeze the mixture through your fingers. Do this until the mixture has been thoroughly combined and smooth and all the water has been incorporated. Add the water chestnuts, green onions, ginger, tangerine peel, egg yolk, and the salt and sugar to the mixture and continue “kneading” the mixture with your hands until the garnish is evenly distributed. Check the seasoning by cooking a small piece of the stuffing mixture in a pot of boiling water before continuing. Adjust seasoning as required.
Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Once you are happy with the seasoning, it is time to stuff the fish. Have a bowl of cold water ready to dip your hands, as the stuffing mixture can be sticky. Starting at the tail end, place the stuffing to fill the skin making sure to leave no air pockets. Fill any gap and stuff the fish so that it looks nice and fat. With a wet hand, smooth out the stuffing on the underside of the fish. There will be a huge difference in the size of the original fish and stuffed fish!
Oil a baking dish large enough to hold the fish. Position and shape the fish so that it looks like it could be swimming; spread its fins or strike a pose even. First we eat with our eyes, then with our mouths. Put a little bit of water in the bottom of the dish and wrap with aluminum foil. In this recipe it will be baked/steamed in the oven but I’ve seen my mom pan-fry the whole fish before as well. I personally prefer this method of cooking it. Bake the fish for approximately 30-40 minutes or until it reaches an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C). Remove from the oven and let it rest for about 5-10 minutes before cutting into it.
Meanwhile, shred the green onions into fine strands and heat the canola oil in a small pan on the stove. Drizzle the soy sauce over the fish and arrange the green onions on top of the fish just before serving. Heat the oil until it is hot and on the verge of smoking. Pour the hot oil on over the fish and the green onions. It will sizzle and splatter so do this with care and warn those around you. The oil release a very delicate flavor from the green onions and enhances the dish.
So this was the star of the show at my New Year’s dinner. I feel that I am carrying on a family tradition; let traditions live on and not forgotten. My parents don’t live in the same city as I do so I couldn’t celebrate with them this year, though I’m sure they would have been happy with my rendition of the dace. After going through all that work and effort, with the fish and the rest of the meal, to ensure good luck in the coming year, I did not want to take any chances on losing that stored good luck and good fortune. Like last year, and every other year before that, I did not wash my hair on New Year’s Day. Some traditions are amazing while others seem almost silly, bordering on nonsensical. So no mater how silly it sounds I just can’t bring myself to wash my hair on that one day of the year. You can always choose which traditions you carry forward. This one is a little silly even in my mind but it’s not hurting anyone, and it’s part of my culture and makes me who I am today.
Happy New Year and let there be plenty (of fish) year after year! 年年有魚!