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Fin Fish: Ancient and Current

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Fish and Seafood

Fall Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(3) pages: 25 to 29

Paleolithic to present, early Emperors to today’s ruling class, fine Chinese food always includes fish with fins on meal laden tables. These swimmers made it to tables and tummies by line, skiff, or boat, and more recently by express courier, train, plane, and jet. Virtually every kind of fish with fins has and continues to reach the Chinese fresh and raw, cooked in myriad ways, also salted, dried, pickled, fermented, and more from earliest times to today.

Early fishing boats never set sail without making proper tributes to Tin Hau, the patron saint of Hong Kong and further afield fishermen. They have been doing so for more than five thousand years in China catching many kinds of fin fish along their more than three thousand mile coastline. They have done the same in their many freshwater lakes, canals, ponds, and rivers.

Ways and varieties of fish were written about before Fan Li, a military strategist in the Late Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BCE) wrote China’s first farming/fishing manual. He and others did pave the way for China’s extensive and ever-growing aquatic industry. Ideas came from things seen in elaborate kitchen murals such as one in a tomb in Honan excavated in the early 1960s showing ten people working in a kitchen, one holding up a dish of fin fish.

There were many items dated before and after China’s capital was moved to Luoyi, a city we now call Louyang in the Spring And Autumn period (770 - 476 BCE). Some years later, about 300 BCE, we read that King Wen had a lake dug so fish could swim freely. Another item we read says salted fish was wrapped in rice and left to ferment. These and other items discussed in late Han times (circa 20 - 220 CE), some appearing in a book titled: History of the Later Han about fish as medications saying ‘a patient was seen spitting out half a gallon of worms mixed with pieces of raw fish’ assuming both were taken together.

We know of fin fish located in The Book of Songs, said to be from the late Zhou Dynasty (11th century BCE to 256 BCE) asking “if you eat fish must it be bream from the Yellow River,” and of three species of sea bream called tiao, and probably other fin fish from China’s waterways including the Yangtze and the Pearl Rivers.

Fin fish were used at special meals and special gifts in early times. One was given to Confucius (551 - 479 BCE) by the Duke Zhou of Lu honoring the birth of his son. That was a carp when this sage became a father around the age of seventy.

There are other honorific fish references including one from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 200 CE) written about in a dictionary known as Shou Wen Jie Zi. It was completed in 100 CE, and it discusses more than seventy different species of fin fish. These honorific fish were gifts for people and their tables, and they did not just come from these three rivers. Some may have come from one of China’s four seas, five lakes, and/or its numerous ponds.

Some were probably eaten raw as did Confucius who said he ate ‘refined thin sliced raw fish called kuai. It may have never been sliced too thin for him. Thus, raw or prepared, fin fish were nor new foods now new gift ideas long before the birth of the son of this sage born a year after his marriage.

Lots later, poet Su Dong Po in 1080 CE, wrote that “seeing the river’s broad curves I see her fine fish.” He and people everywhere hung curtains to catch them stretched between two boats and weighted down with iron hanging to the river bed in paths of fish.

One can read about old and new ways to catch fin fish in a recent volume titled: A History of the Fishing Industry in China. In it and thanks to anthropologists and archeologists. modern gourmets and others can look back at fish found or caught then eaten; and they can look at fossilized remains including those of the common carp, the grass carp, and other fish. Paleolithic finds near the Upper Cave at Zhoukoudian near Beijing and others show hundreds of kinds of fin fish available in early China as they are today. Not only were whole or parts of fish available, but fish sauce made from fin fish was used as a major Chinese condiment for more than three thousand years, especially in coastal regions.

How it was and is made remains basically the same. It uses natural fermentation, fresh fin fish put in high concentrations of brine and kept outdoors for two or three years before being collected as fish sauce. Nowadays the time is shortened as they incubate the fish at fifty or sixty degrees Celsius for hours, not years.

