Chinese Salt and Pepper Fish
April 22, 2019 | Updated January 22, 2021
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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. If you want to make a Chinese seafood feast, make my recipe for squid stir fry or sweet and sour fish for another entrée. Neither takes more than 30 minutes to make.
Chinese Salt and Pepper Fish
- 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.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Easy and delicious! Even got 5 stars from my two year old and my Cantonese husband!
Loved this salt and pepper recipe . I used a firm Tofu and was delicious worked perfectly. thankyou
Hank, I made this tonight with smoked cod which I soaked in milk for 24 hours. It was beautifully moist, and the recipe worked perfectly. As I don’t have a deep fryer, and didn’t have any peanut oil in the cupboard, I used olive oil to surface fry the battered fish pieces in a large fry pan – it worked just as well, just had to turn after a minute or so. Delicious, thankyou.
Man, oh man, this was delicious. I made it from Hake. The batter has a really good consistency, it kept the fish itself nice and moist. I must confess I have never beaten up egg whites for a batter. Thank you for this recipe!
We are going to make this tonight but are confused about where the fried garlic/ginger comes in to the recipe after ‘setting it aside for now.’ Is it just served alongside the fish or what?
Ruby: Yep, it’s a garnish.
See step #5. It says to toss the fish with the salt, pepper, ginger, garlic, and peppers.
Very good. I heated up my cast iron wok and made a bunch with northern pike for 6 people. On the first batch I fried the batter puffed up more than I thought it would so I thinned it out to the point of barely coating the fish. It still puffed up nicely and was the perfect batter for my taste.
I made this last night. It was absolutely delicious. The batter recipe will be my go to favourite in the future. Thanks for the tip about oil temperatures
What type of chefs knives do you typically use? I’ve been using Buck and Cutco knives in the kitchen for the last few years. Thanks for posting such great recipes!
Kammi: I use a Wusthof Ikon chef’s knife, and a cheap carbon steel paring knife from France. My fillet and boning knives are all over the place.
I’m trying this with bluegill fillets tomorrow.
Love Salty Pepper anything! I do this with Spot Prawns on Spot Prawn Day (the Seattle Marine Area 10 season is four whole hours this year…sigh) No batter, more a dusting of corn starch, recipe from Tom Douglas’ “Seattle Kitchen” https://blogs.seattletimes.com/reeltimenorthwest/2013/05/08/chef-tom-douglas-offers-delicious-spot-prawn-recipe/
Doing the same recipe tonight with some razor clam tubes we caught this weekend, along with winging a pasta dish with razors and ramps.
This sounds like it would be amazing with frog legs in place of fish.
Hank – love your recipes – just made turkey marsala over the weekend from the breast of a 24 lb tom I got on Friday – the entire family LOVED it. Your picture for this recipe seems to be missing the thing I like BEST about Chinese salt & pepper anything – thats the crispy fried garlic/onion/ginger & chile mixture that is tossed in with the fish after it is fried. Your picture makes it look like raw sliced jalapeños were added as a garnish. I don’t want anyone to miss the best part of this dish!
Brent: No onions in this dish. But the garlic and ginger is indeed tossed with the fish. The chile is a garnish in this recipe — most versions of salt and pepper anything don’t even use it. But of course you can toss sliced chiles in with the ginger and garlic at the beginning!
Can’t wait to try this. My go to Chinese dish is always salt and pepper shrimp or squid. Never tried fish.
How do you get great black pepper? I buy mine in the whole corn way and grind it. I get it from Penzeys. Is there a better way to get really good black pepper?
David: That is exactly the awesome pepper I am talking about! Mostly I mean don’t use stale, pre-ground black pepper from a convenience store…