Lee Chien-lung's New Year Specialty:
Fish Head Braised in Chili Sauce
Coming from an old family of New Taipei, bureaucrat Lee Chien-lung shares the dishes that take pride of place on his Lunar New Year table, and what makes them meaningful.
Fish Head Braised in Chili SauceBy Jin Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 465 )
Fish head braised in a sauce of marinated red chili is a traditional Chinese dish from the coastal area near Shanghai. For this famous dish, the head of a silver carp – about the size of two hands – is fried and then braised in a golden broth of pungent, spicy, sour and sweet flavors. Before being served, the fish head is sprinkled with finely cut green onions and drizzled with piping hot Sichuan pepper oil. With a sizzling sound the pepper aroma wafts up, filling the room.
This spicy dish is central to a New Year's Eve dinner at the home of Lee Chien-lung, head of the Civil Affairs Bureau of New Taipei City and former Mayor of Sanchong City. Lee is a native Taiwanese, his family having lived in Sanchong for eight generations. Lee, who is well known for his cooking skills and love for good food, learned to make fish head braised in chili from his father-in-law, a mainlander from the Shanghai area. Every Lunar New Year Lee insists on commandeering the kitchen to cook up his signature dish.
Lee was born into a big family as the ninth of ten siblings. On the eve of Lunar New Year the large extended family would always get together for a big feast. However, one of these family reunions left its mark on Lee. It was the year when he turned 18. His mother had kept it a secret that she was suffering from a severe stomachache. Like always, she busied herself taking care of young and old among the large crowd of relatives. But eventually she couldn't stand the pain anymore and resigned herself to seeing a doctor. It took her half an hour to find a clinic that was open. Lee's memories of that evening are filled with his mother's loving care for the whole family, and his deep concern for her. That's why even today Lee highly treasures family reunions.
Auspicious Dishes Keep Family Together
To this day the families of Lee and four of his brothers all share the same traditional courtyard house. One year after another, the brothers take turns hosting the New Year's Eve dinner. But no matter who hosts the festivities, Lee will always cook a dish with the auspicious name "Rising Higher," which features dried bamboo shoots and stir-fried caramelized pork belly. Dried bamboo shoots cut lengthwise are simmered for several hours until they are succulent and then arranged on top of a bed of pork belly in thick, glossy gravy. Because of its auspicious name, which expresses the hope that each year will get better than the previous one, "Rising Higher" is sure to appear on the dinner table at Lee's house every New Year's Eve.
"On New Year's Eve we will definitely have a mix of assorted vegetables known as a ruyi dish, and in our family we're sure to have innards in a sticky cornstarch paste, because it symbolizes that the family is ‘of one heart,' and that the family will stick together," says Lee, enumerating one New Year's dish after the other, which reflect the culinary heritages of his homeland of Taiwan as well as coastal China, the ancestral place of his wife's family.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz