Sweet and sour fishMany ingredients and dishes in Chinese cuisine hold symbolic meanings, and are featured during special occasions and celebrations.  A case in point is fish.

Presenting whole fish at New Year Eve’s dinner expresses good wishes for the years to come.

Fish, pronounced yu in Mandarin, is a homophone for the word 余 which means surplus.  Therefore, having a fish dish conveys the message that you will have surplus every year to maintain a sustained prosperity.

More important, whole fish, with head and tail intact, symbolizes the message “from beginning to end”, or completeness.  So whatever you embarked on during the year, you will finish it off with good results.

Of course, good wishes aside, the real joy of cooking whole fish lies in the promise of a great-tasting dish, such as the “Sweet and Sour Fish” I’m presenting here.  In this dish, whole fish is fried until golden and crispy on the outside but still juicy and tender on the inside.  The sauce, made with ketchup, sugar, and rice vinegar, has a pleasant balance between sweet and sour, and pairs well with the fish.  Although simple and straightforward, this dish is full of delectable contrasts and excitement.

You can make the dish with any lean and mild-flavored fish, such as striped bass, sea bream, or red snapper.  My recipe below uses red mullet.  When I saw these beautiful fish at The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market, I knew that their gorgeous red color would make the dish look festive.   Besides, their small size makes it easier for frying.

Making slashes across each side of the fish ensures you can cook the fish through quickly.  It also makes the fried fish look prettier.  In Chinese cooking, such slashes are called “roof tile cut”, or “peony cut”, resembling the pedals of the beautiful flower.  You can either deep-fry the fish, or shallow-fry them with just enough oil to immerse half of the fish.

When making the sauce, it’s critical to create a good balance between sweet and sour.  Salt is also an important element in the sauce to add depth and enhance the balance.


Sweet and sour fish 

Makes 2 servings 

2 whole red mullet, about 1.2 lb (545 g) , or any lean and mild fish of your choice; scaled and gutted
Cornstarch or flour for dusting
Oil for deep-frying or shallow-frying

2 scallions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced
1-inch piece ginger, minced
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
5 tablespoons water
cornstarch slurry, made with 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch and 1/2 teaspoon water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground white pepper


  1. Clean the fish and pat dry.  Make slashes, about 1-inch (2.5 cm) apart, at a 45-degree angle along the length of each side.  Season the fish with salt and dust lightly with the cornstarch or flour.
  2. Heat the oil to 350 °F (180 °C) in a wok or a vessel suitable for deep-frying or shallow-frying.    Be extremely careful and follow safety precautions during this step.  Fry the fish until golden and crispy on the outside and cooked through on the inside, about 8 minutes.  Transfer the fish to a wired rack to drain.
  3. To make the sauce: heat the vegetable oil in the sauce pan over medium heat.  Add the white part of the sliced scallions and ginger, stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds.  Add the ketchup and stir for 10 seconds.  Mix in the water, sugar, and vinegar, and bring the mixture to a simmer.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, and adjust the sweet-and-sour balance as needed.  Add the green part of the scallions and mix in the cornstarch slurry.  Stir constantly until the sauce thickens, about 15 seconds.
  4. Serve the fish with the sauce poured over or on the side.  I prefer the latter as the fish will stay crispy until the last bite this way.
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