Hmong Style Crispy Fish

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whole fried fish
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

It is a paradox that some of the easiest, most fun fish to catch are also among the hardest to cook well. Small, bass-like fish — those with largish heads, prickly spines and large rib cages — really need to be at least a good foot long to be worth filleting, and even that’s a small fillet. What to do?

The answer is to cook them whole. You get exponentially more meat off each fish, you waste less and, well, it’s just fun to tear into a whole fish at the table. There’s something primal about it I really like.

Virtually every culture serves fried whole fish in some way, shape or form. The people of the Mediterranean, from Turkey to Spain, grill whole fish as good as anyone. You can bake a whole fish in salt. The Chinese steam them, then pour sizzling chile oil over them right before you eat them. In Sichuan, one of their signature dishes is sweet and sour crispy fish, which I make a lot.

I thought I’d make it again when I got home from Southern California recently, four pretty Pacific rockfish in my cooler. I had a great time catching them on the New Del Mar, easily landing my 10-fish limit. I gave away most of my fish to some newbie anglers who were not so lucky.

But as I drove the long trip home — Santa Monica is a solid 6 1/2 hours from my house in NorCal — I thought I should do something different. Spring is here and I wanted a lighter, fresher kind of fish. My thoughts immediately went to Southeast Asia, where they are geniuses with fresh herbs, citrus and chiles. Then I remembered a recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks, Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America.

Hmong are a group of Southeast Asians who fought with us against the Communists in Vietnam, and after the war thousands came here to live. There are large Hmong communities in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, in San Jose, Fresno and here in Sacramento, California.

I happen to like the Hmong. They’re good outdoorsmen and generally nice people in my experience. Long-time readers of HAGC might remember that I’ve cooked a few Hmong dishes before, like their awesome, herby country-style sausage and a fantastic squirrel stew.

Hmong food is generally a country cousin of Vietnamese food, which can be quite refined. Lots of fish and game, lots of fresh herbs, chiles, citrus and fish sauce. What’s not to love?

This recipe for fried whole fish is amazeballs. I am not kidding. The trick is to crispy fry plate-sized fish until the bones and spines soften, then tear into it. You end up eating about a third of the bones, which are reduced to crunchy, nutty tidbits. Crispy, meaty, crunchy, with the zing of citrus, the freshness of the herbs and the occasional warm note from the fried garlic make this a near perfect plate of food.

Could you do it with fillets? Yeah, I suppose. But that would be less fun.

A vermillion rockfish.
Photo by Hank Shaw

This recipe works with any bass-like fish. I mostly use Pacific rock cod (rockfish), but perch, large- or smallmouth bass, walleyes, black seabass, croakers, puppy drum, porgies, large crappies or bluegills would all work. The ideal length for the fish is about the size of a big dinner plate.

You can use larger fish, but you’ll probably want to split one fish for two people, and that’s not quite as fun as getting to tear into a fish of your own.

Fried whole fish recipe
5 from 10 votes

Crispy Fried Fish, Hmong Style

Everything here should be pretty easy to find, with the possible exceptions of the lemongrass and the fish sauce. Both are readily available in larger supermarkets now, and any Asian market will have them. If you can't find it, use soy sauce.
Course: Salad
Cuisine: Southeast Asian
Servings: 4 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes

Ingredients 

FISH

  • 2 to 4 plate-sized bass-like fish see above, scaled and gutted
  • Salt
  • 1 cup peanut or other vegetable oil
  • 3 to 5 garlic cloves, smashed
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 or 2 lemons, cut into wedges
  • 4 green onions, sliced on the diagonal
  • Cilantro, torn into 1-inch pieces, for garnish

DIPPING SAUCE

  • 3 to 5 small hot chiles such as Thai, or 1 habanero
  • 1 tablespoon minced lemongrass, white part only
  • 3 tablespoons minced cilantro
  • 3 tablespoons minced green onion or chives
  • Juice of a lemon
  • Grated zest of a lemon
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce

Instructions 

  • Take the fish out of the fridge and rinse it under cold water, checking for any remaining scales. Remove the gills if they are still there. You can snip off the fins with kitchen shears if you want. Use a sharp kitchen knife to slash the sides of the fish perpendicular to the backbone. Make the slices at an angle, from the tail end toward the head end. This opens up the fish to the hot oil and makes it cook faster. Salt the fish well and set aside.
  • Make the dipping sauce by combining all the ingredients in a bowl. Make sure everything is chopped fine. Set aside.
  • A wok is the best thing to use for cooking these fish, unless you have a deep fryer. I have both, and still prefer the wok. A large frying pan will work, too. Heat the oil until it is between 330°F and 350°F. Fry the crushed garlic cloves until they are a lovely brown and remove.
  • Gently put one or two fish into the hot oil. It's OK if the tails and heads are not submerged. It will sizzle violently, so watch yourself. Use a large spoon to baste the fish with the hot oil as it cooks. Fry like this a solid 6 to 10 minutes, depending on how thick the fish is. You want it very crispy and golden brown. Carefully flip the fish -- I use two spatulas to do this. Fry another 5 to 8 minutes. Repeat with any remaining fish. If you do have to do this in batches, let the cooked fish rest on a rack set over a baking sheet in a 200°F oven.
  • To serve, lay the fish down on plates and grind a healthy portion of black pepper over them. Black pepper is a signature flavor in this dish so be generous. Arrange the fried garlic and the remaining garnishes alongside. Serve with the dipping sauce and white rice.

