By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Fish is a must when we celebrate the Lunar New Year. In Asian cultures, fish is a symbol of abundance and wealth. The challenge for many non-Asians is, how do you cook it to get the full benefits of being lucky? You can also try raising koi.
In Chinese and Japanese culture, koi symbolizes fortune.
But before you become lucky, you must have a fortune to raise koi fish. It can cost thousands of dollars to buy a few big koi. It’s not sufficient just to keep one or two koi in a pond. You need at least a dozen of different colors — gold, red, and white, to maximize your luck. Perhaps eating fish is a less costly way to generate luck? You decide.
Is eating a fish fillet during the new year good enough for good luck? Not quite. The best way is to have the whole fish, which includes the tail and head. Decades ago, the sight of an entire fish, with the head intact, irritated my Caucasian friends. They didn’t want to try it. Hey, it’s just like when they go fishing, they would catch the whole fish, not just the middle part of the fish. They shouldn’t be afraid of seeing the whole fish cooked. They had no idea that fish head is palatable, and its soup with ginger is often served to women who give birth. Fish head soup contains many nutrients. But you need fresh fish head to prepare the soup, and it’s hard to find it in Seattle’s supermarkets.
Often in my family, we have to “fight” for the head in Hong Kong, as I did on my recent trip to Hong Kong. I shouldn’t use the word “fight.” It’s more like a courtesy. Our method was to ask first to indicate interest, “Does anybody want the head?” It actually implies the asker wants the head. And I know there are other members who want it. “You go ahead,” others would reply.
“No, you take it,” I would push for others to take the head. “No, no, you have it,” my other relatives would counter.
After a few minutes of this back and forth, we come up with a way to divide the bait.
“You can have the cheeks,” I would suggest, “I will take the rest.”
Another would jump in, “You take one cheek and I will take the other.”
But if you take the head, you should also have a little of its fish tail. It symbolizes having a beginning and end, which is good for luck. To make it sound auspicious, the waiter usually says, “Ma’am, you should have the dragon head (fish head) and the phoenix tail (fishtail).”
Even when the head and much of the meat are gone, the whole backbone of the fish still remain. You could say my family members were cats in our past lives. Our family cleaned up the whole fish — including the bones.
My cousin’s sister was waiting for the tailbone. The rest of us politely refrained, waiting for someone to eat the rest. My aunt finally said, “Little sister (her nickname), go ahead with the tailbone.” I did not expect her to say yes because there was hardly any meat left. But she responded, “Very well.” She chopsticked the whole piece on her plate and chewed every bit of bone.
I had many wonderful fish meals in Hong Kong restaurants last December. There were live fish of all kinds from deep seas. One live fish can cost as much as $90 at the market. Eating live fish in a Hong Kong restaurant can cost over 1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($150), just for the fish. In Asia, seafood enthusiasts are willing to pay thousands of dollars just for an exquisite seafood meal prepared with those live animals, just like Americans pay for expensive piece of steak. What I miss most in America is that Asian supermarkets don’t offer many choices of live fish. The most common kind that is available is tilapia (not from deep seas). Its meat is coarse.
I was fortunate that my friends and relatives treated me to the most delicious fish meals. From Cantonese steamed rock cod, to Shanghainese deep-fried fish with pine seeds, to grilled eel Vietnamese-style, we had them all. Even among rock cod, there are variations. The most expensive was pumpkin-seed-shaped rock cod, which my friend treated me to, at a private club. The not-so-expensive was the black rock cod and sole. All these live fish tasted so yummy, and I savored all of those delicious moments while I was in Hong Kong.
So the question is, do I eat fish because it may provide good fortune or do I simply enjoy it? The truth is, I just love to eat fish, period. I don’t really believe it will bring me much luck, although I could be wrong. The number of awards we received last year was amazing. Some of these awards were unexpected, like the City of Seattle’s Cultural Ambassador award and the Washington State Generals Association’s award. If it wasn’t luck, I don’t know what we should attribute it to!
Research has found that eating fish provides many health benefits. It contains omega 3 fats, which prevents aging.
Seafood is so much better than meat. It has less fat, more protein, and all kinds of valuable nutrients.
Some of you might dismiss fish benefits and are concerned about mercury. A professor agreed with me that fish do contain mercury, but the benefit outweighs the harm. Okay, that’s a wise argument!
What if you don’t like fish? You can train yourself to eat it — one bite at a time. It’s not hard. After much persuasion from friends and family, my friend Jane, who hates seafood, is trying to change. The other day, she was eating lots of salmon.
From fish heads to bellies
As I said earlier, it is hard to find fresh fish heads in Seattle, so I had to improvise. Now, I am hooked on fish bellies, the fattest part of the fish. It is so smooth and soft. Many of my friends shun them because of the fat content. To me, eating bellies is heaven. I have to warn you that it is an acquired taste.
People often wonder how I can hang around the International District (ID) for 36 years. Food and friendship. Recently, I ate one of the most exquisite bellies in the ID. Sorry, they were not from the menu. Sometimes, the best food is off the menu. It’s what the chefs and owners are eating! Last November, I meandered into Tai Tung Restaurant. Brothers and owners Harry Chan and Tommy Quan were about to have lunch. What caught my eyes were a couple of steamed tilapia over the counter.
“What perfect timing!” I chuckled.
“Want to join us? Harry asked.
“Sure, I am not going to be polite,” I said. Harry was about to get me silverware. “No, I can do it myself. May I have the (fish) stomach?”
Go ahead, the brothers said. Those bellies entered my stomach and warmed me up the whole afternoon, physically and emotionally.
George Liu’s tips on microwaving fish to make it taste like steamed fish
1. Defrost fish
2. Put shredded ginger and green onion on top of the fish. Sprinkle a teaspoon of oil and a teaspoon soy sauce around the fish.
3. Cover the fish completely with another plate before putting it in the microwave.
4. If it is a big fish (over 1 pound), microwave it for 88 seconds. For small fish, 77 seconds.
5. Don’t remove the covered plate. Let it sit for another minute.
6. Then microwave for another 9 secs.
You have to experiment the first few times to get it right. Enjoy!
Steamed fish requires a lot of skill. If overcooked for even one minute, the fish meat becomes coarse. And the diners would grumble, “Wasted (the fish).” Timing is critical.
Cantonese folks like me prefer steamed fish, not deep-fried, stir-fried, or grilled. However, if we don’t have a choice, I would go with other alternatives because I enjoy eating fish.
Other ingredients for the steamed fish include green onions, ginger, soy sauce, and hot oil. Since we don’t have a reliable steamer, my husband can fool you with his microwaving skills — you’d think you were eating steamed fish. I could never do it the way he does — it is never overcooked.
In the Year of the Dog, you now know what foods to eat for the Lunar New Year. More fish, more surplus! More fish, more health! Why not?
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.