Actually, there are two types of fermented fish products, the one mentioned and one a fish paste. Both were and are popular in rice and other dishes; and both contain significant amounts of protein and essential amino acids including lysine. The latter one compensates for low lysine in rice, and both are good sources of other minerals.

Fin fish contain lots of protein, more than milk, eggs, or beef, and are readily digested and of good biologic value. Their oils are rich sources of vitamins A and D, have considerable iodine, fluorine, and phosphorus, and if small and their bones are consumed, they provide lots of calcium, too.

Some worry that there are good fish and bad fish. The latter can have high amounts of mercury, PCBs, and other deleterious items., but most have healthy fats reducing risks if not too much is consumed. Professionals say two meals a week will do, preferably not deep fried when cooked. They recommend herring, salmon, sardines, and swordfish, among other sources. Some of them worry about tuna as there are some from places that can also have lots of mercury with their many omega-3 fatty acids.

The Chinese classify all fin fish as nutritious and valuable food. They believe people should eat lots as increased fish consumption is linked to lower risk of heart problems, reduced risk of stroke, and reduced mood disorders and depression.

That said, here are some fin fish recipes to include as you enjoy greater consumption of them; and as Emperor Kangxi (1662 - 1722) wisely said, “We ate fish kept fresh on ice, yellow croaker wrapped in lotus leaves, snow white shad stuck on willow twigs, and others from boats of fish vendors everywhere.” Note a typical fish in tomato sauce shown on page 27.

Raw Fish Chinese Style

½ pound firm white fish, very thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons hot peanut oil, ½ tablespoon set aside
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard powder, mixed with set aside peanut oil
½ teaspoon Chinese white vinegar


1. Carefully dry every fish slice.
2. Mix set aside peanut oil with the mustard powder and the vinegar and brush this on one side of each slice, and plate in overlapping slices in a design on a small platter. Refrigerate covered until very cold (about one or two hours), then serve.

Steamed Fish

1½ ponds fish fillets, cut across in two-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons preserved dried turnip, minced
2 teaspoons salted black beans, mashed
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons thin soy sauce
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
1 small scallion, minced


1. Put fish in large heat-proof bowl.
2. Mix minced turnip, black beans, salt, sesame oil, soy sauce, and the minced ginger and scallion and pour into the bowl with the pieces of fish and gently toss just one time, then steam for twenty minutes, put this bowl on a plate, and serve.

Zhehiang Fish Ball and Water Shield Soup

1/3 pound any white fin fish, minced
1 square firm bean curd, minced
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 pound water shield, fresh or bottled and drained, and cut in one-inch pieces
2 quarts fish or chicken stock
garnish of minced cooked ham, and fresh coarsely chopped cilantro, and/or other greens


1. Rinse and dry fish, and mince it with bean curd and salt. Squeeze this together and make one-inch balls.
2. Bring half the stock to a simmer, and add a few fish balls at a time. After eight minutes, remove them with a slotted spoon and set them in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
3. When ready to serve the soup, put stock, fish balls, and water shield pieces into a pot and bring to the boil for three or four minutes. Then put them into a preheated soup tureen or pre-heated individual bowls, add garnish, and serve.

Carp With Hot Bean Sauce

1 two-pound fresh carp scaled, guts and gills discarded
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup chicken or fish stock
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 Tablespoon hot bean sauce
1 Tablespoon fermented rice
½ teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese white vinegar
1 teaspoon Chinese Shao Xing rice wine
1 Tablespoon cornstarch with like amount of cold water
1 scallion. coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sesame oil


1. Make three parallel cuts in the flesh on each side of the fish down to close to the center bone.
2. Heat wok, add the oil, then in half minute, add and stir-fry the ginger and garlic, and in one minute, add the bean sauce and the fermented rice and stir for another one minute then add the fish and the stock and reduce the heat to a simmer and cook it for five minutes. Turn the fish over carefully with chopsticks and simmer for another five minutes.
3. Stir the cornstarch mixture and pour this over the carp and in one minute put the fish on a pre-heated platter and garnish it with the scallion pieces. Next, pour the sesame oil over the fish and serve.

