Jews and Arabs have very similar beliefs (it’s so ironic that they are so politically against each other), and really it’s Christians who are the lone man out.
Christians don’t follow the laws of circumcision or dietary restrictions that the Jews and Arabs believe in, especially the ban on pork (which they both abstain from, according to the laws written in Exodus and Leviticus). If we’re going to be historical about it, the followers of Jesus were Jews. Jesus was a Jew. During the Jewish diaspora of the Roman Empire, many men gave up their traditions to assimilate with the Romans, who themselves are very similar to the Greeks. I mean, common sense says that you can’t tell a bunch of people who live on a peninsula that they can’t eat shellfish. But if you’re going to be eating lobsters and crabs, you might as well eat pork too! So Christianity is actually a very lax religion compare to Judaism and Islam.
In Catholicism, Catholics do abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. One of the symbolism for Christianity (besides from the infamous cross) is a symbol of a fish. During the Jewish diaspora of the Roman Empire, you obviously didn’t walk around with a crucifix, which is the strong association of Jesus in the modern era; so other Jewish followers that believed Jesus was the Christ (and therefore called Christians) would draw a symbol of a fish to let others know that they were also followers, to avoid persecution.
Why? Because most of Jesus’ apostles were originally fishermen. They were to become “fishers of men” for God. Catholics believe in missionary work because that’s what the apostles did, but the Catholic Church sends men off to Africa or India or some place like that; to help the poor, the sick, the heathens… not like the Mormons or Jehovahs that come knocking on your door when you’re in your pajamas — but I digress, so back to the fish!
During Jesus’ ministries, thousands gathered to hear him preach. From a few loaves of bread and fish he fed thousands, so fish is a very important food in Christianity (I mean, the man walked on water, didn’t he?). And after his resurrection, he cooked fish for his apostles. I’d say back in the day Jesus and Peter were seafood lovers like me.
Did you know that the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Friday was the reason for the creation of McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich? Because hamburger sales dropped off noticeably on Fridays, the owner of the franchise in Cincinnati introduced the new offering, and sales picked up again. Sadly, many Catholics are not aware that the Friday abstinence rule is still in effect. The post-Vatican-II modification in Church law only allowed the consumption of meat if some other sacrifice or good work was substituted in its place. (This is not even a problem with me at all. I am definitely not a meat lover.)
I’m not religious, at least not anymore; but I do believe that our religious beliefs provide us the moral compass of our values. Like confessing sins for absolution (the truth shall set you free), and penance for redemption (do to others as you want done to yourself). Lent is actually an awesome 40 days because I LOVE fish.
My favorite fish dish is very simple. Cantonese whole steamed fish. A steamed whole fish with ginger, scallion and cilantro is a big favorite on any Chinese table, and it’s almost always served at holiday meals and special occasions. This is definitely true for Cantonese families at formal wedding and Chinese New Year banquets, but also for family gatherings at home. (For those from Shanghai and other parts of China, you may get a braised fish instead, which is also a great meal.) There are many whole fish recipes that vary in cooking methods and flavors depending upon where you are in China.
So I know most people think their mom is the greatest cook ever, but my mom really is. Like, seriously, my mom cooks better than yours. It’s just a fact. ♡ My mom is currently in Hong Kong with my uncle. They left after Chinese New Year for a month. We still have land in China, and each year one of my uncles or aunts, or both, goes to make sure our homestead is being maintained by whomever they left in charge.
My mom is a first generation American, so I’ve been really spoiled when it comes to food. Even now, in her 60s, she still doesn’t know how to use a microwave or the washer! My brother bought her a washing machine and she basically uses it as a shelf to stack things on. But now that I’m older, I realized how spoiled I am with all her cooking. (She’s the reason men go broke buying me lobsters!) Nothing I ate growing up ever came from a can, package, or a box; everything was fresh and made from scratch. I didn’t grow up eating processed foods, sugar, junk, soda, etc.
