Sweet and Sour Fish (糖醋鱼)

This Chinese sweet and sour fish recipe uses fish fillets to create a stunning presentation while keeping the cooking process as easy as possible. The fish is shallow-fried until super crispy and then drizzled with a rich and aromatic sauce that is loaded with colorful peppers. It’s a perfect dish to serve at your dinner party, for Chinese New Year, or for other Chinese festivals. {Gluten-Free Adaptable}

Sweet and sour fish close-up

In China, a fish course is a must-have for celebratory occasions such as dinner parties, festivals, and Chinese New Year. The Chinese character for fish is yu (鱼), which is pronounced the same as the Chinese character for surplus (yu 余). So a fish course is always served at the dinner party, to bring good luck, abundance, and fortune. For me, a fish course deserves its main spot simply because it’s tasty!

A popular fish dish to serve at Chinese New Year and other festivals is steamed whole fish.  However, it does require extra work and access to a wet market that sells live fish.

Since moving from China to the US, I’ve lived in Austin, Texas and New York. I’ve found that it’s quite challenging to get live fish that are suitable for Chinese cooking. That’s why I’ve started to develop fish recipes that maintain the spirit of the whole fish course, but are more practical to make at home.

Sweet and sour fish

Why this recipe

Sweet and sour fish is a perfect dish to serve during Chinese New Year or at any dinner party. It has a flavor profile that your guests will love and it looks festive.

Traditionally, a whole river fish is used for this dish. Chinese chefs fillet the fish, then flip the fillet so that the skin curls to expose the flesh. The fillet is scored, battered, then deep-fried until it looks like a blossom, and then drizzled with sweet and sour sauce.

Fried fish with sweet and sour sauce

Image credit: www.meishijie.net

While that dish is stunning and extremely delicious, it’s so hard to achieve in a home kitchen. That’s why I developed this recipe.

  • The recipe uses fish fillets to create the festive look, but it’s much more approachable to cook at home.
  • It uses much less oil to create a super crispy fish, just like the real-deal.
  • The sauce is very fragrant and well balanced, like the restaurant version. I used some chili garlic sauce to create a slightly spicy taste that works great with the sweet and sour.
  • Easy workflow. I’ve also included plenty of pictures so it’s super easy to follow.

Sweet and sour fish fillets with peppers and onions on top

What fish to use

(1) White fish with slightly fatty and firm flesh is the best option.

My personal favorite is catfish. It’s affordable, very fatty, and holds together well during cooking. Seabass, perch, trout, and snapper are great options as well. Avoid delicate fish such as cod, which will fall apart easily once cooked.

(2) For size, smaller and thinner fillets work better, because they require less oil for cooking and will crisp up better.

It’s best if the fillets are about 1/2” or 2/3” (1 to 1.5 cm) thick. The largest cut I used weighed 1/2 pounds per fillet, and the thick part was about 1” (2.5 cm). I wouldn’t recommend any cut that’s larger than this.

(3) A skin-on cut is preferred. You can score the fish deeper if you’re using a skin-on cut, so the result will be crispier. Not only does the skin hold the fish together so it won’t fall apart, but it also tastes heavenly once crisped up. But you can use skinless fillets to cook this dish as well.

(4) When possible, get the freshest fillets you can. I would choose a great-looking whole fish and ask the fishmonger to fillet it for me at the fish market.

Prep for cooking

It might look like a long ingredient list. But if you get organized, the recipe is actually very easy and straightforward.

Once you’re done prepping, you should have a few things on your table (see the picture below).

You can use one small bowl for the aromatics (ginger and garlic), because you will add them at the same time.

Ingredients for making sweet and sour fish

Workflow & how to prepare ahead

The recipe contains two parts – (1) frying the fish and (2) cooking the sauce.

If you plan to prepare the dish ahead, you can make the sauce on the day of serving and heat it up later. In this case, you should make the sauce first, then fry the fish later.

The sauce holds up pretty well and you can reheat it in the microwave. Once you’ve made the sauce, you should let it sit at room temperature. Remember, do not reheat it too much, which will reduce the thickening power of the cornstarch and make the sauce watery.

Ideally, you should fry the fish and immediately serve it once it’s cooked. If you have to prepare it slightly ahead of time, you can keep the fried fish on a baking tray lined with a wire rack, and store it in the oven at the lowest temperature setting (for 1 or 2 hours). Then drizzle it with the heated sauce when you’re ready to serve.

Cooking process

Coat the fish

Only do this step when you’re ready to fry and the oil is heated.

  1. Prepare the cornstarch mixture in a tray.
  2. Place the fish skin-side-down.
  3. Use a spoon to sprinkle the cornstarch on top of the fish.
  4. Shake off the extra cornstarch and make sure the scored parts are also coated with cornstarch.

