Mar 6, 2014

Fish and Tofu Hotpot ala Ho Chai Lai

There's a Chinese restaurant along the National Highway in Muntinlupa City that enjoys a good following despite its 'barest essentials' positioning because of the taste and quality of their food.  Ho Chai Lai is almost always packed at lunch time, frequented by people who want Chinese fare beyond the usual dimsum and Filipinized offerings at Chowking.  Their bestseller is the Stuffed Squid, squid stuffed with chives, battered, deep fried and served with a special sauce on the side.

When we dine at Ho Chai Lai, my husband and I usually order the Stuffed Squid and this dish, Fish Head Eggplant Hotpot, or the other variant, Fish Tofu Hotpot. My husband likes it so much I've taken it upon myself to replicate it at home, and merging the two variants eggplant and tofu, so that my husband gets the best of both and enjoy the dish whenever he wants. :)

The most recent appearance of this dish on our dinner table was two Thursdays ago, when we had friends over for dinner. I was surprised to find my meat-loving friends loving it, even asking for the recipe. So here it is!


What's In It?

For the Fish:
1.5 kgs Bitilla* (White Snapper, see photo), gutted, descaled and sliced into serving portions
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup water
1 tsp. + 1/2 tsp. fine salt
1 tsp. + 1/2 tsp. finely ground black pepper
1 cup cooking oil, for frying

For the hotpot:
1/4 cup cooking oil, for sauteing
1 large thumb ginger, peeled and sliced in rounds
1 large red onion, peeled and sliced
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and mashed
6-8 large pieces of dried Shiitake mushrooms, soaked in 1 cup warm water for 30 minutes or longer
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup oyster sauce
1 Knorr fish broth cube
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup Chinese cooking wine
2 tablespoons sesame oil (optional)
3 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 1/4 cup water
3 stalks onion leeks, sliced, white part separated from greens
2 medium eggplants, peeled, halved lengthwise then crosswise
half a large block of tofu, cut into 1" squares

Kitchen Conjugations:

Prepare the Fish: Season the fish slices with a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. In a shallow bowl, make a thin batter of the flour, water and season it with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Set aside.

In a wok or frying pan, heat the cooking oil over medium heat. Test if cooking oil is hot enough by dropping bit of the batter, watching for sizzling. When the oil is hot enough, carefully drop the fish slices one by one, leaving enough space between each slice to prevent them from sticking with each other. (Turn heat to high as oil temperature has dropped with the addition of the fish. Turn settings back to low when the oil begins to sizzle again.)  Fry the fish slices for about 3-4 minutes each side or until they turn light brown. Remove from the pan and transfer onto a plate. Do the same process for the rest of the fish until all have been cooked.

Make the hotpot: In a hotpot or saucepan, saute the ginger, onions and garlic in hot oil. Stir fry for about a minute, then add in the oyster sauce. Stir fry for about half a minute, then add all ingredients except the eggplant, tofu, leeks and cornstarch slurry. Let boil then simmer for a minute.  Check and adjust seasonings, adding sugar, salt or the cooking wine to produce a balance of sweet, salty and tangy.

Add the eggplant slices and let the sauce simmer until they are half-cooked. Then add in the white parts of the leeks, the tofu squares and fried fish slices. Let boil then simmer for about two minutes, before adding the cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce.

Garnish with the rest of the onion leeks and serve with steamed rice.  Enjoy!

*Other fish like Maya-maya (Red Snapper), Lapu-lapu (Grouper) or Labahita (Surgeonfish), may also be used.  You can also use fillets, but make a thicker batter (that of pancake batter consistency).

UPDATE:  I've replaced the original photo with a new one, this time made more colorful by the addition of carrot medallions. I've also cut the tofu into bigger squares and pre-fried them to make them easier to handle. The fish used in the dish in the picture above is lapu-lapu.