I remember weekends from my childhood of going to Chinatown with my mom to buy food. The best was getting crabs. The fishmongers would have barrels of live crabs, and I get to choose them. They were then put into a big, thick brown paper bag. On the train, I’d keep looking inside the bag and poking them to make sure they were still alive. When we got home, my mom would dump them in the sink, and I’d continue to poke at them with a chopstick… sometimes I tried to race them, or have them fight each other. (Once, one of them clamp on to my forefinger and it hurt so bad!)
I’m going to show you how to prepare a whole fish (including how to serve it at the table!), so you can impress your friends (or perhaps your Chinese in-laws)… authentic Chinese food is extremely healthy (have you ever seen a fat Chinese person??? — and my people live until they’re in their 90s at least).
You can steam just about any whole fish that comes in good eating sizes (1 to 2 pounds). Sea bass is a common fish used for steaming in Chinese cooking, but I’ve found the meat is not as delicate as striped bass. Flat fish like flounder, fluke, or grey sole are also very good for steaming as well. I grew up by the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s what I miss the most — fresh seafood. (I don’t like freshwater stuff, especially catfish.) For those of you who cannot easily access whole fresh fish, using fish filets are the next best thing and usually easier to prepare.
If you can get fresh fish, don’t be intimidated by this dish. The hardest part is simply figuring out how you’re going to steam it. Once you have your steaming arrangement worked out, it is really easy to prepare and will impress your family and guests.
whole fish, cleaned
fresh ginger, finely julienned
scallions, finely julienned with green and white parts separated
fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
After you get your fish home from the market, it’s important to cook it as soon as possible. The fishmongers in Chinatown sells live fish, so it is super fresh. (Some restaurants also sell fresh fish from live tanks, but be prepared to pay a ridiculous price.) At Chinese restaurants, fish is often sold by the pound since they vary in size, and it is not unusual for a 1 ½ pound striped bass to cost $30 or more. By contrast, we purchased a fresh fish to cook at home for $8, I think the most my mom ever bought one was for $13. The fishmongers usually does all the messy work of gutting and scaling it for you too, for free.
There is always some work to be done to process your fish before cooking, no matter how good your fishmonger is though. Of course, you can ask him to do all the steps below. I’m going to get pretty detailed, so if you’re squeamish, you might want to just head over to the steamed fish recipe right about now.
PREPARING THE FISH
1. Remove any scales from your fish using a sharp knife. The areas to look for are the belly and the edges of the fish including the top, near the dorsal fins, and the head.
2. Cut off any fins with kitchen shears. They are pretty tough, so be careful with this step. Leave the tail and head intact for presentation.
3. Look at the cavity, and you should see the backbone. You may also see a membrane that you should pierce and cut, revealing a blood line near the bone. Run your finger or a spoon across it to clean it thoroughly.
4. Check the head and gills. You should not see any gills left, and if there are, remove them with the kitchen shears and rinse the area clean. (Folks who like dining on the fish head will appreciate this step, like my mom!… Ever since I was a kid, my favorite part of the fish was the eyes, ha!)
5. Give the fish a final rinse, shake off the excess water (no need to pat it dry) and transfer to a plate for steaming. No salt, seasoning, or wine should be used on the fish before steaming. (Repeat. Nothing on the fresh fish before steaming!)
Ok you’re ready to cook the dish!
For steaming, I used an elongated plate. It’s simple enough. I used a wok and metal steam rack… I can’t think of any Chinese person without a wok (no matter how Americanized they are!).
Steam for about 10 minutes (more time if you have a fish that’s bigger than 1.5 pounds). Next, carefully pour out all of the liquid accumulated on the plate from steaming, and spread half of the ginger, the green portions of the scallion, and the cilantro over the fish.
Heat oil and the other half of the ginger in a saucepan until the ginger begins to sizzle, and add soy sauce. Once simmering, add the white portions of the scallion and stir until the liquid begins to simmer and sizzle once again. (Sorry about measurements, I just eyeball everything — it’s probably why I can’t bake!)
The fish should look spectacular, so you’ll want to present it whole (it should definitely be the last dish prepared so you can serve it right away). Once everyone has oo’ed and aahh’ed at the table, you could just dig in (many Chinese families do), or you could remove some of the bones and prepare it for your guests at the table. It’s like carving the turkey at Thanksgiving, you can bring it back to the kitchen and prepare it there as well. ♡