Sweet and Sour Fish

5 from 26 votes
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The idea to make Chinese sweet and sour fish came to me as I was driving home from fishing.

A great many variations exist on Asian sweet and sour fish, as opposed to the sweet and sour that is escabeche in Europe: some from China, some from Southeast Asia, some using whole fish and some, like this one, with fish fillets.

A plate of sweet and sour fish
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

The reason this structure is so popular is because, as anyone who has ever eaten Panda’s orange chicken knows, the combination of crispy, sweet, tangy and a little spicy is a sure-fire winner. Incidentally, I developed a recipe for what I call an adult version of Panda’s orange chicken here.

I live in NorCal, where Pacific rockfish is king. Common, easy to catch, lean, white fish. Rockfish basically fills the niche of walleye or perch when I lived in the Midwest, black seabass and porgies when I lived in the Northeast, and bass, snapper and grouper when I lived in the South. All are good choices here.

Inevitably when I return from a Bay Area fishing trip, I get stuck in traffic, giving me some time to think. It was hot, and I wanted something that would come together quickly so I wouldn’t heat up the kitchen.

Chinese stir fries sprung to mind. What about sweet and sour fish, like what I do with whole rockfish or carp? While I love that dish, you do normally do it with whole fish, and I wanted something with fillets; I’d caught some big black rockfish, large enough to fillet easily. Why not just do the same dish with chunks of boneless meat? Yessss…

A plate of sweet and sour fish with chopsticks
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

So this recipe, using fillets, is a mashup of that whole fish recipe linked above and my recipe for General Tso’s pheasant, which is, more or less, crack. It hinges on velveting, a Chinese pre-frying trick that sets a thin batter onto meat, which keeps it tender; it’s why the meat in a Chinese restaurant tastes different from when you do a stir-fry at home.

Normally velveting is a “cool” pre-fry at about 275°F — here we’re actually frying at a full 350°F. The effect is exactly like the meat in orange chicken or General Tso’s.

Sweet and sour fish comes together quickly, so make sure you have everything all set before you begin. I pre-fry the fish, then make the rice first and let it sit while I am finishing the stir-fry. If you want to make a Chinese seafood feast, make my recipe for salt and pepper fish or squid stir fry for another entrée. None of these takes more than 30 minutes to make.

And it’s good. Really good. Smack yo mama in the face good. Shut-up-I’m-eating good. Make yourself some sweet and sour fish, I tell you. Make it tonight. Then go fishing and make it again.

A plate of sweet and sour fish
5 from 26 votes

Chinese Sweet and Sour Fish

I used Pacific rockfish here, but you could use any relatively firm, white fish. I'd suggest anything from walleye to striped bass to redfish to grouper, snapper, black seabass, catfish, smallmouth bass, halibut -- hell, even carp would be good with this if you chunk it and remove any bones. This doesn't keep, so you pretty much need to eat it when it's ready.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Chinese
Servings: 4 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients 

MARINADE

  • 4 tablespoons potato starch or corn starch
  • 2 or 3 egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 cups peanut or vegetable oil for frying

SAUCE

  • 1/2 cup chicken or fish stock, or clam juice
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, or more if you want it sweet
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar or malt vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon potato or corn starch

STIR-FRY

  • 1 1/2 pounds skinless fish, cut into into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil, lard or vegetable oil
  • 8 dried hot chiles, use less if you don’t want it spicy, broken in half and seeds shaken out
  • A 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
  • 3 tablespoons chopped chives
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil

Instructions 

  • Mix the ingredients for the marinade together (except for the oil) and then mix in the chunks of fish. Make sure they are all well coated, and set it aside while you chop everything else. Mix together all the ingredients for the sauce and set it aside.
  • Heat the 3 cups of oil in a wok or deep frying pan until it's about 350°F. If you don't have a thermometer, you'll know the oil is hot enough when a bit of flour flicked into it sizzles instantly. Get a baking sheet or tray handy and line it with paper towels. Fry the fish in two or three batches, separating the pieces of fish the moment they hit the hot oil. Cook until they turn golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and let them drain on the paper towels.
  • When the fish is done, carefully pour off all but about 3 tablespoons of the oil. Add the chiles, ginger and garlic and stir-fry over high heat for 30 seconds. Add the fish and stir fry for a few seconds, then pour over the sauce ingredients -- be sure to stir the sauce before you pour it in because the starch will tend to settle to the bottom. Let this boil furiously for 1 minute, then turn off the heat.
  • Stir in the chives and sesame oil and serve at once with steamed rice.

