Braised fish.
Braised fish.
Image: Yang Zhao

There was a community fish pond near my home where I lived with my grandmother, and she would go there almost every day to catch tilapia. It was a hobby for her, and we had fish for dinner every day. She used to tell me that eating fish would be make me clever and keep her healthy. I try to coerce my daughter into this practice daily.

In traditional Cantonese cuisine, the rule  is “fish is best steamed when fresh, and pan fried or hong shao when not”. Hong shao, also known as braised or “red-cooked”, gives off a salty, sweet, aromatic and umami flavour. It features soy sauce, rice wine or Shao Xing wine, sugar, aromatic herbs such as coriander or spring onion, and five-spice powder. The key to cooking hong shao dishes is to control the heat — the correct heat reduces the sugar perfectly so that it blends with the sauces in the most delicious way. In other words, don’t leave your hong shao dish unattended, not even for a minute.

I tested this recipe several times before writing it down, amid all of the load-shedding schedules and after visiting several fishmongers to buy different types of fish to try. Finding tilapia is quite impossible in SA, which was quite baffling really, as tilapia is known to be a fresh water fish from Africa. I remembered clearly that in fish markets in China, it was called “Africa fish”.  While I struggled to find it here, the blessing of being in SA is the variety of saltwater fish we can find. For this recipe, I tried red roman (very good), red snapper (too many bones) and also baby yellow croakers (which, to my surprise, didn’t have too many bones — even the smaller fish). I’d recommend red roman for this recipe, as it’s quite readily available.

Grandma fishing with dad.
Grandma fishing with dad.
Image: Supplied

Ingredients:

  • 1 red roman, roughly 700g-1,200g
  • 3 TSP cooking oil
  • 2 TSP corn starch
  • 8 slices of ginger (3mm thick)
  • 3 stalks of spring onion (roughly chopped into 5cm pieces)
  • ¾ cup Shao Xing wine or rice wine
  • 2 TSP sugar
  • 2 ½ TSP black vinegar or any dark vinegar, preferably Asian, otherwise, aged vinegar, if it’s not fruity or balsamic
  • 1 TSP dark soy
  • 2 TSP light soy

Method:

  1. Pat the fish dry with a paper towel (thoroughly dry is the goal), then cut 3 small slits on each side; lightly dust the fish with corn starch.
  2. Heat oil in a wok, make sure it’s smoking hot, then add ginger slices; cook the ginger slices in hot oil for about 1 min on each side or until ginger appears slightly charred on the outside, then remove from the wok and set aside for later.
  3. Add fish to the wok, and pan fry on one side for 5 minutes; DON’T move or check the fish at all during this time; once it’s time to flip the fish over, shake the pan slightly to make sure the fish isn’t stuck to the wok, then apply same method on the other side.
  4. Add ginger back into the wok, with spring onion, wine, vinegar, soy sauces and sugar; reduce heat to medium.
  5. Once the sauce starts bubbling, keep spooning it over the fish until the sauce reduces into a shiny syrup.
  6. Sprinkle roughly chopped spring onion or coriander and serve.
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