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Photo by: Georgia Glynn Smith
Steamed fish heads with chopped salted chiles were all the rage when I was living in Changsha. Waiters would emerge from restaurant kitchens bearing enormous, steaming platters, each one carrying a huge fish head, opened out flat, covered in a colorful scattering of scarlet chili and flecked with black beans and green. Chinese people love to eat foods with what my father would call a “high grapple factor,” in other words, that require dexterity with tongue and teeth, and fish heads are a prime example. They are prized for the silkiness of their flesh and their variety of textures, and are easily eaten with chopsticks. The huge fish heads enjoyed in Hunan are those of the bighead carp (yong yu in Chinese, or xiong yu in Hunan dialect).
I’ve adapted the recipe for people who might prefer not to eat fish heads, but would nonetheless appreciate the splendid colors and bold flavors of this dish. In testing it, I’ve used lemon sole, because its silkiness reminds me of the original recipe, but you might prefer other flatfish, or perhaps a whole brill or turbot for a larger party (as long as it will fit into your steamer). And if you want to be as authentic as possible, buy a large salmon head, cleave it nearly in half, and lay it, open and skin-side up, onto a pair of chopsticks on a large serving dish. Season and steam as in the recipe below, and remove the chopsticks before serving.
1. Make several diagonal slashes into the fish at intervals of about 1 inch to let the flavors penetrate. Rub with the Shaoxing wine and set aside. Place the smashed ginger and scallion in the middle of a deep heatproof plate that will fit into your steamer.
2. Heat the wok over a high flame until smoke rises, then add the oil and swirl around. Add the black beans and chopped ginger and stir-fry briefly until fragrant.
3. Drain the wine and juices from the fish, then lay it over the ginger and scallion. (Their purpose is to let the steam circulate around the fish, and to enhance its flavor.) Cover the fish evenly with the chiles, and then scatter with the beans and ginger from the wok.
4. Put the plate in your steamer and steam over a high heat until just cooked and a chopstick easily slides into the thickest part of the fish. A 14-ounce fish should take about 5 minutes.
5. Serve on the steaming plate with a scattering of sliced scallion.
An alternative to this recipe is one made with pickled green chiles, which looks nice garnished with a sprig of coriander (cilantro). Or you might like to follow the example of some Hunan restaurants and offer a “double-chili” steamed fish head (or fish), half covered in scarlet chopped salted chiles, half in green pickled chiles.
Nutritional information is based on 4 servings.
Nutrients per serving (% daily value)
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