This recipe features crispy and fluffy fried fish, a very rich sweet and sour sauce that uses only three ingredients, and the right amount of veggies, nuts, and fruits to bring out the best flavor of the fish. This is not a dish for a busy day’s dinner, but rather a delicacy to savor – a feast to enjoy with family and friends.
A great tasting sweet and sour fish requires time and effort. You need to slice the fish into thin pieces to create the best texture and mouthfeel. You need to deep fry it in small batches, to get every single piece of fish crispy, fluffy, and heavenly-tasting by itself. You want to make the right amount of sauce that is balanced with sweet, sour, and savory flavor, with a hint of spiciness to pique your appetite. Colorful veggies are a must. Not only to garnish the dish, but to add a crisp texture and a refreshing fruity flavor to balance the decadent fish.
It sounds like a lot of work, but you’ll find the results extremely rewarding.
This is not a dish you’d want to cook on a busy Monday night; it is a dish you’d be proud to showcase when a friend is visiting. It’s a shining star that you’ll want to add to your holiday feast. It is the dish you want to take the time to prep and cook on a relaxing weekend for your family to enjoy.
To cook perfect sweet and sour fish requires deep frying. It might sound like a lot of pain, but if you follow these tips, your kitchen counter will end up clean and tidy after the cooking.
- Use a wok or deep heavy pan. I found that a wok is the perfect shape for deep frying. It has a small bottom, so it will allow you to fry with the minimum amount of oil. It’s also deep enough that you won’t worry about oil splatter during frying.
- Add enough oil to the pan, until it covers the ingredients. The truth is, the more oil you use, the easier it will be to control the temperature. This way, the ingredients will be fried quickly and have the perfect texture without creating a mess.
- Place beaten eggs and flour in large deep bowls, and keep them next to the frying pan. It might not seem necessary since you’ll be working with very small pieces of fish, one by one, but you’ll thank me later.
- Control the heat carefully if you’re using a gas stove, so the oil won’t get too hot. I used an electric stove and set the heat at 7 (out of 10) all the way through without any problem.
- Use a pair of chopsticks if you can (or a pair of mini tongs), and work on the fish patiently. Make sure to work on the fish slices one at a time, and shake off any extra flour. This is not a process you want to rush. I always pour myself a beer to drink while frying. And of course I snack on the fish, too (it already tastes heavenly, even without the sauce!).
I hope the long recipe doesn’t scare you away. This is a dish I really like, so I want to share the original recipe so you can recreate the best flavor without taking any shortcuts.
In the end, if you really don’t want to do any deep frying at all, at least try out this sauce. It is really simple (contains only three ingredients) and creates a great flavor. You can marinate and grill the whole fillet instead (coat the fillet with a thin layer of potato starch before grilling). Create the sauce by following the recipe below, and drizzle it onto the fish. It’ll be a healthier version that way, and faster and easier to prep and cook. You won’t be able to create as wonderful a texture and flavor without deep frying, but you can get a quick, delicious and healthy meal ready in 30 minutes.
Ready to cook now? Let’s start!
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Sweet and Sour Fish
- 2 catfish fillets about 1 pound / 450 grams (*see footnote 1)
- 1 tablespoon Japanese sake (or Shaoxing wine)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 2 eggs , beaten
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Sweet and sour sauce
- 2 tablespoons doubanjiang spicy fermented bean paste
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 teaspoons potato starch
- 2 tablespoons water
- Sunflower oil for frying (or vegetable oil with a high smoke point)
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger , grated
- 2 cloves garlic , grated
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) onion
- 1/3 cup pineapple
- 1 cup mixed peppers green, yellow, and/or red
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts
- To slice fish, position the fish horizontally on the cutting board in front of you, tail end to the left (reverse if cutting left-handed). Angle the knife to create a 30-degree angle against the cutting board, with the spine of the knife inclined toward the tail end. To make a thin slice, start by cutting at an angle down and to the right, aiming to cut a slice about 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick. Slice back and forth through the fish with this method, from left to right. This way, you can create very thin slices of fish that will not only hold together, but come out of the frying with a crispy texture. (*see footnote 2)
- Combine fish, Japanese sake, salt, and white pepper in a bowl. Gently mix well by hands. Marinate for 15 minutes.
- Combine doubanjiang, rice vinegar, sugar, and water in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside.
- Combine the potato starch and water in a small bowl. Mix well to form a slurry and set aside.
- Add 1 inch oil into a wok (or a deep pan) and heat over medium high heat until hot, or until the oil temperature reaches 350 degrees F (175 C). (*see footnote 3)
- Place a metal strainer into a large bowl. Add flour into a deep, large bowl. Add beaten eggs into another bowl. Place these three bowls near the frying pan.
- Work on the fish slices one at a time. Dip a piece of fish into the egg wash with a pair of chopsticks (or mini tongs). Shake off extra egg. Coat the piece of fish with flour. Shake off any extra flour.
- Transfer the fish to the frying pan. Fry until both sides turn golden. If the oil runs low, you might want to flip the fish once during frying, but do not move the fish before the batter sets. Fry fish in small batches, 5 to 6 pieces at a time. (*see footnote 4)
- Transfer the fried fish to the strainer. Allow fish to cool and drain of any extra oil. (*see footnote 5) When the next batch of fish is fried, transfer those from the strainer to a plate without overlapping the pieces. Continue to work on the rest of the fish in the same manner.
- When all the fish has been fried, add 1 tablespoon oil into a skillet and heat over medium high heat until warm. Add ginger and onion. Cook and stir for a minute. Add sweet and sour sauce. Cook until it reaches a boil.
- Add peppers. Cook and stir a few times. Turn off heat. Add pineapple and give it a stir.
- Stir the potato starch slurry again to mix well. Slowly add it to the sauce and stir with a spatula until the sauce thickens. You might not use all the potato starch slurry.
- Pour the sweet and sour sauce over the fish right before serving.
- Serve immediately.
- Try to select a fresh piece. If the fish is not fresh, it will break apart easily when you slice it. Other types of white fish that contain a good proportion of fat will work, too.
- If you find the slicing too difficult, you can cut the fillet into thicker pieces that are slightly bigger than bite sized.
- If you don’t have a thermometer, dip a small piece of fish in egg and then coat it with flour. Place the fish into the wok. If the oil starts to bubble fiercely around the fish immediately, the oil is ready for frying.
- Do not add too many pieces of fish at one time. The oil temperature will drop too quickly and lead to soggy fish.
- Do not place the fish on paper towels to absorb oil. The bottom of the fish will be steamed and become soggy.