Fin Fish Tails

2 fish tails, scales discarded, each cut in half the long way, discarding the bones
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
5 fresh whole ginger slices
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
2 teaspoons of cornstarch mixed with one Tablespoon cold water
½ teaspoon Chinese white vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 scallion cut into one-inch pieces


1. Heat wok, add the vegetable oil, then brown the garlic and ginger pieces for one minute.
2. Next, add fish tailpieces, skin side down and fry for one minute, then add the soy sauce, sugar, and the rice wine, cover, and simmer ten minutes.
3. Uncover, add the cornstarch mixture after just stirring it, then add the vinegar, sesame oil, and the soy sauce, and stir gently for one minute.
4. Put scallions on top of the fish tail pieces, put fish tail and the sauce on a pre-heated platter, and serve.

Fish-Stuffed Bean Cakes

½ pound skinless and boneless fish fillets
½ pound peeled shrimp, veins discarded. minced
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 egg white
7 half-pound firm bean cakes, each cut on the diagonal, making a pocket on their cut side
1 to 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup vegetable oil


1. Mash fish fillets, and mix them with the minced shrimp, salt, and the egg white. Divide this into fourteen batches and make a flattened ball with each batch.
2. Stuff each triangle with the flattened fish and gently flatten them a bit more being careful not to break the bean curd triangle, and dip the long edge in the cornstarch shaking off any excess.
3. Heat oil in a wok or deep pan, and fry a few of the triangles until light tan, then drain them on paper towels and fry some more until all are fried.
4. Put them on a pre-heated platter, and serve.

Sea Bass With Hoisin Sauce

1 whole sea bass, scales, guts, and gills discarded
3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 Tablespoon hot chili oil
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon minced fermented black beans
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with the same amount of cold water
1 cup angle-sliced snow peas, strings discarded


1. Dry fish inside and out.
2. Mix the next six ingredients (soy sauce through ginger) together and marinate the sea bass for two hours in it covered, in the refrigerator.
3. Put fish and the marinade in a heat-proof bowl or platter with a one-inch or greater edge, cover with foil with holes pieced on the top side ten times with a fork, then steam this fish over boiling water for twenty minutes.
4. While the fish is steaming, boil snow peas for three minutes, drain, and keep them warm in a hot oven.
5. Uncover, and serve on this or another clean preheated platter, surrounding the fish with the cooked snow peas.

Sichuan Dry-Cooked Fin Fish

2 pounds whole fin fish, scales, gills, guts discarded, rinsed and dried with paper towels
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 cup vegetable oil
1 dried Sichuan pickled pepper, seeds discarded, pepper slivered
3 Tablespoons hot soybean paste
5 scallions, white part slivered, one set aside
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
2large cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 cup fish or chicken stock
1 Tablespoon cornstarch, optional


1. Rub salt and wine on the fish skin and its cavity, and set aside for ten minutes.
2. Heat wok, add the oil, and deep-fry the fish on each side until the skin shrinks, about one minute per side, then remove the fish to a plate, and half the remaining oil to a small bowl.
3. Add the Sichuan pickled pepper and all the prepared soybean paste, scallion, ginger, and garlic pieces to the remaining oil in the wok and stir for one minute or until the oil becomes red, then add the stock and bring to a boil.
4. Return the fish, reduce the heat to a low boil and cook it ladling the stock over the fish for ten minutes, adding the cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water, if desired, until somewhat thickened, about another minute.
5. Remove the fish to a platter, pour any remaining sauce over, sprinkle the set aside scallion slivers, and serve.