Video

Notes

NOTE: This is one of those few Chinese wok dishes that you can double; most stir-fries need to be done in batches or they won't cook right. So that makes this recipe great for a crowd.

Nutrition

Calories: 370kcal | Carbohydrates: 14g | Protein: 38g | Fat: 18g | Saturated Fat: 4g | Cholesterol: 183mg | Sodium: 673mg | Potassium: 757mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 5g | Vitamin A: 615IU | Vitamin C: 4mg | Calcium: 41mg | Iron: 2mg

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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35 Comments

  1. I made this with a large carp I caught recently. It was my first time eating carp, and I’ve heard all my life that they’re ‘trash fish’ and whatnot, so I figured going with a heavily spiced dish might be a good idea on top of an open mind. Turned out the fish was good and this recipe is AMAZING, so it was a success on all fronts. It seems like a lot of steps, but it goes together quickly. I’ll be making it again.

  2. Made this last night for dinner. I’m pretty sure my son went back into the kitchen and licked the pan clean. So goods! I added half an onion to the stir-fry and sprinkled sesame seeds on top.

  3. This is Amazing. It’s become a firm Fish Friday favourite in our house – even for me, and I’ve never found fish enjoyable to eat! But this is gorgeous! I use only one chilli (Cayenne), but its plenty spicy enough, especially with a little extra ginger. Can’t wait to make it again…Thanks so much for a great recipe!

  4. This opened me up to all kinds of ways to use white fish. This dish itself is so good. Careful with how much you make as you will probably eat it all in one sitting.

  5. We have bags of bass and are running out of ideas, excited to try this! Quick question – when you say seeds shaken out (of the peppers) do you mean discard the seeds? Or keep them and it’s jut easier to get the flavor that way. If you discard you’ll just loose all the heat, right?

  6. By far, this is my favorite rockfish recipe. I have made it several times over a few years. It is somewhat of a step heavy process, but do yourself a favor and take every step. The result is amazing, Everyone I have every fed Hank’s Sweet n sour rockfish dish to has raved about it. This gets top billing for how to serve rockfish. Yay Hank for creating this! Definitely 5 star recipe!

  7. Love this recipe and there’s not much else to say. We usually make it with rockfish. We call it “crackfish” at our house.

  8. Hi, can i check if the chicken stock you have is home made? wld like to know if use the stock in cube form, do i have to add more water?

    1. Hamidah: If I ever use “stock” in cube form, I had better be somewhere in the wilderness. Yes, I use real, homemade stock. But you can use store-bought (liquid) stock.

  9. I made this last night with fillets from a medium sized (5 pound) pike. Cutting the fillet into bite sized pieces seemed to help with the fine bones that remained in the flesh as we were able to eat them without issue. I didn’t have any tomato paste handy so used ketchup instead (the horror!) and it turned out just fine.

    My son and I ate more of this than was probably advisable. It is absolutely addictive. Another blue ribbon winner from Hank.

  10. Since I can’t edit the post above, just wanted to add that I used a mixture of ling cod, cabezon and black rockfish that had been cut for fish tacos and then frozen (raw). Made prep even easier to not have to cut up the fillets.

    I think for a recipe like this cabezon would have been my fish of choice if I didn’t already have the pre-sliced chunks. It’s a firmer flesh than either lings or rocks, so it holds up better to the stirring at the end, and although IMHO not quite as good on flavor the sauce overwhelms any differences anyway.

    Only downside to cabezon is they’re such a PITA to fillet with that huge diameter bony head that makes them want to constantly roll around on the fillet table.

  11. Made this the other night with a beautiful Grouper fillet. Bought the fillet fresh from a local fish monger specifically for this recipe. Made rice in the rice cooker and put the fish and sauce over top of it. My oh my….Awesome! So delicious. Glad I found your site, I am exactly as you put it “Hunter Angler Gardener Cook”. Using your venison burger recipe today! Thanks!

  12. He’s. Not. Kidding.
    We just had this and it’s crack. I used some sublime rock cod caught that morning (I almost started popping pieces in my mouth for sashimi). Made sesame green beans and rice to go with the fish. We ate until it hurt…

  13. This looks amazing.

    There used to be a Chinese restaurant in Montauk that specialized in turning fresh-caught striped bass into General Tso’s fish. There was a whole article in the NY Times about the place. . .

  14. We made this last night with some Perch I had in the freezer and a few Crappies caught this past weekend. It was absolutely amazing! Thanks so much for the recipe.

  15. Looks fantastic! One of my favorite fish dishes to make. I totally agree that sweet and sour sauce works great with almost any type of white fish.