At Red Bean Garden Fish Farmstead (page 134), most dishes are cooked over wood on a small cement stove called a huotang that is set on the restaurant’s back porch. The owner, Mi Zhuang, crouches over the stove and slowly cooks over hot embers, turning the foods and fanning the fire until everything is perfectly done. The stove looks out over the restaurant’s fishponds, and Mi Zhuang begins to prepare this dish by catching a fresh fish and gutting and scaling it right on the bank. Back inside the kitchen, she washes the fish, butterflies it with a swift cut down the side of the spine (to keep the tender belly meat intact), and fills it with fresh herbs and chiles that perfume the meat as it cooks.
Tilapia Stuffed with Herbs and Chiles
- 11/2-lb. whole tilapia, cleaned and cut open so that it lies flat on the cutting board (ideally cut along the spine rather than through the stomach)
- 3 tsp. salt
- 3 scallions, both white and green parts, smacked with the side of a cleaver and roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp. roughly chopped cilantro leaves and stems
- 1 to 3 fresh Thai chiles, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/4 tsp. dried chile flakes
Rub the fish inside and out with about 1/2 tsp. of the salt. Mix the herbs, chile, and another 1/2 tsp. of salt, and use the mixture to stuff the fish, then close the fish and put it into the grill basket. Pour the vegetable oil into a small jar or cup, mix in the chile flakes and the remaining 2 tsp. of salt, and set aside.
Heat charcoal in a grill until the coals are hot. Cook the fish over direct heat for 5 minutes, then flip the grill basket and grill the other side for another 5 minutes. Use a pastry brush to coat the fish with the prepared oil, and grill for 5 more minutes on each side. The fish’s skin should be partially blackened and crispy, and the flesh should be firm, flaky, and no longer translucent.
Reprinted with permission from Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories From China's Yunnan Province. Copyright © 2018 by Georgia Freedman. Published by Kyle Books.