We ordered a whole fried red snapper at a favorite local Thai restaurant when my parents were visiting us from California several months ago. As always, the snapper was super crisp, nicely browned, and complemented by the three-flavor sauce which accompanied it. But something must have happened to the fish during the frying process because it seemed to be missing substantial chunks of meat.
In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned it to the server—after all, the whole snapper is usually the most expensive dish in Thai restaurants (in Chicago, where excellent Thai restaurants abound offering $7 dishes). Will doesn’t like to “make a fuss,” and my parents have the immigrant sensibility that one shouldn’t complain when they cannot make themselves understood clearly with their imperfect English. Perhaps the expectation was that I should have said something, but I too tried to pretend that there was nothing unusual, mostly so that my parents could enjoy the whole meal.
The snapper dish really was excellent—what there was of it—and it occurred to me later that a sure-fire way of insuring a whole and FAT fish was to prepare it myself. So I set about experimenting with frying a whole snapper. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I am more enamored of frying foods than a healthy diet would recommend. Surely (I thought) I can take experiential knowledge of cooking along with taste-bud memories of the dish to recreate at home.
The following are some steps that we found note-worthy for other home-cooks wanting to try this dish:
1) Getting a fresh whole red snapper:
We are lucky to live near several stores that supply gads of varieties of fresh fish. My second choice is H-Mart, but the most convenient (and thus my go-to) place is Fresh Farms, with several Chicago-land locations. Especially if you go on a weekend day, the place is buzzing with shoppers—with more accents and ethnicities than you can imagine. And the fish! They have rows and rows and bins and bins and small and large separate islands of fish. What you see pictured below is only about a quarter of their fish selection!
After they weigh the fish you pick (mine was about 1½ pounds), you can ask them to prepare it in so many different ways. For the whole snapper, I asked for “Number 1,” which is to clean, scale, gut the fish, and cut the fins. They also asked if I wanted my fish head on or off. I usually opt for the head to remain since whole fish is what I want. Of course, you can ask for filet or steaks or chunks or whatever.
2) Prepping the fish:
Once you get your fish home and are ready to start cooking, wash the fish again, pat dry, and make diagonal slashes on the flesh of each side every 1½ inches apart. Then you salt (we use kosher salt) the fish and sprinkle some acidic juice (we use lime, but you can also use lemon juice) and let it sit for another 10 minutes or so. Then make sure you do pat dry again since you don’t want extra moisture remaining when you are ready to fry.
Get the widest shallow frying pan you have, and fill with about ¾ inch of oil (peanut oil is always nice for frying, but a mild-flavored oil like canola is also nice) and let it come to 350 degrees. While the oil is heating up, combine equal parts flour and corn starch to dredge the fish with, making sure that you pat the inside of the fish where it was gutted and also within the slashes. Dust off remaining flour mixture that might not have stuck onto the fish and let sit another few minutes to settle, just until the oil is hot enough.
3) Frying the fish:
Take two of your widest and sturdiest spatulas to maneuver the coated fish into the hot oil very carefully. You want to just slip it in there. Hopefully, your wide pan will allow you to fit the whole fish almost fully in the oil. If not, you’ll have to juggle moving the fish a bit occasionally so that the head and the tail also get cooked (and adjust cooking time accordingly). After about 4 minutes, turn the fish, again using two spatulas to maneuver, and repeat the process of making sure that the entire length of the fish gets immersed in oil somehow.
You will want to turn the fish probably one more time to make sure that the fish is nicely browned and crisp, with total cooking time about 10-12 minutes. We pulled ours out after 10 minutes when it seemed nicely browned, but I almost wish we’d left it on for another couple of minutes since the initial crispness yielded to softer bits in fleshier parts of the fish while thinner portions of the fish remained crisp. So, do make sure that the fish is very crisp when you take it out of the hot oil, and then let it sit on paper towels to soak up excess oil and to crisp up.
4) Setting out sauces and accompaniments for the fish:
At restaurants, I expect that they will make some lovely in-house “three flavor” sauce for the fish. At home, I don’t mind cheating by using store-bought sauce. For this fish dish, I recommend a Thai sweet chili sauce. Especially if you like your food spicy, other sauces you might want in your refrigerator and pantry include Sriracha hot chili sauce and a chili-garlic sauce. Both are quite spicy, much more so than the Thai sweet chili sauce, so you want to be sparing in their use.
As for accompaniments, other than steamed jasmine rice (which is a must), we went with a Korean spicy cucumber salad—sort of like a cucumber kimchi—which added just enough soy and vinegar and spice and garlic to complement the fried fish and the sweet chili sauce.
It was our first time trying this particular method, but we were reasonably happy with the result that we’ll make it this way the next time my parents visit rather than relying on the caprices of a restaurant fryer.