This take on deep-fried fish, which I had in a rural market in a small Dong village in eastern Guizhou, is surprisingly easy. We use whiting, which looks similar to the local fish, long and slender (about 1 inch across at its widest point and about 10 inches long). If you have no access to whiting, use a slender fish or part of a fish, such as the tail end of a cod. The fish is cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch pieces, smeared with chile paste, and quickly deep-fried. The fish is succulent and mildly hot. The deep-frying tightens the flesh, so it slides off the bone when you pick the fish up with chopsticks, making it very easy to eat.
Like many deep-fries, this can be a main course, but it also makes a great snack to serve with beer, especially, we find, if your guests are hanging around the kitchen waiting for supper. Put it out hot from the pan, perhaps with some slices of cucumber for a contrast of texture and temperature and some (nontraditional) lemon wedges if you wish: guests can eat with chopsticks or with their fingers. If you’re serving it as part of a meal, serve with rice, a cooling salad or mild soup, and a green vegetable.
Note on frying: Because some of the paste flavoring the fish will come off as it fries, you may want to skim the chile debris out of the oil partway through cooking. Use a fine-mesh sieve to clear it out of the oil, then discard it.
- Yield: 4 servings as an entrée with rice, 4 to 6 as an appetizer
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds (7 to 9) whiting or other slender fish, cleaned, scaled, and fins, head, and tail cut off
- About 1/4 cup store-bought chile paste
- About 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- Peanut oil for deep-frying
- Wash the fish and dry well. Using a cleaver or sharp heavy knife, cut the fish crosswise into approximately 1 1/2-inch pieces and place in a wide bowl. Add the chile paste and 1 teaspoon of the salt and mix well to distribute the flavorings. Sprinkle on the cornstarch and again mix. The fish will not be coated but just smeared with flavoring. Set aside.
- Place a large wok or deep pot on your stovetop; make sure the wok or pot is stable. (Or use a deep-fryer.) Pour 2 inches of oil into the wok or pot and heat the oil over high heat. Put out a slotted spoon or a mesh skimmer. To test the temperature of the oil, hold a wooden chopstick vertically in the oil, with the end touching the bottom of the pot. If the oil bubbles up around it, it has reached temperature. The oil should not be smoking; if it is, lower the heat slightly and wait for it to cool. Then test again. (A deep-fry thermometer should read 325° to 350°F.)
- Carefully slide in one piece of fish. The oil will bubble around it, but it should not brown immediately, just start changing color. A little of the chile paste will come off in the oil; don’t worry. Add 3 or 4 or 5 more pieces of fish (if you have a large pot or deep-fryer, you will probably have room for more). Use the slotted spoon or mesh skimmer to move the fish around in the oil and turn it occasionally, handling it gently so it stays intact. The fish will be cooked in about 2 minutes, perhaps 3, depending on how much you cook at one time; when done, the flesh will be firm and opaque and will slide easily off the bone. Use the spoon or skimmer to lift out the pieces, pausing to let excess oil drain off them, and transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining fish (see Note). Serve hot.