Today marks the start of the Lunar New Year, often referenced as Chinese New Year, but truly celebrated throughout many East Asian countries. This year is the year of the Green Ram (or sheep, or goat...) due to the animal zodiac for this year falling on the ram, and the elemental zodiac falling on wood. No matter how you translate it, this Lunar New Year is supposed to bring a more tranquil renewal than last year's rowdy Year of the Horse.
For me, like most things that bring me joy, Lunar New Year celebrations have always been focused on food. In past years my friend Melissa and I have hosted Chinese New Year potluck dinners at her apartment, inviting friends for handmade dumplings, steamed fish and never ending noodles. Much like the Southern American traditions of black eyed peas and collard greens my dad’s family serves each January 1st to promote good luck and wealth in the New Year, foods are served during Lunar New Year celebrations to promote wealth, luck, and happiness in the coming months.
The Lunar New Year comes at the perfect time for me. Currently, I’m trying to get my eating habits back on track. I’m (sort of) following candida diet guidelines to get my system back into check and improve my overall health. This means that while I can splurge a little here and there, I’m mainly eating vegetables, lean proteins, and anything with good probiotics – all of which are essential to a healthy body. What this also means is that while I’d normally be making enough dumplings to shame a dumpling eating contest’s supplies, I can’t completely indulge in my cravings… until Saturday. Then I’m going to Flushing, Queens and I’m having dim sum, and I’ll drink a ton of kombucha or something to make up for it, but I. Will. Have. My. Dumplings. For tonight’s dinner, however, I’m focusing on fresh fish, greens and fragrant herbs to bring the flavor, while staying loyal to my current eating goals.
Whole fish is traditionally served during Chinese New Year dinners because it symbolizes a good year from start to finish – from head to tail. The fish also represents prosperity as the Chinese word for fish is “yu,” which is similar in pronunciation to the Chinese word for “abundance”.
While you can use almost any white fish for this recipe including yellowtail snapper, tilapia or trout, I choose red snapper since red is a lucky color for the new year, and it can’t hurt to double up on lucky superstitions. Though you can steam your fish in a steamer, I choose a parchment wrapping and baking method since my fish was too large for my rice cooker and bamboo steamers. Both methods work well, but be sure to wrap your fish tightly if you choose to cook it in the oven – you want to trap all of the steamy goodness inside, and not let the fish dry out.
Lunar New Year Steamed Red Snapper with Scallions and Ginger
1 2 pound whole fish, with head and tail still on, cleaned and descaled
2 stalks of scallions, dark green ends removed and sliced in half
2 stalks of scallions, dark green ends removed and julienned
1 small bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped
2 inch piece of ginger, skinned and sliced into rounds
2 inch piece of ginger, skinned and julienned
½ Jalapeño, seeded and julienned
6 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons of soy sauce
5 tablespoons of sesame oil or other vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of sugar
Salt, to taste
- Preheat oven to 375ºF degrees.
- Check fish for scales and remove any remaining. Run the cleaned fish under cold water, and dry with a paper towel.
- Rub salt and 2 tablespoons of sesame oil on and inside of the fish.
- Line an oven safe baking dish with parchment paper, leaving enough on each side to fold into a steaming packet over the fish.
- Layer half of the rounds of ginger and the halved scallions on the bottom of the dish, place the fish on top. Score the top side of the fish with a sharp knife, slicing almost all the way through the flesh. Top with remaining rounds of ginger and halved scallions. You can also put any extra ginger and scallion into the cavity of the fish. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar over the fish and herbs.
- Wrap the whole fish with the parchment paper to create a steaming packet which will lock in the steam and the flavors from the herbs while the fish is cooking. Place in the oven and bake at 375ºF for approximately 30 minutes, or until the flesh of the fish at the score marks is white and the aromatics are fragrant.
- In the last ten minutes of cooking the fish, combine the soy sauce, remaining rice wine vinegar, and sugar in a small bowl. Set aside. Heat remaining sesame oil over medium low heat.
- When fish is cooked through discard the scallions and ginger on top of the fish and lift the fish up to discard the scallion and ginger under the fish. Top the fish with the julienned jalapeños, scallions, cilantro and ginger. Pour soy mixture over the fish.
- Remove hot oil from heat when a wooden spoon bubbles when placed in the oil. Pour the hot oil over the aromatics on top of the fish. They should sizzle and become more fragrant. Serve immediately.
While this dish has a big sensory payoff – bright colors, huge red fish, enticing aromatics – the actual price to make it is small. I was able to get a whole red snapper from my Asian food market for $11.00, and the aromatics only totaled $3.50. Everything else was already in my pantry. To make it a meal I bought some bok choy and sautéed that with mushroom soy to represent wealth throughout the year – and it was already helping by only costing $2.00 for a large bag. In total the meal came in at $16.50. Divided by four servings, that comes out to a little over $4.00 per person. No bad for a meal so healthy, delicious and easy on the wallet that I’m going to have to hold myself back from making lucky steamed fish every night.