Here in the Portland area, we have a huge Asian supermarket called Uwajimaya. They offer an incredible variety of Japanese goods, as well as a decent selection of goods from other Asian countries. I’ve only been twice because it’s located in a suburb and I don’t get out that way very often. The times I did visit were quick trips to pick up specialty produce. They had a large enough selection, but half of their stock was wilted and just didn’t look that good.
Since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d just pop in to see if they had any good looking fish. This time I was pleasantly surprised. The produce still didn’t look spectacular, but the fish, meat and deli departments were very impressive. How I didn’t notice the live fish tanks before is baffling because they take up a large portion of the back wall. They had 4 or 5 different whole fish to choose from as well as filets of sushi-grade fish. In their tanks, there were mussels, clams, oysters, crab and lobster. I’ve yet to see a live crab at any other supermarket in Portland. Their meat department was very well stocked: pork belly, pork shank (with skin!), and kalbi cut beef short ribs. I noticed most of the meat was NW raised and natural, meaning no hormones or antibiotics. The deli department was my favorite part. No potato wedges or chicken strips to be found, thank goodness! There was roasted whole duck, dim sum, several different pickled vegetables and several different fish cakes. I was in paradise.
Many of you are probably rolling your eyes at my enthusiasm. The thing is, Portland really doesn’t have a big Asian population, so we don’t have an overabundance of retailers that cater to our preferences. I have a market for my everyday foods, but to have a place where I can go to get fresh, whole fish or kalbi-cut beef without having to special order is awesome. I left Uwajimaya with a whole tilapia, pork shank, a couple of different pickled vegetables, fresh turmeric, and fresh BBQ pork buns.
I was particularly excited about the fish because I’ve been wanting to make 3-flavors fish. You’re probably more familiar with it being called fried fish in chili-garlic sauce or something like that. The three flavor components are sweet, sour and salty, which are the result of (palm) sugar, tamarind or lime juice and fish sauce. Chilies are the bonus. This is one of my favorite “special occasions” dishes. Mom never made it, but her friend was a master at it and always brought it to special gatherings at their temple. I always thought it would be hard to make, but turns out it’s as easy as pie, and I mean that literally.
Now, I’m not one of those crazy purists that will berate someone if they deviate from the traditional. For this dish, that would mean deep-frying the entire fish then ladling the sauce over. If you can’t find a whole fish, use filets, preferably with skin. I’m not shy about deep-frying, but if you prefer, you can pan-fry the fish or even steam it (gasp!). Of course, steaming is the healthiest, but there’s going to be a little compromise in flavor and a lot in texture. However, the sauce is so flavorful, the end result will still turn out tasty. I promise.
serves 3 to 4
- 1 large whole white fish (pompano, red snapper, sea perch, tilapia, etc), cleaned and de-scaled
- flour for dusting
- salt and white pepper for seasoning
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- chilies, to taste, split lengthwise
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 bunch cilantro, including stems, finely chopped
- 5 tbs tamarind puree (see note)
- 3 tbs fish sauce
- 2-3 tbs sugar, to taste
- oil for deep-frying or pan-frying
Note: Tamarind puree can be bought ready made but I prefer to make it myself from the big, condensed blocks. The blocks keep in the fridge in a Ziploc bag for months. To make the puree, add 4 oz of the tamarind block to 1 cup boiling water and let it sit for about 10 minutes to loosen the tamarind. Use a fork to help loosen it and stir it around. You’ll get a thick mixture with tamarind membrane and pits. Strain the mixture, pushing down on the pulp to push as much of the liquid and pulp through the strainer. Discard the solids. The puree can be stored in an airtight container for a couple of days. It’s also good for use in cocktails in place of sweet and sour mix (add simple syrup to taste). Try it and you’ll see!
Start by heating the oil to fry the fish. Depending on whether you plan on deep-frying or pan-frying, it may take a few minutes.
In a bowl, mix the tamarind puree, fish sauce and sugar. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Set aside until needed. Stir before use to make sure the sugar is dissolved.
Before cooking the fish, score it a couple of times on each side. Season it well with salt and white pepper and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Dredge the fish in flour and shake off the excess. Fry the fish for about 10 to 12 minutes, flipping halfway through if the fish isn’t submerged. I didn’t flip my fish, even though it wasn’t completely submerged. I just continually ladled the oil over the top, old school style. When it’s crispy and done, drain on a rack set over a sheet pan. I don’t recommend draining on paper towels because the underside of the fish will get soggy.
In a saucepan or small frying pan over medium-high heat, add about 2 to 3 tablespoons of the oil used to fry the fish. Add the shallot and chilies and fry for about 1 minute. Add the garlic and the cilantro and fry for about 20 to 30 seconds (but don’t let the garlic burn). Add the tamarind mixture and stir until it thickens, about 1 minute. Taste one last time and adjust seasonings if necessary. Plate the fish and ladle a little of the sauce over the fish and serve the remaining sauce on the side. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.