IT TRANSFORMS WHAT IS OTHERWISE AN UNDESIRABLE AND THEREFORE CHEAP INGREDIENT,
INTO THE UPMOST ADDICTIVE, DELICIOUS, AND PLEASURABLE NARCOTIC.
It’s crazy sometimes to think that I’ve only left Beijing for 6 months. It somehow feels longer than that, which is funny because shouldn’t happy time fly? But I think my brain has triggered an automatic mechanism that blocks the whole six-years-chunk of unpleasantness, and started presenting the more palatable reality that came afterwards as the constant norm, that our new life in Hong Kong has always been. Weird, right? Though it’s not to say that there aren’t things I miss about you-know-where, but I mean, I just typically disregard them as the involuntary muscle spasms of a fish right after its head gets chopped off… I try not to think about it… don’t think about you-know-where…
But the other day, it all came boiling down.
A couple friends of ours arranged a harmless get-together in a seemingly unalarming location, and just like that, the dam broke loose. The restaurant was a sichuan joint. Ahh.. now I remember, sichuan foods. The extremely intense, erotic, sometimes even perversive addiction that is the grand cuisines of sichuan. Yes. Yes baby I did miss you. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize it, but it’s about time that something is to be done about it. Of course, my obsession with sichuan foods has been quite well documented here. I mean that broad rice ribbons riddling in chili oil, the spicy numbing crayfish boil, the melt-your-face hot pot…. But that day, I realized, I have forgotten the Queen B.
B, as in boiling.
The dish is called, in literal translation word by word, water boiled fish. Which can’t be further from reality. Whenever we (or everyone else for that matter) go for a fix for sihcuan foods, this is probably the dish to order, mandatory in almost every sichuan restaurants like a red sauce spaghetti in Italian’s, except that it’s anything but benign.
In fact, it’s completely insane.
If you weren’t briefed about it before hand or didn’t get the memo, it could come as a total shock on more levels than one. First, you wonder, is this even edible? It usually comes in an enormous vessel too vast to be called a dish and from the surface of which, only looks like a deep, dark pool of red hot boiling grease with a blanket of tumbling dried chilis and sichuan peppercorns. You’d be frightened, I know, like what am I supposed to drink this good lord?, but only to realize a moment later, that this is not even the most insane part.
The craziest thing about the dish, is that the purpose of this extreme insanity is not even a leading role, but only to support and perfect flavor-wise and texturally what lays underneath – a bed of thinly sliced catfish. Like whaaat? Catfish?! The dirt fish, the garbage river creature that is snubbed by just about any respectable restaurants in the US for its slightly muddy after-taste, and is only pleasing to receive when you watch a huge one getting caught on River Monsters? That fish? Yes, that fish.
Which is exactly what makes it the most ingenious idea.
Why, because it transforms what is otherwise an undesirable and therefore cheap ingredient, into the upmost addictive, delicious, and pleasurable narcotic. At this point you might be thinking, well, you are not really eating the catfish but just something that is totally muted and manipulated by all that aggressive seasoning. In fact, everything tastes the same inside that tub of raging blood bath.
Logical. But you’d be wrong.
Catfish may not be superior flavor-wise, but it is unique and sought-after for its textures. The fatty, voluptuous, supple but firm flesh that is pushed to the level of sophisticated gourmet when it’s poached and encased inside the meticulously balanced concoction – pungent, savory, painful, numbing, aromatic and perfectly greased.
Its apparent insanity, is in fact, utterly calculated. And completely brilliant.
Perhaps the only legitimate concern whenever we order one in a restaurant is that all this flavor-bomb oil, this liquid ruby, will go to waste at the end of every meal, but it doesn’t have to be the case when you make it at home. Save the oil! Brush it over roast chickens or drizzle it over your pork dumplings, or hell, forget about making sense and just fucking have a blast for once. Even though the very thought of this dish goes against every good teachings and principles of western cooking, and you’ll most likely, at first, try to resist, but when you start sinking into that nose-running and sweat-dripping ecstasy, embracing the assaults, there is no going back to rationality.
In fact, isn’t this the most fantastic lesson foods can teach? The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.
Get lost in it. Submit.
This is a one-way highway, and I’m dragging you down with me.
There are so many different recipes for this dish as the number of places that serve it. But here, I've came down to what I think most of us can pull off. Most ingredients can be found in Chinese supermarkets if not online. The dish has to be done in several different steps, so read the instructions and go through every steps in your head first. Familiarize with the recipe before you start so you won't panic. Read the NOTES, too.