Fish, Greens, and Garlic

1 pound fin fish fillet pieces, rinsed and dried with paper towels
1 egg. Beaten well
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup coarsely chopped Chinese greens (such as bok cai and/or silk squash)
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
5 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
½ cup chicken or vegetable stock
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon water chestnut flour


1. Dip fish fillets in egg, then coat them with cornstarch, and refrigerate them in a single layer on a plate for one hour.
2. Blanched the greens in two cups of boiling water, drain, and set them aside.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the vegetable oil and fry the fish fillets, one side at a time, until crisp and almost done, then remove them to a pre-heated platter covered with paper-towels.
4. Add the garlic slices to the remaining oil in the pan and fry for one minute, then add the stock and greens, and stir-fry for one minute and take them out with a slotted spoon putting them on a pre-heated platter, and move the fish fillets to this platter.
5. Mix sesame oil, ground pepper, sugar, water chestnut flour, and two tablespoons cold water and put this in a very hot wok, stir once, and let it come to a boil while stirring until it thickens, then pour it over the fish and greens, and serve.

Cod Fish Fillets With Bitter Melons

2 large cod fillets, scales and skin removed and discarded
½ cup vegetable oil
3 slices fresh ginger, slivered
3 cloves fresh garlic, mashed
½ pound bitter melon, peeled, seeded, and cut in three-inch chunks
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with the same amount of cold water


1. Mix fish, egg and cornstarch.
2. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, and fry the fish fillets one each side until golden, then remove them to a pre-heated platter.
3. Add the ginger and the garlic and stir-fry for one minute, then add he pieces of bitter melon and stir-fry them for two minutes before adding one cup of boiling water and simmer for three minutes, then return the fish fillets and all other ingredients to the wok or pan and simmer for two minutes, then serve.

Beef and Fish

2 teaspoons rendered chicken fat
1 thin slice fresh ginger, minced
1 clove fresh garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
½ pound flank steak, sliced thinly, then cut into one-inch strips
½ pound thin slices of boneless and skinless fish fillets, cut into one-inch strips
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup vegetable oil
2 scallions, cut lengthwise in half, then into one-inch pieces


1. Heat wok, then add chicken fat, and stir-fry the ginger and garlic for half minute, then stir in the brown sugar and soy sauce.
2. Mix beef and fish strips with the cornstarch, then add to the wok and stir-fry until the meat is no longer ping and no longer than two minutes, then set aside in a strainer over a bowl.
3. Heat a clean wok, add the vegetable oil, then add the set aside the drained beef and fish, and stir in the soy sauce mixture and toss well before adding the scallion pieces, and stirring two or three times then transferring to a pre-heated bowl, and serve.

Flounder Garlic and Conpoy

1 lotus leaf, soaked for twenty minutes in warm water
1 dried scallop (conpoy) soaked until soft, then hand-torn into thin shreds
1 pound boneless skinless flounder dusted with one Tablespoon cornstarch
1 scallion, shredded or angle sliced
2 Tablespoons peeled minced garlic
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon each thin and dark soy sauce


1. Line a bamboo steamer basket with the soaked lotus leaf.
2. Add the shredded conpoy, then the cornstarch-dusted fish fillets, the shredded scallion, and minced garlic and the salt. Sprinkle with both soy sauces, and close the lotus leaf over and around the fish.
3. Put over boiling water and steam covered for ten minutes, remove to a platter, then serve.

Fish in Lettuce Wrap

1 pound minced boneless and skinless white-flesh fish
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1½ Tablespoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
8 ounces drained canned water chestnuts, sliced thinly, each cut in quarters
1 small onion quartered then each quarter sliced thinly salt and ground black pepper, to taste
10 whole leaves butter, bibb, or another soft lettuce


1. Mix fish, rice wine, hoisin and soy sauces, and the cornstarch.
2. Heat a wok, add the vegetable oil, and stir-fry the garlic and ginger for one minute, then add the fish mixture and stir-fry stirring gently two minutes, then put into a strainer over a bowl.
3. Now add the water chestnut and onion pieces to the wok and the salt and pepper and stir-fry for two minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon to the bowl with the fish mixture.
4. Put a heaping tablespoon (about one-tenth of the fish and vegetable mixture) on to a lettuce leaf, fold in the ends and roll the leaf closed sitting it on the end of the lettuce leaf on a pre-heated serving platter. Repeat until all are rolled, then serve them immediately.

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