How to coat fish for shallow frying step-by-step

Shallow fry

You will save a lot of oil if you use shallow frying instead of deep frying. But if you have a fryer, deep frying works just as well.

  • Carefully place the fish into the oil skin-side-up. It’s important to fry the flesh side first, so the fillet won’t curl up too much.
  • Flip the fillet. A fish spatula works best. I didn’t have one so I had to use two spatulas, and the flipping was a little awkward.
  • Fry the skin side.
  • Drain off the excess oil using a rack.

How to fry fish fillet step-by-step

Make the sauce

  • Quickly saute the aromatics
  • Add the yellow onion for a quick stir
  • Cook the sauce mixture
  • Saute the peppers and let the sauce thicken

NOTE: Chinese sweet and sour recipes usually cook the veggies very lightly so that they’re almost raw when served. I cooked the onion a bit more in this dish so the onion flavor wouldn’t be too intense. If you prefer your peppers cooked a bit more, you can add them in the same step as the onions.

How to cook sweet and sour sauce step-by-step

Afterthought

This sweet and sour fish recipe is perfect for Chinese New Year, for other Chinese festivals, or even as a centerpiece for your dinner party. Using fish fillets instead of a whole fish takes all the guesswork out of cooking and makes it a very practical dish for home cooks. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Fried fish with sweet and sour sauce

More delicious fish & seafood recipes

If you give this recipe a try, let us know! Leave a comment, rate it (once you’ve tried it), and take a picture and tag it @omnivorescookbook on Instagram! I’d love to see what you come up with.

Chinese Sweet and Sour Fish (糖醋鱼) | This recipe uses fish fillets to create a stunning presentation while keeping the cooking process as easy as possible. The fish is shallow-fried until super crispy and then drizzled with a rich and aromatic sauce that is loaded with colorful peppers. It’s a perfect dish to serve at your dinner party, for Chinese New Year, or for other Chinese festivals. {Gluten-Free Adaptable}

Sweet and Sour Fish (糖醋鱼)

This Chinese sweet and sour fish recipe uses fish fillets to create a stunning presentation while keeping the cooking process as easy as possible. The fish is shallow-fried until super crispy and then drizzled with a rich and aromatic sauce that is loaded with colorful peppers. It’s a perfect dish to serve at your dinner party, for Chinese New Year, or for other Chinese festivals. {Gluten-Free Adaptable} To make this dish gluten-free, use tamari or coconut aminos to replace soy sauce. Use dry sherry instead of Shaoxing wine.
5 from 3 votes
Print Pin Rate
Course: Main
Cuisine: Chinese
Keyword: chinese new year, holiday cooking
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Servings: 4 servings
Calories: 501kcal
Author: Maggie Zhu

Ingredients

  • 4 fillets (1.5 to 2 lbs / 700 to 900 g) white fish , skin-on preferred (catfish, bass, perch, trout, and snapper are suitable)

Fish coating

  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper

Sauce

  • 1 inch ginger , sliced into thin strips
  • 4 cloves garlic , sliced
  • 2 tablespoons shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup chili garlic sauce
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

Cook

  • Vegetable oil for shallow frying
  • 1 bell pepper , sliced
  • 1/4 yellow onion , sliced
  • Toasted sesame seeds for garnish (Optional)

Instructions

Prep

  • Mix the fish coating ingredients in a tray or plate that is large enough to hold one fish fillet.
  • Mix the sauce ingredients in a big bowl. Stir to mix well.
  • Score the fish by slicing a 1” (2.5 cm) crosshatch pattern across the flesh. If using skin-on fish, cut to the skin but not through it. If using skinless fish, cut through about 2/3 of the fillets so the fillets won’t fall apart.

Cook the fish

  • Prepare a roasting rack over a big tray, for the cooked fish fillets.
  • In a deep-sided pan that’s large enough to hold one fish fillet, heat 1” (2.5 cm) of oil over medium-high heat until it reaches 375°F (190°C). If you’re using smaller fish fillets, you can use as little as 1/2” (1.2 cm) of oil, as long as it covers 2/3 of the fish.
  • Only coat as much fish as you can fry at a time. Place the fish skin-side-down in the tray with the cornstarch mixture. Use a spoon to add more mixture on top. Carefully lift the fillet using your hand to shake off the extra cornstarch and make sure there’s cornstarch between the diamond cuts.
  • As soon as the fish is coated, glenty lay it, flesh-side-down, into the heated oil. Cook without touching until the bottom turns golden, 3 minutes for smaller fish, and 4 minutes or so for larger fish. Flip and cook the other side, for another 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Once done, transfer the fillet to the tray lined with the rack to drain the extra oil.

