My Chinese cookbooks have many fabulous-looking recipes for whole fish. I have been eating fish this way since I was a kid, and it really is true that the closer the bone, the sweeter the meat. However, I had never cooked a whole fish until yesterday, when I spied some handsome red snappers on ice at the Roslindale Fish Market.
This superb recipe calls for three heads of garlic. Don't cut back on the amount, because the method of frying turns it mellow and lovely, and you'll only be wishing you had more of these sumptuous cloves on your plate.
From Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty:
1. Get a 1 1/2 pound white fish like carp, snapper or sea bass, cleaned, with head and tail intact. With a sharp knife, make shallow slashes at 1 1/2-inch intervals across the fattest part of the fish, at right angles to the backbone. These will help the flavors to penetrate its flesh. Salt the fish and rub it with 1-2 T. Shaoxing rice wine. Set aside to marinate in the wine while you prepare the other ingredients.
2. Peel the cloves from 3 heads of garlic. Mince 2 T. ginger and finely slice the green parts of 2 scallions. Dissolve 1 T. cornstarch in 3 T. cold water.
3. Heat 1/3 cup of oil in a wok over a gentle flame until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and stir-fry about 5 minutes until the cloves look slightly wrinkled and are just tender; they should remain white. Remove the cloves with a slotted spoon and set aside.
4. Drain the fish and pat it dry with paper towels. Turn the heat up to high and fry the fish until its skin has tightened. Remove and set to drain on paper towels.
5. Turn off the heat and allow the wok to cool slightly. Then add 4 T. chilli bean paste and the ginger over a medium flame and stir-fry a minute until the oil is deep red and smells delicious. Pour in 2 cups of chicken stock, turn up the heat, and bring to a boil.
6. Stir in 1 T. sugar and 1 T. dark soy sauce, then add the fish. When the liquid has returned to a boil, turn the heat down to medium and simmer about 6 minutes. Turn the fish over in the sauce, add the garlic, and continue to simmer another 6 minutes until the fish is cooked and the sauce is much reduced.
7. Transfer the fish onto a serving plate. At this point you can arrange the garlic cloves around the fish like a string of pearls, or just keep them in the wok to be poured over the fish. Add the cornstarch mixture to the liquid in the wok, stirring to thicken the sauce. Turn off the heat, stir in the scallions and 1 tsp. Chinkiang black vinegar, and pour the sauce over the waiting fish. Serve immediately with rice.