As the new year approaches, people from all over China make their way back to their family homes for the most important festival of the lunar calendar. Most will spend a fortnight eating and chatting, but the heart and soul of the celebrations is the family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve. In the countryside, households still fatten up their own pig in advance of the feast, slaughtering it in the last lunar month and brining the flesh or making sausages and bacon.
On New Year's Eve itself, the festivities begin with offerings to gods and ancestors. In a village in northern Gansu, I once tagged along as a friend and his family paid their respects to their forebears by kneeling down in an orchard to burn paper money and incense and setting off firecrackers. Later, women of the family laid a meal for their ancestors on the shrine in the main room of the house, with little dishes of food with chopsticks and cups of tea and wine.
Although the feast will vary from region to region, the table is likely to be groaning with dishes, including plenty of pork, a whole chicken, perhaps a duck and fish. The following recipe is one you might find on a Sichuanese new year dinner table: a fish resplendent in a pickled chilli sauce thick with garlic, ginger and spring onion and enhanced by a good dose of sweet and sour.
Sea bream in fish-fragrant sauce
sea bream 1, gutted and scaled but intact, weighing about 350g
For the sauce
cooking oil 2 tbsp
Sichuan chilli bean paste (or Sichuan pickled chilli paste if possible) 2 tbsp
ginger 1 tbsp, finely chopped
garlic 1 tbsp, finely chopped
sugar 1 tbsp
potato starch 2 tsp mixed with 1½ tbsp cold water
Chinkiang vinegar 1 tbsp
spring onion greens 3 tbsp, finely sliced
Heat up 750ml stock in a wok. Make parallel cuts 1cm apart along each side of the fish, perpendicular to the spine and all the way down to the backbone (this keeps the fish tender). Then lay it in the boiling stock, bring the liquid to the boil, then turn down the heat to poach the fish gently. Move the fish around a little to ensure even cooking.
After about 2 minutes, turn the fish and poach for another 2 minutes, by which time it should be just tender to the bone; poke a chopstick into the thickest part of the flesh – it should come away easily from the backbone. Remove the fish to a serving dish, and pour off the stock for other uses.
Re-season the surface of the wok, and then return to a medium flame with the oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for a minute or so until the oil is red and fragrant. Tip in the garlic and ginger and stir until you can smell their fragrances. Then pour in 200ml stock and bring to the boil.
Mix in the sugar, then stir the potato starch mixture and add enough to thicken the sauce to a thick gravy. Then stir in the vinegar and the spring onions. Mix well and ladle over the fish.
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