I like holidays because it gives me an excuse to cook a themed dinner. And this celebration centered around the Lunar New Year. To usher in the Year of the Monkey, I wanted to make a set of dishes traditionally prepared on this day. One of those is whole fish.
A whole fish, typically poached or roasted, is served because the word for fish in Mandarin, 魚 (yú), has the same pronunciation for the word for ‘remain or surplus’ (餘), so it’s typically used to symbolize an increase in prosperity. There are many different rules I came across when it came to eating this as well. It must be served whole (so no butchering) and the fish must be placed so that the head of the fish point towards the guest of honor or the elder. A symbol of respect I believe.
So I decided this year to make a whole fish because… why the hell not? Besides, I’ve never done it before, so it’s an experience. In a perfect world, I would’ve used two whole red snappers. Why two? Because apparently in the north you can’t get snapper much bigger than a pound. One of the disadvantages to not living near the Gulf.
I used red snapper because it’s one of my favorite red fish (don’t get me started on Red Snapper Veracruz). But for this, as I found out, any type of fish can work so long as you can get it whole. In my preparation, I used one red snapper and two little trouts, but in my perfect recipe world, I call for two snappers. But the fish counter disagreed with me on that one.
If you’re lucky, like I was, your fish will already be cleaned and gutted for you. Or you can ask your local fish monger for that. Otherwise, you’ll have to do it yourself. Since I don’t know how to do that, I won’t tell you. WikiHow’s always there for you.
I did, however, have to descale the trout. If you want to eat that fish skin, you gotta get all the scales out. Soak the fish in some ice water to keep it moist. This also helps loosen the scale from the fish skin, making it easier to scrape the scales off with a knife. Start from the dorsal fin and work your way all the way up to the gills to get rid of all of the scales. If you don’t plan on eating the skin, you don’t necessarily have to do this.
After the fish are nice and clean and descaled, I scored three cuts into the fish like so.
I put this back in the bowl of ice water and threw it into the fridge until I needed to cook it. After that was done, I prepared the topping for the fish. I julienned some ginger, shallot, bamboo shoots and a poblano pepper. The poblano might seem a little out of place here but it works pretty well. Some of my dinner guests don’t have quite the affinity for spice that I do, so I had to pick out a fairly unspicy pepper. Typically, this sort of thing would call of thai chiles which are pretty damn spicy, if you can handle it, use something spicier. Otherwise, poblano works pretty well. Honestly, I had wanted to use a serrano, but the store was out of those for some reason. I don’t really understand why, I live in the north, I don’t expect ingredients typically used in Mexican cuisine to be out.
After all of the vegetables were cut up, I prepared a quick pickle. I threw the vegetables into a baggy with some soy sauce, pepper, sesame seeds, and, most importantly, rice vinegar. The rice vinegar is what’s key to getting this to pickle, since pickling just requires soaking something in a ton of vinegar. So after setting this up I also threw it into the fridge and let it to it’s thing. Because of time constraints, I could only let it sit for an hour or so, but in a perfect world I could let it sit for a day or two, allowing it to actually pickle. But I don’t plan that far in advance unless I need to.
When it was time to cook the fish, I laid down some tin foil on a baking sheet and brushed it with a mixture of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Gotta keep the fish from sticking, or at least prevent it. Then I put my fish on, cut-side up, and brushed them with olive oil. They’re almost ready. I patted on a layer of sesame seeds and thew them into a 425˚F oven for about 25 minutes. You’ll know the fish is done because when you try to pick it up, it’ll try to fall apart on you since you can never find a spatula big enough to actually pick up the entire fish at one time.
While the fish was in the oven, I dumped my “pickled” vegetables into a sauce pan and added some more soy sauce and oyster sauce in with it. I let this heat up and cook while the fish was in the oven. You want this to be warm since it has to go over the fish. I don’t really want to be eating luke-warm or cold fish here.
After 25 in the oven, my fish was done! They turned out well. I transferred them to a plate, which was a horrible disaster since some parts of the fish still stuck to the foil. It can never go smoothly, can it? After much careful scraping so I didn’t destroy these little guys, I was eventually successful. In a perfect world, we would’ve bought parchment paper instead of wax paper and I could’ve used that instead of foil.
Then I poured the vegetables over top the fish to tuck them in. Now they’re nice and warm and all ready to be devoured!
Whole fish isn’t all that scary and can be really nice. You can save the fish carcasses to make some fish stock. I wanted to do that, but my roommates wouldn’t let me. The fish heads would’ve made a nice stock, but oh well. I still got to cook a whole fish for the first time, so I’ll consider that a win.
Oven-Roasted Whole Fish
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
- 2 lbs whole red snapper*
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 tbs salt
- 1 tbs pepper
- ¼ cup + 1 tbs sesame seeds
- 4 oz (½ a can) bamboo shoots, julienned
- 1 poblano pepper, julienned**
- 2 in ginger, julienned
- 2 shallots, sliced
- ¼ cup + 2 tbs soy sauce
- 2 tbs rice vinegar
- 1 tsp oyster sauce
- Julienne bamboo shoots, poblano, ginger, and shallots
- Place into a bag with 2 tbs of the soy sauce, the rice vinegar, and 1 tbs of the sesame seeds
- Shake well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour***
- Preheat oven to 425˚F
- Clean and remove scales from fish
- Mix together olive oil, salt, and pepper
- Brush baking sheet with olive oil and place fish onto baking sheet, brush fish with olive oil
- Coat the outside of the fish with remaining sesame seeds
- Place into oven for 25 minutes or until fish is flaky
- While fish is baking, pour julienned vegetables into a saucepan, add remaining soy sauce and oyster sauce and cook over medium heat
- Place fish onto a serving platter and pour vegetables and sauce over the top
- Serve immediately
* Or your favorite fish so long as it’s the whole fish
** Other peppers you can use include jalapeno, serrano, or thai hot chiles depending on how much spice you can handle
*** The longer you let this sit, the better