Pan-fried Belt Fish: A Simple Chinese Recipe

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This Simple Pan-Fried Belt Fish has endured from generation to generation because of its simple flavors, crispiness, and buttery texture.

My grandmother and mother prepared it for me, and I’ve prepared it many times over the years for Bill, Sarah, and Kaitlin.

What is Belt Fish?

Belt fish, also called cutlass fish, or ribbon fish, looks like a thin ribbon or belt with a sharp pointed head. Another distinguishing feature you can’t miss is its shiny silvery skin (hence the name cutlass).

You can find them in Asian markets, whole on ice, or cut into sections in the freezer section. Admittedly, I’ve never seen them in non-Asian grocery stores.

In China, (mostly in and around Zhejiang province), belt fish are steamed, red-braised, or pan-fried like in this recipe, though you rarely see it on restaurant menus.

In Japanese cuisine, it’s served as sashimi, and in Korean cooking, it shows up pan-fried as well as in spicy stews.

I wonder how other cultures eat this fish, as I rarely see other recipes. If you have any insights, please share in the comments!

What to Look for When Buying Belt Fish

When it comes to belt fish, there is a huge difference between fresh vs. frozen in texture and taste. Fresh, never frozen belt fish is highly prized.

My grandmother often steamed it with just Shaoxing wine, salt, ginger and scallion. The fish is so light and buttery, it’s simply amazing. It’s a delicacy for people from the Zhejiang region.

Unfortunately, we don’t have fresh belt fish here, so it’s best if you braise or pan-fry it.

How to Serve Pan-fried Belt Fish

Every time I cook fish, an old saying from my grandmother always surfaces: 咸鱼淡肉 (xian yu dan rou). It’s a classic four-word idiom that means when cooking fish, it should be slightly saltier to bring out its flavor.

Conversely, you should lightly salt meats so as not to kill their natural flavor. In this recipe, you will see a suggested range on salt, but I leave it up to you to decide.

This fish can be served hot, room temperature, or cold. It may sound odd, but truthfully, they are all good, as long as you have a bowl of hot steamed rice or porridge!

As a general rule, it’s best not to reheat fish, as it often tastes extra fishy afterwards. If you don’t like the idea of eating cold fish straight out of the refrigerator, you can leave it out for around 30 minutes to bring it up to room temperature before you’re ready to eat.

Recipe Instructions

1. Clean the Fish:

Using a dull knife or the side of a scissor blade, scrape the shiny silvery outer layer off the entire fish. This step is optional, but the silvery part of the fish skin can taste fishy.

Next, trim away the fish gills, remove the guts, the black membrane, and scrape all hints of blood off the big center bone that runs the length of the fish.

Thoroughly rinse the fish clean. Shake off the excess water, and cut into 2-inch sections.

2. Marinate the Fish:

Transfer the fish to a bowl. Sprinkle salt evenly all over the fish, and add the Shaoxing wine and julienned ginger.

Marinate for 3 hours or overnight, uncovered in the refrigerator. Arrange the fish pieces on a large plate or sheet pan so the surface moisture evaporates.

3. Cook the Fish:

Remove all the ginger pieces from the fish.

Now you have two options. You can fry the fish as is, or you can coat the fish in flour to give the fish a crunchy crust and prevent the fish from sticking to the pan or falling apart—this is a good safeguard for anyone new to pan-frying fish.

Note that pan-frying with flour uses more oil, and you can easily achieve crispy skin and avoid sticking by properly pre-heating your pan.

If you are using the flour coating, simply add the flour to a shallow bowl or plate, and coat the fish on both sides.

Shake off any excess.

Heat a flat-bottomed cast iron skillet over medium heat until it starts to smoke lightly. (If using a non-stick pan, you do not need to do this. Just heat it over medium heat).

Add 3 tablespoon of oil, and arrange the fish with an inch or so of space between pieces. Pan-fry them until golden brown on both sides.

Depending on the size of the original fish, the cooking time for each batch is about 10-15 minutes.

Pan-fried fish takes patience to achieve the golden color. Don’t rush it. It’s fully cooked when the fish easily detaches from the center bone.

Garnish with chopped scallions, and serve.

Simple Pan-fried Belt Fish

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds belt fish
  • 1 1/2 – 2 teaspoons sea salt (to taste, but 2 teaspoons is ideal)
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
  • 1 tablespoon ginger (finely julienned)
  • 3 tablespoons all purpose flour (optional)
  • oil (for pan-frying; use vegetable oil, canola oil, or any other neutral oil)
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped scallions (optional garnish)

Instructions

  • Using a dull knife or the side of a scissor blade, scrape the shiny silvery outer layer off the entire fish. This step is optional, but the silvery part of the fish skin can taste fishy. Trim away the fish gills, remove the guts, the black membrane, and scrape all hints of blood off the big center bone that runs the length of the fish.
  • Thoroughly rinse the fish clean. Shake off the excess water, and cut into 2-inch sections.
  • Transfer the fish to a bowl. Sprinkle salt evenly all over the fish, and add the Shaoxing wine and julienned ginger. Marinate for 3 hours or overnight, uncovered in the refrigerator. Arrange the fish pieces on a large plate or sheet pan so the surface moisture evaporates.
  • Remove all the ginger pieces from the fish.
  • Now you have two options. You can fry the fish as is, or you can coat the fish in flour. If you are using the flour coating, simply add the flour to a shallow bowl or plate, and coat the fish on both sides. Shake off any excess.
  • Heat a flat-bottomed cast iron skillet over medium heat until it starts to smoke lightly. (If using a non-stick pan, you do not need to do this. Just heat it over medium heat).
  • Add 3 tablespoon of oil, and arrange the fish with an inch or so of space between pieces. Pan-fry them until golden brown on both sides. Depending on the size of the original fish, the cooking time for each batch is about 10-15 minutes. Pan-fried fish takes patience to achieve the golden color. Don’t rush it. It’s fully cooked when the fish easily detaches from the center bone.
  • Garnish with chopped scallions (if using), and serve.

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