Notes

Serve the fish with the garnishes around it, and the dipping sauce in the middle of the table. Forks or chopsticks are a must, as is a big bowl of steamed white rice. A really good bite is some fish on top of a little rice, with a bit of the dipping sauce spooned over it.

Nutrition

Calories: 475kcal | Carbohydrates: 6g | Protein: 94g | Fat: 6g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 167mg | Sodium: 998mg | Potassium: 1991mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 741IU | Vitamin C: 31mg | Calcium: 168mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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22 Comments

  1. Hello Hank, can that sauce be made in a large batch and canned or frozen and still work well for the dish? I live in Alaska and love your recipes.

    Thank you,
    Robert

  2. This is so good.

    I’ve made this a few times now. I highly recommend it. Even my wife who doesn’t like whole fish, or much anything else on the bone, loves it. We’ve also made the dipping sauce separately, for other dishes.

    I make this with rockfish. Sometimes, if the fish is too big for the wok, I just cut the head off and fry it separately. Those cheeks are worth it! My only caution is that the garlic will brown in a few seconds, so be ready. Don’t make this dish unless you expect to clean your stove, even with a splatter screen, it’s a hardcore fry dish. We reuse the oil a few times.

    This is our favorite whole fish recipe.

  3. Hi Hank,

    Delicious recipe as per usual! I too have had great experiences with Hmong people. So, I thought I would correct a historical inaccuracy in your article here.

    The Hmong people fought on many sides of the series of conflicts in Southeast Asia. The ones you are likely referring to are the Laotian Hmong people recruited by the CIA to block supply routes between North Vietnam and Southern Vietnamese rebels, as well as fight the Pathet Lao communists. They were officially supporters of the monarchy in that capacity. Other Hmong populations commonly fought for North Vietnam as part of their regular forces during the civil war.

    After the conflict in Laos ended non-communist Hmong were persecuted for their Royalist affiliation and fled to Thailand and then the United States.

    The Hmong have a large population that spans throughout SE Asia and China, and members of their population have probably fought for every national force and rebellion (save for the Khmer Rouge) in the region.

    Anyways, they are a people with a rich history so I felt like it was pigeon-holing them to assign them a one-dimensional role.

  4. Perfect. I lived in Mpls/St Paul for 30+ years and was craving some Hmong goodness. This hit the spot. The sauce is bomb. I substituted lime and it was fine.

  5. Had a large brown rock cod, removed the head and cut in two chunks, and did in the wok. It was awesome, even my wife who has traveled in SE Asia and knows food thought it was fantastic.

  6. What a wonderful recipe! We had some trout from a fishing trip this last summer and it was fantastic for those. The sauce is a total keeper! Thank you for sharing it!

  7. I’m in Australia, and we don’t have any of these fish by these names. How do you think rainbow trout would work?

  8. Made this with bluegills from my pond and was delicious. How come no one ever told me about this?

  9. Let me get this straight, you drove 6 and 1/2 hours south to catch rockfish? Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you have a body of water just west of you with an excellent rockfish population? ;D

    Yum! Excellent preparation! That’s got to be one of my favorite ways to have fish. You’ve got me ready to go chase down some sac-a-lait. (more likely end up at the market for live tilapia)

  10. No need to eat the bones if you don’t want to this way – the meat will flake right off of them. Grew up on river trout pan fried and it is similar – the skin will just peel off if you don’t want to eat that, eat the meat away from the bones, then pull out the whole skeleton (usually will come out in 1 piece) and finish the meat on the other side, and finish with the other skin.

  11. Can’t wait to try this recipe! I love the crispy skin and the moist, flavorful flesh that only “on the bone” cooking can accomplish. I prefer to leave the fins alone. Depending upon the specie, the fins can be tasty as well! At the very least, leaving the fins intact allows you to remove them by the roots after cooking. Fewer bones to deal with.

  12. Never thought of bream as an ocean fish… My relatives in the South call most sunfish “bream”. To me, “bream” is a member of the Cyprinidae or carp family – commonly found in lakes in Sweden, and still eaten in the southern part of the country (Skåne)…

  13. Hen: Yep, extra calcium!

    Helen: Fer sher. I assume you mean a bluegill? Regardless, it’ll work. Bream to me is an ocean fish like a grunt or porgy.

  14. Looks so good. I love the idea of wasting less. Plus I imagine the bones you eat are pretty good for you, full of calcium, right?

  15. Yikes! I’m having this tonight! The lemongrass is ready to be transplanted and the in-laws pond is drying up due to our lovely little drought. The ONE benefit is that there are several hundred 2-8lb large mouth bass just waiting to be eaten… Yummy