Pan fried fish is a dish commonly prepared by Chinese families. Like steamed fish, it’s simple to make! In general, I’ve found that the selection and availability of fish plays a big factor in the type of dish that is prepared.
If the fish is fresh, or what the Chinese call “swimming fish,” then steamed fish is usually the preparation of choice. Freshness aside, some types of fish are best for steaming (i.e. fish that are light and delicate) and some are better for frying (i.e. fish with a firm texture).
A good pan frying fish that is readily available in markets is the porgy, sometimes called a bream or a scup. Porgies are a silvery color with firm, white meat, and are an excellent and versatile eating fish. You can grill, bake, or pan-fry filets–or the whole fish like you see in this recipe.
Porgies are also fun to catch, since they hit your bait hard and are good fighters for fish of their size! We packed away a lot of porgies while party boat fishing in Montauk, NY a couple months ago. Most of the keepers were between one and two pounds, which are perfect eating size, but a few of our largest ones came close to three pounds!
So today we bring you a pan fried fish recipe right on time for Chinese New year, using a pair of porgies we caught ourselves! (Check out the end of this post to see a few pictures of a fishing trip we took on the Long Island Sound off Montauk point.)
Fish at the dinner table for the Lunar New Year is an essential tradition for ensuring a healthy and prosperous year. This is because “fish,” pronounced in any Chinese dialect, sounds like the word for abundance. Families always make two fish for the Spring festival dinner, serving one and leaving one intact for the next day to symbolize the abundance that will come in the new year.
My experience with this style of pan-frying fish in oil goes way back to when I was a kid. Honoring ancestors was a common practice, especially at this time of year. Tangerines, a whole chicken, a large piece of roasted pork belly, and pan fried fish was put out on the table with red envelopes and a lucky candy assortment. Incense was burned to invite ancestors to share a meal and bless the family with auspicious months ahead.
This pan fried fish recipe may seem a little daunting for those of you who have never prepared whole fish, but I’ve provided all of the details to make sure it’s a success!
Clean the fish, removing all scales, making sure to pay attention to scales on the belly, the head, and near the fins. Even if you have it cleaned at your fish market, fish mongers always tend to miss some scales. Make sure you clean out the inside of the fish as well. Cut off all of the sharp fins and trim the tail with a good pair of kitchen shears.
Let the fish drain in a large colander and pat both sides dry with a paper towel. Transfer to a plate. Sprinkle salt on both sides of both fish–use about 1/4 teaspoon in total. Set aside for 15 minutes.
Heat your wok over medium-high heat. Pre-heating the wok for this pan fried fish is especially important to prevent sticking and to keep your fish beautiful for the table.
Next, spread 3 tablespoons of oil around the perimeter ensuring that the wok is coated with no dry spots.
Add the ginger. After about 10 seconds, turn the ginger over for another 10 seconds and push them to the side. The wok should be hot but not smoking too much (an indication that the wok is too hot). The ginger should be slightly caramelized but not burned.
Use a paper towel to pat the fish dry again, and carefully place into the wok in one motion. Do not move the fish after placement! After about 1 minute, turn the heat down to medium; you want to get a nice light crust on the skin without it burning.
Tilt the wok carefully one side at a time so the oil distributes around the perimeter of the fish, including the head and the tail. You can add more oil around the perimeter of the wok if you want some extra insurance against sticking. Adding more oil is a good cheat tactic if you are unsure of your fish frying skills.
At this point, you should still hear the fish frying and sizzling because if your fish are silent then you need to turn up the burner! Maintain the heat but also turn it down as needed if the wok gets too hot and starts to smoke. You don’t want to burn the fish either so make small adjustments until you find the right level of heat!
Continue frying the fish for 5 to 6 minutes on the first side. At this point, a light crust should have formed, and you can give the wok a little shake now–the fish should slide around easily. If not, you can use a metal spatula to lift one side of the fish slightly and peek underneath to check the color and to make sure the fish is not sticking. The fish should be a nice golden brown.
If the fish still sticks, then you probably have the heat too low, so again, turn it up slightly, add a little more oil, and let it cook for another 1 to 2 minutes! Once you have the fish sliding around in the wok or pan and the first side is golden brown, then you are ready for the flip!
Carefully slide the spatula under the middle of the fish on the side towards the middle of the wok and in one steady motion, lift and flip it towards the outside of the wok.
Repeat the same “flip” for the other fish and if you are successful then this is what it should look like!
Let the fish fry on the second side for another 4 minutes and again, add some oil if you think it is necessary. From the picture, you can see there is no standing oil so don’t go overboard. While the fish is frying, dissolve the sugar and hot water in a small bowl, and add the soy sauce, white pepper, and sesame oil (if using). Set aside.
Shake the wok to make sure the fish is not stuck which is an important method for any pan-fried fish dish. Next, add the Shaoxing wine around the perimeter of the wok and let cook off for 30 seconds.
Pour the soy sauce mixture around the perimeter of the wok and turn the heat back up until the sauce is simmering (about 30 seconds).
Add in the chopped scallions.
Turn off the heat, and use your spatula to carefully transfer the fish to serving plates. Scoop up the rest of the remaining sauce, pour evenly over the fish and serve!
If you have not tried this method for pan fried fish before, then you are in for a treat!
And here are those fishing pictures! Those porgies are perfect for pan fried fish.
This fall, Judy and I stayed in Montauk for a long weekend and went out for some party boat fishing. The water was beautiful with calm seas and warm weather.
The captain had us fishing just off the shore near the lighthouse on Montauk point and we caught our fair share of porgies, perfect candidates for this dish and even some sea bass which are perfect for the steamed whole fish!