A 200-year-old recipe for Chinese sweet and sour fish

Feb 24, 2020

Deep-fried sweet and sour fish—no, this isn’t something from Panda Express. It’s been a staple of Chinese cuisine for over 200 years.

When it comes to Chinese food, sweet, sour, and deep-fried tends to be associated with Americanized Chinese food, an inauthentic approximation of the original.

But sweet and sour fish has long been a staple of Jiangsu Province in China, at least as far back as the 18th century.

Sweet and sour fish at a banquet restaurant in Suzhou, China.
Sweet and sour fish at a banquet restaurant in Suzhou, China. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

Located on the eastern seaboard, Jiangsu Province is known for its saccharine food. Many dishes are cloyingly sweet, made with a liberal dose of sugar.

In the city of Wuxi, you might find pork ribs dripping in sweet sauce. In Shanghai, many soup dumplings are flavored with sugar.

(Read more: Why is Shanghai food so sweet?)

Sweet and sour fish is popular in Suzhou, where you’ll often find it at large banquet restaurants. The Chinese name for the dish literally means “squirrel fish,” but no actual squirrels are involved.

Rather, its name refers to the way the final dish resembles the tail of a squirrel—kind of. The fish is scored then sliced with precision into a delicate fan shape. The whole thing is then deep-fried until golden brown.

Chef Yang Hong of Songhelou in Suzhou ladles sweet and sour sauce on a fish.
Chef Yang Hong of Songhelou in Suzhou ladles sweet and sour sauce on a fish. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

We got this recipe from Songhelou, a restaurant in Suzhou that makes over 300,000 plates of squirrel fish every year. Make sure the knife is sharp enough to pierce the skin, but be careful not to pierce through the whole thing!

Recipe

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For the deep-fried fish

  • 1 perch 

  • 2 egg yolks

  • 5 teaspoons of sugar

  • 2 tablespoons of cornstarch

  • 5 cups of canola oil (or enough to submerge fish)

  • Pinch of salt

  • Dash of white pepper

 

For the sweet and sour sauce

  • 3 tablespoons of ketchup

  • 4 tablespoons of water

  • 10 teaspoons of sugar

  • 5 teaspoons of salt

  • 1 teaspoon of white pepper

  • 2 tablespoons of cornstarch mixed with a bit of water

  • 1 teaspoon of white vinegar

For the garnish

  • 1/4 cup of deveined and peeled small shrimp

  • 1/4 cup of pine nuts

  • 2 whole grapes

 

  1. Clean the fish and cut off the head. Do not discard the head. Slice on both sides.

  2. Remove the bone. Reverse the fish so that the flesh is facing outside and make cuts with 1-centimeter spaces in between to create a diamond-shaped pattern. Do not cut through the skin. This will create a quill-like pattern.

  3. Season the fish with salt, sugar, white pepper, and egg yolk. Set aside for about 20 minutes. Pat with cornstarch.

  4. Heat the wok, add oil until there is enough to submerge the fish, and deep-fry the fish when the oil is at a high enough temperature.

  5. Take the fish out when it’s half cooked. Wait until the temperature gets higher and then put the fish back into the wok. Check the fish; it should be golden and crispy. Set aside.

  6. For the sauce, leave some of the oil in the wok. Add ketchup, water, salt, sugar, and white pepper. Add the cornstarch mix and white vinegar. Mix briefly, then pour the sauce on the fish.

  7. Cook the shrimp separately. Blanch them for 1 minute. 

  8. Garnish with shrimp and pine nuts. Use the grapes as eyes. 

  9. Deep-fry the head separately, and then arrange it with the rest of the fish.

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Credit

Host and Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Nathaniel Brown

Editor: Nicholas Ko

Mastering: Victor Peña