- 21 oz (600 grams) skin-on basa fillets
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 2 tsp shaoxing wine
- 1 tsp chicken powder
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp potato starch (or cornstarch) + 1 1/2 tsp water
- 1 tbsp canola oil
- 9 slices (10 grams) ginger
- 1 (68 grams) jumbo scallion, cut into sections
- 10 coves garlic, chopped
- 1 1/2 tbsp (30 grams) douban chili paste
- 1 tbsp shaoxing wine
- 2 cups (460 grams/ml) low-sodium chicken stock
- 1 cup (230 grams/ml) water
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp pickling juice of pickled green chili (I used the Italian kind)
- 2 tsp chicken powder
- 1 tsp ground sichuan peppercorns
- 1 large handful (150 grams) bean sprouts
- 1 celery stalk, cut into thin strips
- 1 cup fried tofu
- 1 cup (70 grams) blanched/squeezed spinach
- 2 1/4 cups (504 grams) canola oil
- 1 lemongrass, cut into sections
- 2 star anise
- 2 cups (60 grams) Asian dried whole chilis (see note)
- 3 tbsp (13 grams) sichuan peppercorns
- 2 tbsp (15 grams) gochugaru Korean chili flakes
- 10 pickled green chilis
- 2 cloves garlic, grated
- PREPARE FISH: Cut the fillets in a slanted angle into 1/4" (0.5 cm) thick slices, then place in a large bowl. Add fish sauce, shaoxing wine, chicken powder, ground white pepper and salt, and mix evenly with your hands. Stir the potato starch and water together, then add to the fish and mix again until even. Let marinate for at least 1 hour in the fridge.
- Meanwhile, prepare all the other ingredients to stand by. For the "Asian dried whole chili" in "the boiling oil", use a scissor to cut each in half. If you want to reduce the spiciness, place them in a wide sieve and shake off the seeds.
- PREPARE THE SAUCE AND TOPPINGS: In a large deep skillet, heat 1 tbsp canola oil over medium-high heat. Add ginger slices and cook for 2 min until the edges start to brown and shrivel. Add scallion, garlic and douban chili paste, and cook for a couple min until fragrant. Add shaoxing wine and let the alcohol evaporate, then add chicken stock, water, soy sauce, pickling juice, chicken powder and ground sichuan peppercorn. Let simmer for 6 to 7 min, then use a slotted spoon to remove the solids (press on the solids to extract any sauces), and discard.
- Keep the sauce simmering and do one topping at a time. Blanch the bean sprouts, then transfer them with a slotted spoon into a large bowl. Do the same with the celery as well. Simmer the tofu for 5 min in the sauce and transfer into the bowl. For green leaves vegetable like spinach, blanch in another pot of water so it doesn't discolor the sauce.
- Then finally, add the marinated fish into the simmering sauce, separating each slices gently with chopsticks. Cook the fish JUST UNTIL THE EDGES TURN OPAGUE, BUT THE CENTER IS STILL SLIGHTLY UNDERCOOKED (they will finish cooking with the boiling oil). Then transfer the fish with the sauce all into the bowl.
- TWO METHODS TO FINISH THE BOILING OIL
- You didn't read it wrong, yes, 2 1/4 cups of oil. If you can't bring yourself to commit this delicious insanity, I would suggest using the second method (you'll still need at least 1 1/2 cup of oil), but the first method is the "traditional" way.
- FIRST METHOD (TRADITIONAL): Scatter the dried chilis, sichuan peppercorns, chili flakes and pickled chilis on top of all the ingredients already inside the bowl, then put the grated garlic in the center, then set the bowl right next to the stove. Place canola oil, lemongrass and star anise in a pot and set over medium heat. The lemongrass will start to sizzle, and once they are browned on the edges, remove them and the star anise with a tongs. Turn the heat up to high, and just when the oil starts to smoke a little, pour it right into the bowl. The boiling oil will continue to fry all the aromatics. Serve until the oil has settled down.
- SECOND METHOD (NEW)(EASIER)(LESS SCARY): This method allows you to use less oil. Place pickled chilis and grated garlic on top of all the ingredients already inside the bowl, then set the bowl next to the stove. Place canola oil, lemongrass and star anise in a pot and set over medium heat. The lemongrass will start to sizzle, and once they are browned on the edges, remove them and the star anise with a tongs. Turn the heat up to high, and add the dried chilis. When the chilis start to turn darker in color, add sichuan peppercorns, chili flakes, and fry only for a few seconds (or else the peppercorns will burn), then pour the mixture into the bowl. Serve until the hot oil has settled down.
- When you're done with it, please don't throw the oil away. It's fantastic on just about everything.
There's absolutely no point using fancy/expensive fish for this dish. Catfish is traditionally the go-to variety, because they are fatty, meaty and cheap. I'm using a type of catfish called BASA from Vietnam, and they can be easily found in the freezer section in Asian supermarkets. If you can find fresh catfish, by all means. It's also better to keep the skin on no matter what kind of fish you use, because it prevents the slices from falling apart. Avoid flakey fishes like tilapia because they might fall apart.
Please note that the fish was weighted AFTER defrosting. If you are using fresh fish, then it's not an issue. But if you are using frozen ones like I did, the fish will loose water after defrosting and weight considerably less.
Chicken powder is absolutely crucial, ok? You cannot find this dish anywhere in China without the trace of chicken powder. And even if you did, you were probably wondering why it was lacking. It has MSG, yes. Get over it.
"Toppings" for this dish is typically just bean sprouts (with maybe thick glass noodle made from tapioca). I added a few more but you can totally change it to what you like (ramen noodles, maybe?).
When buying dried chilis, smell them. They should be pungent, intense and aromatic. If they don't smell like anything they won't taste like anything.