Recipe courtesy of Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

Crisp Swimming Fish

This is a classic Hunan banquet preparation. It is important that this festive fish, once cooked, look as if it is swimming, even though it has been soh jah, fried crisp. So it is carefully arranged upright, as if about to dart away. This is meant to impress, and it does. Presenting any fish, in any context, is good luck to the Chinese. If it is swimming, it is considered good fortune of high order.
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  • Level: Intermediate
  • Yield: 6 servings
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1 whole sea bass or red snapper, 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds, cleaned thoroughly, intestines and extra fat removed, washed inside and out, dried well

1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese white rice vinegar or distilled vinegar

2 tablespoons Shao-Hsing wine or dry sherry

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1/2 cup cornstarch

5 1/2 cups peanut oil

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons Chinese white rice vinegar or distilled vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons Shao-Hsing wine or dry sherry

1 tablespoon double dark soy sauce, regular dark soy sauce, or mushroom soy sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/4 cup Chicken Stock

2 tablespoons Sweet Wine Rice

Pinch freshly ground white pepper

1/2 cup diced onion

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

2 small fresh Thai chilies, minced

2 tablespoons diced carrot

2 tablspoons diced bamboo shoot

2 tablespoons chopped scallion

10 sprigs fresh coriander (cilantro), for garnish


  1. Place the fish on a chopping board. Cut 5 slits diagonally into each side of the fish, but do not cut to the bone. Sprinkle vinegar all over, inside and out. Repeat with the wine, salt, and white pepper. Place the cornstarch on a sheet of wax paper and coat the fish thoroughly on both sides, including the cleaning opening.
  2. Heat a wok over high heat for 40 seconds. Pour the oil into the wok and heat to 375 degrees F to 400 degrees F. Place the fish in a Chinese strainer and lower into the oil. (If it cannot be lowered completely, ladle oil over it and tip the strainer so the fish is completely cooked, brown and crisp, including the head.) Fry for 10 to 12 minutes, until cooked.
  3. Remove to a heated serving dish. Use a cloth to protect your hands and place the fish upright, stomach and cleaning opening down. Press it down gently so that it is firmly set. Reserve. Empty all but 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil from the wok.
  4. In a bowl, combine the sauce ingredients and set aside. Heat the wok for 20 seconds. Add the onion, stir, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the ginger and stir briefly. Add the chilies, carrot, and bamboo shoot. Stir the sauce, add to the wok and cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens. Pour it over the fish, sprinkle with the scallion, garnish with the coriander, and serve.