Chinese cuisine is one of the most important parts of Chinese culture and of course there are stories behind the food. We will start a new series of stories about Chinese cuisine.
Today we will talk about a famous dish called 西湖醋鱼West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy, a traditional dish of Hangzhou 杭州, where the West Lake 西湖 is in Zhejiang Province 浙江, in the southeastern China. The dish is a boiled grass carp or perch, sugar and vinegar gravy on top. The fish is fresh and tender with special crab flavor. The ingredients are simple but the fish is important. The freshness and the weight of the fish is closely related to the time and heat control to make it tender.
There are different versions of the history of the dish and story. One theory is that the dish is based on a dish called CuLou fish 醋搂鱼from the Qing dynasty 清朝 and the recipe of which can be found in the book SuiYuanShiDan 随园食单from the 18th century. One of the most well known folklore about the dish goes like this, it says a long time ago, there were two brothers from the Song 宋 family. The local villain Zhao 赵 saw the beauty of Mrs Song, the wife of the elder brother, and killed the husband in order to marry her. The villain Zhao had cooperated with the local government that, Mrs Song and younger brother had no way to fight against him. Mrs. Song helped the younger brother to escape out of the town. Before they separated, she cooked the fish with sugar and vinegar as the last meal. She explained the sweet and sour flavor would remind him the ups and downs in life today and hope he would worked hard for his future. This is actually a well-known metaphor in Chinese that the life is like the meals with five flavors: sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, salty. It is true that bitter is a kind of flavor in Chinese cuisine. One bitter ingredient I can think of right away is bitter melon. Like the name, it really just tastes like bitter melon. It is used in stir fires, soup, herbal tea and so on. It is also used in cuisines of Japan, India, Thailand and other Asian countries.
The younger brother left the town and he joined the army and became a famous general. He visited his hometown and punished the villain Zhao who killed his brother but couldn’t find Mrs. Song. One day, he was having lunch in a restaurant and tasted a fish dish just like the fish cooked by his sister-in-law. And luckily found out Mrs. Song worked in the kitchen. The family finally reunited.
How to cook this dish? There are different ways. The older way was to fry the fish and eat it with the source. The modern way is the boil the whole fish after the water is boiling with soy source, ginger, rice wine, sugar, vinegar. After it is cooked, put on the juice thickened with starch water. The key of the dish is the freshness of the fish, the size of the fish, the timing of the boiling and so on. People used to cook half of a fish and eat the other half raw as sashimi. While since the economy of China wasn’t great for decades around the 50s and 60s, it couldn’t guarantee the safety of raw fish, people stopped eating this dish with half sashimi but cooked the whole fish instead.