Squirrel Fish in Sweet & Sour Sauce

Oleh : BoyaQQ

Sweet and Sour Squirrel Fish, or sōngshǔ yú (松鼠魚), is a legendary fish recipe from Jiangsu Province. While it’s a bit complicated, it can be done at home with patience and practice! We’ll show you how to make it from start to finish, with a full video showing the entire process (jump to the video). 

While we’re using a whole fish (as is traditional) you can also try this recipe with fillets. With Chinese New Year coming up, now is the perfect time to impress family and friends with a show-stopping restaurant-quality dish! 

What Is Squirrel Fish?

Squirrel fish is a Chinese whole fish preparation in which the fish is filleted, fried, and then smothered in a sweet and sour sauce. 

While the fish is filleted, the two fillets remain attached at the tail and are fried in one piece. This creates the auspicious look of a whole fish with the convenience of a boneless eating experience! 

What’s more, the fillets are cut into a cross-hatch pattern for plenty of crispy surface area and maximum sweet and sour sauce coverage. (A comparison to a bloomin’ onion from a certain unnamed chain of steakhouses is not unwarranted, both in concept and in the kitsch factor.) 

Ultimately, it’s dramatic, yet playful. It was a favorite on Qing Dynasty emperors’ tables, and for good reason. It’s an intricate dish that requires skill to make. 

Squirrel fish garnished with sweet and sour sauce, pine nuts, and peas

The recipe is an example of Huaiyang cuisine, one of China’s four major culinary traditions (the others are Chuan/Sichuan Cuisine, Lu/Shandong Cuisine and Yue/Cantonese cuisine). There is now also a list of the eight great cuisines of China, which we’re currently writing a post about. Stay tuned! 

Why Is It Called Squirrel Fish?

By now you’re thinking—yes, but what’s so squirrel-y about it? 

The most common explanation seems to be that the shape of the fish, with its blown out sides and jaunty upright tail–set during the frying process–resembles a squirrel, or a squirrel’s tail. 

Some restaurant chefs garnish the fish to make the visual comparison more obvious, arranging the fish so the front fins look like little squirrel ears. 

A sprinkling of pine nuts over the top is also common (they bring to mind squirrels frolicking among the pinecones…right?). 

Others say the name comes from the squeaking sound the fish makes while frying (though we never heard any extraordinary sounds from ours). 

Whatever the explanation, the tender bites of crispy, flaky fish in this red sweet and sour sauce is totally addictive. (Maybe it’s the color?! There are red squirrels, right? Okay, that’s our last guess.) 

Chinese Squirrel Fish Recipe

What Type of Fish to Use

In China, the traditional fish of choice is Chinese lake perch, also known as Mandarin fish (guì yú – 桂鱼).but inexpensive grass carp (cǎo yú – 草鱼) is sometimes used, too. 

Here in North America, sea bass or freshwater bass are good options, but we’ve also had good results with branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), which is delicious and widely available. 

The perch is ideal, because it’s plump with few bones, making it easier to cook into the ornate shape. 

While this recipe is more challenging than most, we had to instruct you in the way it was intended—as a show stopping whole fish dish. 

In fact—we had to make the dish twice just to complete this post—once to do the step-by-step fish cutting photos, and again to film a detailed video showing you the entire process. (Note: both times, we used a sea bass!)

It’s tricky to pull off, but all you kitchen thrillseekers out there in need of a litmus test for your mastery of Chinese cooking technique? This one’s for you. 

Not Keen on whole fish?

If you’re not confident using a whole fish, you can use skin-on fillets (2 large-sized fillets or 3-4 small fillets) to make Squirrel Fish. Just follow the cross-hatching instructions, dredge and fry the fish, and prepare the sauce as described. 

Recipe Instructions

Make the Sauce Mixtures:

Make sure you start with a scaled, cleaned, and gutted fish. Your local fishmonger can do this for you.

Make the vinegar mixture: In a medium bowl, dissolve the sugar in ½ cup of hot water, and mix in the cornstarch, white vinegar, pineapple juice, salt, and white pepper. 

Make the tomato mixture: In a separate small bowl, mix the ketchup, tomato paste, and 1½ tablespoons hot water until smooth. 

Vinegar mixture, tomato mixture, and cleaned sea bass on a plate

Fillet the Fish & Make Crosshatch Pattern:

Now, to the fish! You’ll fillet each side of the fish, taking care to keep the two fillets attached at the tail.

sea bass on cutting board

If you’ve never filleted a fish before, here’s a beginner method to use. First, place your knife diagonally across the fish, just behind the head, collar and pectoral fins. Slice into the fish until you reach the backbone.

slicing into fish to begin filleting process

Turn the fish so the belly is towards you. Place your knife at the head end, just above the backbone. Angle your knife blade slightly up (away from the backbone). Run the knife along it, pulling the meat up as you cut between the fillet and the bone.

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