Every Chinese New Year and on other occasions, my Mama performs a ritual of offering a variety of dishes to the Buddhist alters that protect our homes in hopes of ushering a year of good fortune. This involves purchasing and preparing a plethora of whole animals, pigs, ducks and chickens — with feet, faces and other features intact. Until recently, I thought we failed to remove portions of the animals because we like eating those extra parts that many Americans, my friends and husband Gavin included, prefer not to encounter.
But in one of our recipe-sharing sessions a couple weeks ago, my Mama revealed to me that cooking and serving animals whole is actually considered good luck in many Asian cultures, particularly during our Buddhist rituals. Apparently keeping the animals as intact as possible helps ensure that you’ll have a complete life and afterlife — which seems to me like a unique take on “whole eating.” Of course, minimizing waste and the unexpected deliciousness of less-commonly consumed animal parts are also bonuses (my Dad is a big fan of the duck neck). So the next time see a roasted duck with a face tangling in a window at a Chinese restaurant or are treated to a perfectly steamed whole fish, think of the bit of luck you could gain if you dug in.
Whether baked in the oven stuffed with soy, ginger, garlic and onions or fried and served with prik nam pla (Thai chili and fish sauce), eating fish whole is a tradition in my family. In fact, the fish head is often the most coveted part (it’s also great for making seafood stocks, but that’s another story). I love stopping by my parents’ house to find my Mama frying fish outside on a camping stove — which I was happy to encounter this weekend. She was cooking up some rock fish, and while the heads were removed, the bones were not — which supports a moist fish but requires some very careful eating.
No worries if whole fish aren’t your thing, my Mama’s easy recipe also works with filets. The best types fresh fish to fry whole are bass, halibut, catfish, cod, rock fish and tilapia, which you can acquire at your local Asian market, where a nice fish monger will also gut and cut up the fish however you like. And if you are lucky enough to have a deep fryer or camping stove you can set up outside, I do recommend firing it. The fish smells delicious while it’s frying, but the scent does tend to linger inside for hours.
Fried Whole Fish
Whole white fish, like rock fish, sea bass or tilapia
1 cup corn starch
Vegetable or peanut oil, for frying
Cilantro, for garnish
Prik nam pla, for serving (recipe below)
Rinse your fish under cold water and check for any remaining scales. Use a sharp knife to slash the sides of the fish perpendicular to the backbone from the head to the tail. This helps the cook evenly and supports a crispier crust.
Put the fish in a shallow bowl or on a plate and douse with soy sauce. Let it sit for about 30 minutes to one hour. Heat at least 2 inches of oil in a deep pan to 350 degrees. Season your corn starch generously with salt and pepper and a bit of paprika (which adds a subtle kick), then dredge your fish in the dry batter.
Use a pair of tongs to drop your fish into the oil and flip it around after about 30 seconds. Let it fry for about five to 10 minutes, until the skin is a dark brown. Then flip it over and fry the other side for about five to 10 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice and the prik nam pla sauce.
Prik Nam Pla Sauce
Juice of 1 lime
4–6 Thai chilis, thinly sliced
5 tbsp. fish sauce
1/2 tbsp. sugar
Mix all of the ingredients together and store in a jar. The flavors are even better if you let it sit for a day or two — so make it in advance!