Cook the sauce

  • In a medium-sized frying pan, heat 1 teaspoon of oil over medium heat until hot. Add the ginger and garlic. Stir to release the fragrance, 30 seconds or so.
  • Add the onion. Stir a few times.
  • Stir the sauce mixture again to thoroughly dissolve the cornstarch and pour it into the pan. Stir and cook to bring the sauce to a boil.
  • As soon as the sauce starts to thicken, add the bell peppers. Stir a few times until the sauce thickens. Immediately transfer the sauce into a bowl.

Serve

  • Plate the fish on a large tray or on individual serving plates. Add the sauce along with the pepper and onion onto each fillet. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds, if using. Serve immediately.

Nutrition

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 501kcal | Carbohydrates: 30.1g | Protein: 45g | Fat: 16.7g | Saturated Fat: 2.7g | Cholesterol: 80mg | Sodium: 941mg | Potassium: 87mg | Fiber: 0.8g | Sugar: 18.6g | Calcium: 87mg | Iron: 1mg
Chinese Sweet and Sour Fish (糖醋鱼) | This recipe uses fish fillets to create a stunning presentation while keeping the cooking process as easy as possible. The fish is shallow-fried until super crispy and then drizzled with a rich and aromatic sauce that is loaded with colorful peppers. It’s a perfect dish to serve at your dinner party, for Chinese New Year, or for other Chinese festivals. {Gluten-Free Adaptable}

Disclosure

Omnivore's Cookbook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
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Meet Maggie

Hi I'm Maggie Zhu! Welcome to my site about modern Chinese cooking - including street food, family recipes, and restaurant dishes. I take a less labor-intensive approach while maintaining the taste and look of the dish. I am originally from Beijing, and now cook from my New York kitchen.

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14 thoughts on “Sweet and Sour Fish (糖醋鱼)

  1. Helen @ Scrummy Lane

    Oooh Maggie! This is definitely the sort of dish I would jump to order in a restaurant. It does have a few steps, but actually it doesn’t seem too difficult to make at home. Such beautiful photos, as well! (I adore your style!)

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      I brought a flat bottom nonstick wok and a nonstick skillet (quite easy to purchase in the US actually) to Austin, because they are the wedding gifts from my mom. I didn’t bring the cast iron wok because my luggage didn’t allow me (we don’t have gas stove anyway). I didn’t ship anything and just brought two large luggages with me when I come here. So I wasn’t able to bring most of my cookery. I found my 26″ flat skillet can cook almost everything I need instead of a wok. We only have electric stove at home. I found the flat bottom wok is not able to generate enough heat for stir-fry. So I only use it for deep-fry and stew.
      How’s your moving going? Have you settled down yet? Take care my friend!

      Reply
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  3. Kelly

    This looks perfect, Maggie! Chopsticks are my BFF when it comes to deep frying too 🙂 We love sweet and sour fish and yours is so crispy and delicious!

    Reply
  4. Bam's Kitchen

    5 stars
    Cat fish is really the perfect mild white fish for this recipe. Love those sharing photos of you and Thomas eating dinner…You are right this recipe has a little extra work involved with the frying so sharing with friends is a good idea. My boys would like seafood more if I made them dishes like this.

    Reply
    1. Thomas

      I can’t lie; it is pretty amazing to eat stuff like this on a daily basis. I am pretty sure I have gained weight in the past month despite running 30+ miles per week training for a half marathon 🙂

      Reply
  5. John Hartline

    Loved the dish Maggie! My sweet wife was shouting “You’re killing me” the entire time I was preparing it. When it came time to enjoy, she moaned the entire time. I took that as her unconditional approval. The secret truly is the preparation of the fish. Thanks for a great recipe.

    Reply
  6. Dave

    Made this tonight with only a few variations. Instead of scoring the large tilapia filet, I cut it into bite size chunks. That made it extra crispy.
    To the sauce I gadded some lemon juice because I had half a lemon getting ready to spoil in the fridge. Same for about 6 stalks of asparagus. Otherwise, as written. Oh yes, I halted the recipe as it is just Mary and I eating. I cooked this in a small wok, using less than half a cup of oil.
    The outcome was both beautiful and extremely tasty. I rate it the best Chinese dish I have made in the past 10 years. Will definitely make it again. And again.

    Reply
  7. Dave Wilson

    Made this dish once for Mary and I,(2 servings) then again for guests (4 servings). Followed the recipe closely but tripled the sauce the second time because it is soooo good. This is a spectacular dish to bring to the table, but very easy to make. Everyone loved it. Cut my swai filets in half for easy handling, and fried in a big saucer pan. I made the sauce ahead of time in a sauce pan. Works fine.

    Reply