For the Chinese, the sea holds unlimited culinary treasures. There are the familiar delicacies of shrimp, crab and lobster, as well as the more exotic offerings of shark's fin, jellyfish, and sea cucumber. Few dishes in China are more heartily relished than those that contain freshwater and saltwater products, freshly caught and lightly cooked, with all of their natural flavors intact.

For the American vacationer, the nearby sea (or lake) holds similar bounty. The Chinese emphasis on freshness and simplicity makes adaptation of Chinese methods with local fish and seafood ideal in the kitchen of a vacation home.

Although most Chinese relish all types of fish and seafood, it is the freshwater varieties that they most admire, since they believe that the flavor and meat of these species is more refined and delicate. Whole fish, rather than fillets, are also preferred, for reasons of esthetics and flavor. The whole fish provides a more dramatic final presentation -- in keeping with its symbolic meaning of bounty and prosperity. And when the fish is not cut up into fillets, all the natural juices remain intact.

This emphasis on freshness, delicacy and refinement sets the tone for most Chinese seafood dishes. Preserving and highlighting the natural sweetness of the seafood is also a priority. Accordingly, such seasonings as fresh ginger root and Chinese rice wine are used to marinate and flavor many of the foods. Like lemon, these two ingredients remove any "fishy" flavor and impart a delicacy of their own.

Simplicity is also often a characteristic of Chinese seafood cooking. The natural flavors are understated and accentuated, rather than camouflaged. Seasonings like fermented black beans, oyster sauce, garlic and scallions, which may be quite strong on their own, are used in subtle blendings to make sauces that highlight the main ingredients. Cooking methods are characterized by extremely high temperatures and brief cooking times. The most popular are steaming, stir-frying, blanching or poaching and deep-frying.

Throughout China, one finds different regional seafood specialities. In the north, there are whole sweet-and-sour yellow fish and the famous sweet-and-sour prawns of Shantung. Sichuan province, inland to the west, boasts its specialty of spicy braised carp and hot-and-sour squid flowers. From the southern province of Canton comes an extraordinary selection of seafood classics, including steamed whole fish, lobster in black-bean sauce, and stir-fried abalone in oyster sauce. But it is to the east, in an area nicknamed "the land of fish and rice," where many great seafood dishes have originated.

Joyce Chen, cookbook author and Boston-based restaurateur, is especially fond of a number of seafood dishes from eastern China. "I grew up in Shanghai, a city in eastern China. Since it is right on the ocean, there are many different types of seafood and people there eat quite a bit of it. My favorite dish, which is a specialty of the area, is the whole red-cooked fish. It is prepared by braising a whole fish in a mellow soy sauce-based cooking sauce and garnishing it with whole garlic cloves and Chinese black mushrooms. This dish is particularly good with rice.

"There is also the famous eastern specialty known as West Lake Fish," Chen continued. "It is made with a poached freshwater fish bathed in a hot-and-sour sauce. The dish is a specialty of Hangzhou, which is south of Shanghai. There is a famous restaurant there, right on the lake, that specializes in this dish. In Hangzhou, people are also fond of tiny freshwater shrimp. They are still alive when they are served, but just before eating, they are quickly dipped into a spicy sauce which momentarily paralyzes them so that they can be eaten."

In Suzhou, according to Chen, the crabs are famous. "They are best eaten in the fall when the roe is the plumpest. The crabs are simply steamed and served with a vinegar sauce. It is also the chrysanthemum season and everyone wipes their hands on the fragrant leaves to remove any fishy flavor after eating."

Most seafood restaurants in the Orient have fish tanks stocked with catch-of-the-day items. Some even have what appears to be a seafood market in front of their premises. The seafood offerings are replenished with shipments right from the source, once or twice a day. The customer is expected to go over the daily offerings and plan his menu, even before being seated in the restaurant.

In ancient China, if a fish was selected from a tank, it would be brought to the table for the customer's inspection. If it was approved, it would be killed then and there right on the stone floor. This was a guarantee that the kitchen would cook the fish that the customer had selected.

Fish are no longer killed directly in front of customers in Chinese seafood restaurants, but the implicit demand for freshness is just as exacting. When purchasing seafood here, the same standards may be observed. For whole fish: The flesh should be firm, springing back when pressed.The eyes should be clear, well rounded and not sunken. The gills should be bright red. The fish should have a mild, fresh odor, especially in the gills.

All seafood should have a fresh appearance and smell when purchased. Some of the most notable varieties of freshwater fish used by the Chinese are carp, pickerel, trout and grouper. Of the saltwater fish, sea bass, sole, turbot, porgy, flounder, whitefish and shark are favored. For acceptable substitutions, refer to the individual recipe or consult with a reliable fishmonger.

The following recipes offer a sampling of the possibilities for preparing local seafood in the Chinese manner. CRISPY-FRIED SHRIMP WITH GARLIC (6 servings)

2 pounds medium-size raw shrimp, in their shells

4 cups safflower or corn oil


2 slices ginger root, about the size of a quarter, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver

2 tablespoons rice wine

2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch


3 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons salt

Using a sharp needle inserted into one of the joints of the shrimp shell, remove the vein. Rinse the shrimp thoroughly and pat dry. Place in a mixing bowl. Prepare the shrimp marinade by placing the ginger root slices in a bowl and pouring on the rice wine.

