Of the foods with symbolic importance in Chinese culture, none is more meaningful than fish. It connotes prosperity because the Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for surplus. At New Year's celebrations, people serve a fish dish last and save leftovers as a token of the luck they'd like to shift to the next year.
Along with rice and vegetables, fish and shellfish have always been central to the Chinese diet, even for people far from the sea. On a recent visit to Taiwan, where the waters teem with delectable seafood, I learned that fish farmers raise milkfish, eel, tilapia and grouper, and cultivate oysters, sea bream and sea cucumbers.
Freshness is such an obsession that housewives carry live fish home in buckets and restaurants keep fish and shellfish swimming in tanks. But people also eat dried, salted, smoked and pickled fish. And naturally, every kind of seafood finds its way to the dinner table, including jellyfish, eel, turtle, squid, cuttlefish, conch and abalone.
The most memorable seafood meal I had during my Taiwan visit was at Tainan Tan Tsu Mien, a Taipei fixture for 33 years. The restaurant is stationed in the middle of the Snake Alley night market. Outside the door, the scene is set by crowds of strollers, hawkers, and snakes slithering in cages and hanging from hooks.
Snake handlers exhort passers-by to choose a reptile for dinner. Groups of young men down a cocktail of snake bile with rice wine, treasured as an aphrodisiac, while other people slurp snake soup. (The soup I tried had a somewhat sweet but not disagreeable flavor.)
Inside the restaurant, the tone is set by crystal beaded chandeliers and curtains; gaudy, fake, purple orchids and a huge fish fountain. It all looks like a mad set designer's fantasy of elegance. What counts here, though, is the food, and it is fabulous.
Customers crowd around tiny tables on fancy stools imported from Spain and dinner is served on Wedgwood china. The waiter brought my group grilled tiger prawns, steamed shrimp and crab with vinegar dipping sauce, braised abalone, scallops with barbecue sauce, lobster with green onion, tiny fish fried with lemon slices and spiced fish fillets. But it was not the amount or variety of food that made the meal a challenge.
It was the service, which was so attentive that waiters replaced our plates after every other bite. It was sometimes a race to see if we could finish our portions before our dishes were whisked away. The scene would have been hilarious at fast speed in a silent movie.
Dinner's highlight was a fragrant bowl of Tainan noodle soup, the dish that gives the restaurant its name. Based on a secret recipe made famous almost a century ago by an impoverished fisherman in Tainan, it combines wheat noodles with meat sauce, garlic paste, black vinegar, seafood stock and whole shrimp -- a harmonious combination.
The recipe that follows is a version of a traditional Chinese fish dish. It was created by Fu Pei-Mei, a television cooking celebrity and the so-called Julia Child of Taiwan.
SPICED FISH SLICES
1 1/4 pounds firm white fish fillets cut 1/2 -inch thick
3 scallions, finely minced
5 slices ginger, finely minced
5 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon five-spice powder (substitute allspice if necessary)
1 1/2 cups boiling water
peanut oil for deep-frying
Slice fish 1 1/2 inches wide and 2 1/2 inches long. Combine scallions, ginger, soy sauce, wine and salt. Pour over fish and marinate 3-4 hours. Combine sugar, five-spice powder and boiling water. Heat oil in a large skillet until very hot. Add fish and fry until well browned, about 4 minutes. Drain well and immediately add to sugar mixture. Soak 3-4 minutes. Place on a platter and cool before serving. Serves three.