Four major cuisines
Huaiyang cuisine from eastern Jiangsu province is considered one of the four traditional gastronomic schools of China along with Guangdong, Sichuan and Shandong cuisines. Huaiyang recipes were a cornerstone for royal cooking and their dishes still frequently feature in the state banquets of today.
The most famous Huaiyang dish is arguably the squirrel fish, a deep-fried delicacy that has gained widespread popularity across China and abroad for its dramatic appearance, eye-catching orange hue, and for being conveniently bone-free.
How is it prepared?
The dish’s name is, thankfully, a misnomer: it contains no actual squirrel meat. Instead, freshwater fish such as yellow croaker, carp or mandarin fish – chosen for their firm white flesh and clean taste – are commonly used to prepare this dish.
The fish is first deboned then scored using a cross-hatch technique, flipped inside out (as one would when eating a mango), battered, and then deep fried. The process of deep-frying makes the fish’s body curl up in a shape akin to a squirrel mid-jaunt.
The fish is later doused in a tangy sweet and sour sauce made by thickening a combination of tomatoes, dark soy sauce, red rice vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. The auspiciously reddish tones of the sauce makes the dish a favoured addition to dinner tables around Chinese Lunar New Year.
How did it get its name?
The dish’s history can be traced back to the Qing Dynasty, during the rule of Emperor Qianlong. According to popular retelling, the emperor once came upon an energetic carp on his extensive tour around Jiangsu and ordered it to be cooked at once. Instead of serving it flat on a plate, the chef used a little ingenuity – and a lot of hot oil – to give the fish its animated, squirrel-like shape in order to reflect the liveliness that so bemused the emperor. Others, however, say its name draws from more literal origins, namely, the squirrel-like squeaks that the fish meat emits when bathed in hot oil. (Some suggest it got the name simply because the dish is usually served with fresh pine nuts)
Where is the dish served?
Squirrel fish is the specialty of Songhe Lou (72 Taijian Lane, Pingjiang District, Suzhou; +86 512 67700688), a two century-old restaurant in Suzhou said to have been where Emperor Qianlong was first served the dish – and where he regularly returned after that. Their crispy, moreish, but slightly pricey, version served amid opulent interiors is known to attract queues outside the door.
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