Lightly pinch the ginger root slices for a minute to impart their flavor to the rice wine. Add the mixture to the shrimp, toss lightly to coat, and let marinate 30 minutes to 1 hour. Discard the ginger root and add the cornstarch. Toss lightly to coat.

Mix together the shrimp seasonings and set aside near the stove.

Heat a wok or a deep, heavy skillet and add the safflower or corn oil. Heat the oil to 425 degrees, or until very hot. Add half the shrimp and deep-fry over high heat, for about 5 minutes, turning constantly, until golden brown and very crisp. Remove with a handled strainer and drain. Reheat the oil and deep-fry the remaining shrimp for 5 minutes, turning constantly. Remove and drain.

Remove the oil from the wok and reheat. Add the fried shrimp and the shrimp seasoning. Toss lightly over high heat to coat. Remove to a serving platter and serve immediately as an appetizer or entree. (If the shells are very crisp, they may be eaten.) Excerpted from "Classic Chinese Cuisine" by Nina Simonds DRUNKEN CLAMS (6 servings)

5 quarts steamers or littleneck clams

1 cup water


Clam cooking liquid

1 cup good quality rice wine or sake

4 cloves garlic, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver

4 scallions, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver

6 slices ginger root, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver

Rinse the clams thoroughly under cold running water and place in a bowl with cold water to cover. Let stand for 2 hours, remove, rinse and drain.

Place the water in a heavy pot with a lid and heat until boiling. Add the clams, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the clams are open, about 10 minutes. Remove and drain off the liquid into a deep bowl. Let the clams cool slightly and open each clam, removing the top shell only. Remove the "shirt" from the neck of each clam and lightly rinse away any sand. Place the clams in the bowl with the liquid, adding the remaining ingredients of the clam marinade. Toss lightly to coat the clams and refrigerate 3 hours, turning occasionally, before serving. Transfer to serving bowls and serve as an appetizer. STEAMED FISH WITH SHREDDED SCALLIONS AND GINGER ROOT (6 servings)

1 whole firm-fleshed fish like flounder, striped bass, pickerel, or trout, weighing about 3 pounds


2 slices ginger root, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver

2 tablespoons rice wine

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons chicken broth


3 tablespoons finely shredded scallions

3 tablespoons finely shredded ginger root

1 tablespoon corn or safflower oil

1 tablespoon sesame oil

Direct the fishmonger to scale and clean the fish through the gills, if possible, leaving the belly intact. Rinse the fish thoroughly and pat dry. Holding a cleaver or sharp knife at a forty-five degree angle, cut scores in the side of the fish at 2-inch intervals. Place the fish, scored side up, on a heatproof plate with a lip, or in a steamer that has been lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Prepare the fish marinade by pinching the ginger root slices for a minute in the rice wine and add the salt. Add the fish marinade to the fish and rub the mixture along the outside of the fish and into the scores. Let the fish marinate for 20 minutes at room temperature. Combine the soy sauce and chicken broth. Place the fish in a steamer tray, pour the soy sauce-chicken broth mixture on top, and pour over the fish.

Fill a wok with water level with the bottom edge of the steamer tray and heat until boiling. Place the steamer tray over boiling water in the wok and steam 15 to 20 minutes over high heat, or until the fish flakes when prodded with a knife or chopstick. Remove and sprinkle the top with the shredded scallions and ginger root.

Combine the corn or safflower oil and the sesame oil in a small saucepan and heat until smoking. Slowly pour over the shredded seasonings and serve immediately. RED-COOKED FISH FILLETS (6 servings)

2 pounds, firm-fleshed fish fillets, with skin on, like haddock, scrod, pickerel, or sea bass


2 slices ginger root, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver

2 tablespoons rice wine

1 teaspoon salt


1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine

2 cups chicken broth

1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste

3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil


2 tablespoons minced scallions

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger root


1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 1/2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons shredded scallion greens

Rinse the fish fillets lightly, drain and pat dry. Cut into 5- to 6-inch lengths. Place in a bowl. Prepare the fish marinade by lightly pinching the ginger root in the rice wine to impart the flavor. Add the salt, and add the mixture to the fish fillets. Toss lightly to coat and let marinate 20 minutes.

Prepare the sauce by mixing together soy sauce, rice wine, chicken broth and sugar.

Heat a wok or heavy skillet and add the safflower or corn oil. Heat until hot and add the seasonings. Stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds.

Add the fish fillets, skin-side down, and fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add the sauce mixture and heat until boiling.

Cover and cook over low heat for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the fish flakes when prodded with a fork or a chopstick. Remove the fillets to a serving platter, skin-side down, and turn up the heat. To make the thickener, mix together cornstarch and water and add to skillet, stirring to thicken. Add the sesame oil and toss lightly. Spoon over the fish fillet and sprinkle the top with the shredded scallion greens.

Serve immediately with rice and a green vegetable.