Stovetop Chongqing Kaoyu (烤鱼): Wanzhou Grilled Fish

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Pan-searing a Modern Chongqing Specialty

I first ate Chongqing 烤鱼 (kǎoyú) in the underbelly of a Chengdu mall (real ones know it’s all about those random mall basement restaurants). That was back in 2015, and Chongqing’s explosive grilled fish scene has lingered in the back of my mind ever since. Buried between colorful layers of crunch, spice, fermented douban umami, fresh vegetables and sour paojiao, charcoal-grilled kaoyu takes the fiery flavor bomb of Sichuan hotpot and combines it with street food favorite 烧烤 (shāokǎo), Chinese barbecue.

Naturally, Chongqing kaoyu is also known as 烧烤鱼 (shāokǎoyú). The birthplace of shaokaoyu is Wanzhou, a district of Chongqing (previously part of Sichuan) bisected by the 长江 (chángjiāng), Yangtze River. Its titular kaoyu dish is supported by the billion-yuan freshwater fish industry that has made it the “Hometown of Grilled Fish in China.”

I am neither from Wanzhou nor have much experience grilling fish, and my interest in the kaoyu industry mostly concerns eating it. After tasting the specialty Qingjiang fish kaoyu at Alhambra’s 香辣汇 Xiang La Hui—my first time having kaoyu outside of Sichuan—I returned from my first trip to LA (and the San Gabriel Valley) determined to make at-home kaoyu as good as the restaurant’s. With this recipe, I think I’m well on the way.

a large dutch oven holds chengdu kaoyu
Any wok, dutch oven, casserole dish or other heat-resistant serving platter wide and deep enough will do

Lessons on Making Restaurant-Quality Kaoyu at Home

Kaoyu restaurants generally serve the grilled fish whole in big metal trays warmed over a flame. The tray forms the centerpiece of the table, and everyone picks from the dish. At home, any deep-set, wide platter will do—a 9×13 casserole pan or baking pan (not the shallow baking sheet) is perfect, and almost everyone has one. Simply cook the dish and transfer to the pan for serving.

Since this no-oven, at-home kaoyu relies only on the stove, however, a big stovetop-friendly wok and/or dutch oven (the one pictured above is a wide braiser, not a traditional tall-walled dutch oven) is even better suited for the job. That way, you can cook directly in the serving dish—and if you’re using cast iron, it’ll help keep things warmer while eating. Granted, if you’d like to grill a whole fish (this recipe is for pan-seared fillets, not kaoyu proper), a casserole pan presentation will help your kaoyu look even more impressive upon serving.

  • Air-dry your fish a few hours beforehand for the best possible sear! Getting the fish as dry as possible will help get it super crispy without any grilling. Pat it down with paper towels, then set it on a wire rack in the fridge for maximum air circulation (or flip it every now and then).
  • Choose a firm white fish (like sea bass, carp, red snapper, catfish, flounder); not tilapia, which falls apart easily. I used local tilefish in this recipe. The fillet size and portions are up to you. Since you’re pan-searing them separately, you’ll be able to easily control the cooking length and heat to suit the cut.
  • Pan-frying your own peanuts makes such a savory garnish. One of the things restaurant kaoyu has going for it is the explosion of different textures and flavors. Since everything else in this dish is cooked, the crunchy textures (crispy fish skin, fresh seaweed, gelatinous cloud ear, lotus root if you’re using) have a saucy, hot give to them. The dry, fried peanuts belong. It’s hard to explain, but to me, kaoyu would feel like it was missing something without them. Fry them like the cashews in Taylor’s gongbao (“kungpao”) chicken recipe. Or use roasted peanuts, since this recipe is pretty involved already.

Selecting Add-ins for the Veggie Base

  • You don’t need a lot of any one ingredient, but you will benefit from variety. As pictured, I used pretty easy-to-find stuff, minus the fresh seaweed knots and the cloud ear fungus, available with the other pantry ingredients used from The Mala Market.
  • If you want to pull out all the stops for a special night, I would’ve loved to have found good quality fresh lotus root, tofu knots, mung bean sprouts, Chinese celery and Taishan cauliflower. Parboiled 魔芋 (móyù) konjac jelly and 折耳根 (zhé’ěrgēn) fish mint are local favorites for this dish in Chengdu.

