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Whole Fish Dishes

Kasma Loha-unchit, December 27th, 2009

Whole Fish Dishes Usher in Abundance in the New Year

Most cultures in the Orient believe food to provide much more than physical sustenance. It also nourishes the soul and spirit and gives meaning to people’s lives.

Moon fish for sale

Moon fish for sale

One highly regarded food is fish, a major source of protein and nutrition affordable by people in all stations of life. Because they are plentiful in the surrounding seas and in inland lakes, rivers, ponds and canals, fish are auspicious symbols of abundance, wealth and prosperity Because they reproduce freely, swim about gracefully without apparent boundaries and seem content with their environments, they are basic symbols of regeneration, freedom, pleasure and harmony.

Two snapper on a plate

Two snapper on a plate

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

In many Asian countries, fish is served at almost every meal, but although it is eaten so frequently, people are never tired of it. This is because there are so many different varieties, each with its unique qualities and tastes, and countless ways to prepare them, employing a wide range of herbs, condiments and flavor ingredients. Fish is also light, delicate in taste and easy to digest, seldom leaving one feeling heavy and uncomfortable as when too much animal meat is consumed.

Frying a whole fish in a wok

Frying a whole fish in a wok

Asians prefer serving fish whole for a number of reasons. Not only does buying a fish whole allow us the best means of judging its freshness, cooking a fish on the bone and with skin still attached yields a more moist and much sweeter and tastier result. The smaller, younger fish we prefer means the flesh is tender and succulent and has less of a tendency of drying out it cooking. A whole fish also gives us delicious tidbits around the head, tail and fins.

Just as important is the meaning that a whole fish conveys – wholeness, unity and prosperity. For this reason and other symbolic meaning mentioned above, whole fish are customarily served on special occasions, such as birthdays, weddings and on the New Year. In my family, a whole fish is served on New Year’s eve – only part of it is eaten with the rest saved for the following day, thereby carrying prosperity from one year to the next.

Preparing the steamed fish dish

Preparing the steamed fish dish

If you’d like to try your hand at a whole fish recipe, check out my recipe for:

Although the recipe suggests some kinds of fish, they can be substituted with other kinds of fish that are fresh and in season. If you have trouble looking a fish in the eye, try the recipe with fish steaks, but of course they will be lacking in the abundance of flavors and meanings, especially for the new year.

Fish, ready to be steamed

Fish, ready to be steamed


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2009.

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3 Responses to “Whole Fish Dishes”

  1. […] have tanks with live fish and other seafood, such as crabs, lobsters, shrimp and clams. (See also Whole Fish Dishes.) New Sang Chong […]

  2. leon says:

    can i steam a whole fish in a steamer,
    or slice it in three

    • Michael Babcock says:

      It’s ideal if you have a steamer large enough so that you can do the whole fish – it’s a much nicer presentation. If your steamer won’t take a whole fish, by all means, you can slice it in two or three pieces so it does fit.

Leave a Reply to leon