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: