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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
While most Americans have long settled into the new year, there is a group of us Southeast Asians yet to celebrate our traditional New Year. The Hindu-Buddhist cultures of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand are gearing up for our approaching grand celebrations on April 13, 14 and 15.
This is a festive time of year, full of merriment and close family reunions. Young people visit elders, bearing gifts and scented water to anoint their hands in gestures of reverence. In return, they receive blessings and words of wisdom. Families gather and all take part in preparing elaborate offerings of food and flowers to present to monks in the temples in colorful merit-making ceremonies. Sacred Buddha images are brought out from their places in the chapels, ceremonially bathed and paraded among the people.
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In the countryside, the New Year gives young men and women the opportunity to meet and play games together, usually in groups. They sing and dance traditional folk songs and dances. It is a time of courting and jestful playing. Being that this is the hottest time of year, water is thrown about at one another, both to cool off and as symbolic acts of bestowing blessings. It is a day when people dress in their finest, yet laugh and cheer as they get drenched by water coming from all those around them.
Food stalls crowd temple and fair grounds with an extraordinary array of snack foods and sweetmeats to tempt every palate, while at home, extended families cook together exquisite feasts of seemingly endless courses. Special new year foods vary from region to region and country to country. In the heart of Thailand scorched by heat, a traditional food consists of a special rice, pounded and winnowed seven times before it is cooked, after which it is sifted into cold water, strained through seven layers of thin cloth, and finally soaked in cold water in an incensed earthenware pot and sprinkled with jasmine flowers. The scented rice is served with an assortment of dainty side dishes and condiments.
For most cultures, the New Year would not be complete without its luxuriant spread of delectable sweetmeats. Some are delicately wrapped in banana, bamboo and pandan leaves in packages of varying shapes and sizes. A log-shaped bundle holds sticky rice stuffed with banana and a few grains of black beans, while a miniature bamboo leaf-wrapped pyramid hides a gooey rice confection, and so on and so forth.
For me, all the abundance the New Year brings does not overshadow the glory of the hot season’s favorite treat – luscious ripe mangoes served with creamy coconut-flavored sticky rice (also called sweet rice or glutinous rice). Though eaten throughout the mango season from March through May, the golden color, sweetness and fragrance of the heavenly fruits are hard to beat as symbols of prosperity, especially when paired with the rich taste of the rice, a grain that reflects the fertility of the land. Furthermore, it is easy to make and the ingredients readily available from Asian markets in the Bay Area.
2 cups long-grain white sweet rice or glutinous rice
2 cups, or 1 can, unsweetened creamy coconut milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. sea salt
1-2 ripe mangoes, peeled and sliced
Rinse the rice, then cover with tap water 2-3 inches above the rice line and soakfour hours, or overnight. The rice will absorb much of the water, grow in size and soften, such that the grains easily break apart if pressed between the fingers.
Drain and spread grains loosely in a shallow heat-proof dish. Place on a steamer rack and steam dry (without water added to the rice) over a pot with at least two inches of water on the bottom. Steam over medium heat for half an hour, or until the grains are translucent, cooked through but chewy. Or you can use a stacked steamer.
If you are making a large quantity, in order to cook the grains evenly, use the special woven bamboo, cone-shaped basket for steaming glutinous rice, which fits on the companion spitoon-shaped pot with a collar to hold the basket in place. Fill pot with water to a level at least 2 inches below the bottom of the basket, and the basket with the pre-soaked rice. Cover with any round lid that fits an inch or more over the rice level. The basket-and-pot set is available from Southeast Asian markets. Alternatively, a straw or wire mesh colander that fits inside a steamer pot works well as a substitute. Avoid steaming the rice on top of a piece of cloth lining a steamer rack as any moisture the cloth absorbs may turn the bottom layer of grains into mush rather than cooking them in whole grains.
While the rice is steaming, prepare the coconut sauce by heating the coconut milk, sugar and salt together in a saucepan. Warm the milk until the mixture is well blended and smooth.
Mix the cooked rice while it is hot out of the steamer with half the coconut sauce. Stir well with a spoon to coat all the grains evenly. The rice should be moist but not swimming with sauce. Add more of the sauce if needed, reserving the remainder for topping the rice before serving. Let sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the grains to absorb the sauce.
When ready to serve, dish onto individual serving plates, dribble a small amount of reserved coconut sauce over each portion and arrange mango slices over the top. Serve warm or at room temperature.