Cosmetic surgery

Posted by Fuchsia on January 18, 2009
Cooking, Ingredients

Last night I cooked a 60th birthday party dinner for my uncle and his family. As you might guess, it was mainly Sichuanese, although I did include a few dishes from other Chinese regions, such as a Cantonese steamed sea bass.

As usual, I asked the fishmonger to leave the head, tail and fins of the sea bass intact, and simply to remove its guts and gills. As he’s always done this properly before, I didn’t think to check. But when I was ready to marinate the fish (in a little salt and Shaoxing wine, with some crushed ginger and spring onions in its belly), I was dismayed to find that, while leaving the head, he had mutilated the tail, and sliced off the fins! Somehow he had destroyed the beauty and the balance of the fish, as I’m sure you’ll agree when you look at the following picture:

One of the things I like about cooking is the beauty of ingredients: a red pepper, a lemon and a dark purple aubergine on a plate together; the delicate laddered crispness of a fresh bamboo shoot; the pewtery gleam of a fish in my hands. And this fish – it just looked wrong, although I knew that it would taste as delicious as ever.

I wondered if, after steaming, the final scattering of slivered ginger and spring onion, the hot oil and the soy sauce would cover up its stumpy tail – but realised it would still look lopsided. I considered cutting a false tail from coloured paper or cardboard, but didn’t like the thought of its becoming soggy and leaking nasty dyes into the sauce.

Finally, I came up with a solution: a tail and fins cut from the skin of an aubergine (eggplant)! I shaved a thick curve of skin from a spare aubergine with my cleaver, and then cut it into shape. I steamed the pieces alongside the sea bass, and reassembled it on the serving dish before I added the finishing ingredients. It worked fantastically! I didn’t manage to take a decent picture of the final dish, but here is one of the raw fish, aesthetically enhanced:

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4 Comments to Cosmetic surgery

Zoe
19 January 2009

The aubergine-enhanced fish does look much jauntier. Did you eat the disguise?

admin
19 January 2009

I don’t think we did eat the disguise! Chinese aubergine skin is fine when it’s been steamed, but I think the thicker skin of Mediterranean-type aubergines is best fried.

Lauren
10 February 2009

This made me laugh. Very clever. Surely inspired by the art of edible sculpture you describe in your latest book, no?

Samantha
21 December 2011

Usually people use the knife to cut the fish down into fillets, but here you’ve decided to bring it back to life! Very creative and realistic :D

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