Chinese salt and pepper fish is one of those classic dishes we Americans tend to give short shrift to, I suspect because there is no shiny sauce to go with it.
It is something of a naked dish. You have nowhere to hide here, so if your batter is greasy, your black pepper stale and your garlic burnt, everyone will know it. That said, salt and pepper fish, or chicken, a common alternative, is not hard to master.
This is a Cantonese dish, and my version is adapted from my friend Kian Lam Kho’s fantastic book Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking, which you should pick up if you like to make your own Chinese food.
Keys to this dish are very hot oil, as in 375°F, otherwise the fish will be greasy. You also want quality black pepper, the best you can find because it is a major player in the flavor of this dish. At the very least, grind your own supermarket pepper as you serve. I would suggest a tellicherry or malabar black pepper.
Finally, cake flour makes a difference in the batter. While not strictly needed, if you have cake flour, use it. The batter comes out lighter.
As to what fish to use, almost anything goes. Pretty much any firm fish you’d want to fry, which is most of them. I’d avoid bluefish, salmon or trout, herring, or any other really oily fish. Mostly you will be using fillets of white fish, but this would be fantastic with whole fried smelt or shrimp, too.
Serve this with steamed rice, and, I find, chopsticks make it easier to pick up all the yummy bits that are along with the fish.
The quality of your ingredients matters here more than the specifics: If you don't like cilantro, use parsley, and any fresh hot chile will work - or leave it out. And use whatever nice, fresh fish you can find.
- Oil for frying (I use peanut oil)
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
- 2 tablespoons sliced fresh garlic
- 1/2 cup flour, cake flour if you have it
- 1/2 cup corn or potato starch
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 egg whites
- 1 1/2 pounds fish, cut into chunks
- 1 heaping tablespoon coarse sea salt
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 to 3 small hot chiles, like serranos, Thai or cayenne. sliced thin (optional)
- Cilantro or parsley for garnish
Heat up enough oil to deep fry the fish, about 3 to 4 cups, depending on what sort of pot or wok you use.
While the oil is heating, make the batter. Mix the flour, starch, baking soda and salt together in a bowl. In another bowl, beat the egg whites into soft peaks. Add about 1/2 cup of ice-cold water (or cold seltzer) into the flour bowl, then fold in the egg whites.
Fry the ginger and garlic until the garlic just starts to brown, about 45 seconds. Use a skimmer or slotted spoon to remove it to a paper towel. Set it aside for now.
When to oil hits about 360F, coat a few pieces of the fish in the batter and deep fry them until golden brown, about 2 minutes. As they are frying, turn your oven to "warm" and set a cooling rack with a baking sheet underneath it for your fish. Move the finished fish to the rack and continue frying the rest.
When all the fish is ready, toss it with the salt and pepper, the reserved ginger and garlic, and the sliced chiles. Serve garnished with the cilantro.