All Photos: courtesy of Wendy Goodfriend
I’m surrounded by a dozen huge tanks of handsome swimming fish, including red tilapia, black bass and silver carp at the E&F Market in Oakland Chinatown. My friend, Lisa Li, has graciously agreed to take me on an urban “fishing expedition” to buy a live fish that we will cook for lunch, in the Chinese tradition. Among the many choices of fresh and farmed varieties, she decides on a wild-caught rockfish and points the fishmonger to a tank labeled “gopher” fish. He deftly wields a hand-net and scoops up a lively, mottled brown fellow with spiky fins and bulging blue eyes. We see it wriggling for a moment before a discrete thwack on the other side of the counter dispatches it into a state ready to be cleaned and bagged. Lisa also chooses a farmed sea bass for us to compare the flavors.
Lisa, who grew up in Guangzhou, China, is a world-traveler who enjoys the cuisines of many cultures and together we’ve shared Moroccan tagines and Spanish tapas. She is also happy to expand my knowledge of Chinese cooking and take me along on this shopping trip she makes weekly. “In Chinese culture,” she tells me, “we like to get our protein as close to live as possible.” What could be fresher than a fish that was swimming around less than an hour before you eat it? And for the upcoming Chinese New Year’s Eve feast, a whole fish is the traditional last course. The word for fish yu also signifies “abundance,” making simply dressed, steamed fish a symbolic and delicious way to end the meal.
Although Lisa frequents several Oakland Chinatown fish markets, she decides that this newish, spacious one would be best for me, since it has the biggest selection and its owners speak English.
A petite woman in a fish-emblazoned sweatshirt greets us, adding that we are very lucky to live in California since we have so many local fish to choose from. The co-owner of E&F Market has an impossibly perfect name: Finnie Fung. She grew up with fish, helping her parents on weekends in their New Sang Chong Market a half block away. Finnie, age 31, and her husband bought this store, formerly called Hung Wan Market, from her parents and recently changed the name to “E&F” to reflect this new identity (as Eric and Finnie) and also to connect with the younger generation.
“Many Americans [who don’t speak Chinese] are frustrated shopping at the older markets in Chinatown. They often think the shopkeepers are being rude,” explains Finnie. “They aren’t being rude on purpose. It’s just that they don’t speak English well. Here we can answer shoppers’ questions about which fish to buy and how to cook them.”
Meanwhile the orange-gloved fishmongers have quickly scaled, cleaned and bagged our two fish. And as we pay, Lisa picks up some other ingredients we’ll need: fresh scallions, ginger and cilantro.
We chose the perfect day to stroll through Oakland Chinatown: the annual New Years Bazaar. As we walk back to the car, we thread our way through bustling streets, lined with piles of green-leafed tangerines, huge hanging pomelos, red and gold chrysanthemums and branches of plum blossoms (all symbolic of good fortune in the new year).
As children scamper by, happily holding brightly colored pinwheels, we join the shoppers examining rows of red and gold lanterns with fluttering tassels, sparkly strings of firecrackers, embroidered fish charms and strands of shiny gold money purses.
Back at Lisa’s house, her husband John helps us quickly shred the scallions as Lisa cuts the peeled ginger into large slices. The classic preparation for the fish is to steam it whole — “to represent completeness,” Lisa explains. It is essential that the fish is served with head and tail attached to make sure that the coming year has both a good beginning and ending.
She fills a large pan with water and steamer tray, places the whole fish on a plate atop a pair of chop sticks (“so that the fishy water will run off”), slits the back, so the thicker areas will cook and stuffs the fish with several coins of ginger. The fish will steam for 8 minutes over a high flame. Meanwhile, in another pan she pours some peanut oil and briefly sautés matchstick pieces of ginger and more scallions. When the fish are done, they are ringed with cilantro and topped with the gently sautéed ginger and scallions. Then she pours a generous amount of a special soy sauce for fish. “How much soy sauce are you pouring,” I ask? “Enough to puddle around the bottom of the dish,” she answers.
We move to a round dining table edged with a carved dragon and phoenix motif. As Lisa serves us the tender fish, she explains that at New Years Eve dinner, the head of the fish is always pointed towards the oldest or most honored guest. She scoops up more flesh from the bony skeleton, to refill our plates. John, presents her with the cheek, a prized morsel, and tells me the Chinese cultural belief that you never flip the fish over to get to the other side, because if you do, somewhere, a fisherman’s boat will capsize. With two spoons, he deftly extracts the meat from the underside of the fish. Lisa also likes to eat the fish eyes, which she admits have a “different texture.” She remembers her mom telling her that eating the eyes would improve her sight. “Maybe it’s just that in Chinese culture, nothing should be wasted,” she says. “People who don’t eat the head and tail can boil them with the bones and make a nice broth.” We all agree that the wild caught gopher has a more delicate taste, but the texture of the bass is creamier.
Another important aspect of Chinese New Year tradition is not to finish the fish course on New Year’s Eve, but leave some to be eaten the next day so that the abundance of the yu will continue into the New Year.
333 8th Street, Oakland
If you don’t feel like cooking a whole fish yourself, some restaurants offer Chinese New Year specials.
A version of this post first appeared in KQED.org’s Bay Area Bites. Many thanks to my producer there, Wendy Goodfriend, for accompanying Lisa and me on this adventure and documenting it in lovely photos.