Don’t forget to serve with non-spicy veggie sides and rice for the spicy dish! I used the extra cloud ear from soaking to make a quick liangban cloud ear salad with the pickled paojiao chilies, also a staple of this Chengdu-leaning kaoyu.

Pan-Searing the Fish

Note: You can sear the fish at the same time as making the kaoyu base, if you’re confident about not letting the fish overcook.

  1. Heat a non-stick or cast iron pan over medium high heat. Add a small drizzle of the caiziyou (just enough to coat the bottom—it will spread) and heat until smoking to cook off the raw, grassy flavor of the uncooked oil. If not using caiziyou, heat to shimmering instead of smoking.
  2. Add the fillets to the pan, skin-side down, and lower the heat to medium. Don’t overcrowd; it’s better to cook several batches than to crowd the pan and steam your fish. Sear for 15 seconds as the proteins seize up. Immediately press the fillets with a pan lid, wide spatula, panini press or whatever works to flatten them and prevent the skin from curling up. Keep it pressed and sizzle away until browned and crispy. Flip the fillets once the edges are caramelized, about 2-3 minutes. Use a spoon to baste the fish with the pan oil until cooked through (tilting the pan helps collect the oil), another 1-2 minutes, more if your cut is thicker.
  3. Depan and set aside. Repeat as needed until all fillets are cooked. 

Cooking the Kaoyu Base

  1. Heat a large wok (or wide dutch oven, if you have one) over high heat. Add the rest of the caiziyou and heat until smoking to cook off the raw, grassy flavor of the uncooked oil. (Again, if not using caiziyou, heat to shimmering instead.) Add the scallion whites, garlic, ginger and ginger. Bloom until fragrant, tossing constantly so it doesn’t burn. Add onion and stir-fry briefly, about 1 minute. Add dried chilies and paojiao. Stir-fry until fragrant and onions start taking on some color, another minute. Add the douban and stir-fry to combine until fragrant and oil turns red.
  2. Next, add the potato and any hardier ingredients if using (like lotus root) and stir-fry about 2-3 minutes, letting edges sear. Add the mushrooms, any softer ingredients (like tofu skin), a splash of liaojiu (Shaoxing wine, or beer, as they often do in Chengdu) and hot stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, 3-4 minutes.
  3. Add the cabbage by pushing it under the cooked ingredients. Add the jalapeño or serrano peppers and the scallion greens on top, along with any fresh greens (like Chinese celery, mung bean sprouts). Then scatter the pre-cooked wood ear, celtuce and seaweed knots. Simmer another 5-10 minutes to combine the flavors. The kaoyu base is very forgiving, so while it doesn’t need to simmer much, it can withstand it.
  4. Transfer to a heatproof serving dish if desired. Top with the pan-seared fish fillets. Garnish with fresh cilantro and peanuts. Serve alongside rice and other veggies and dig in!
seared kaoyu on rice with veggies
Charcoal-grilled fish reigns amid this hotpot bath. You can essentially choose whatever ingredients you’d like to include, much like hotpot and mala xiangguo.

This recipe as made produces a great deal of food, enough to serve 4 people when eaten alongside other dishes (as Chinese people do when they eat at kaoyu restaurants). It really just depends on the size of the serving dish you have available to you, since it’s meant to be plated in a wide display (especially when using a whole fish, like restaurant kaoyu).

Stovetop Chongqing Kaoyu (烤鱼): Wanzhou Grilled Fish

By: Kathy Yuan | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking

Equipment

  • large wok, wide dutch oven/braiser or casserole pan

Ingredients 

  • scant ¼ cup dried wood ear or cloud ear fungus small handful, to make ~1 cup when rehydrated
  • 1 half fresh celtuce, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 3-4 fillets fresh tilefish or other firm white fish (e.g. sea bass, carp, red snapper, catfish; not tilapia), air-dried in the fridge 1-2 hours and patted dry
  • 2+ tablespoons caiziyou (Chinese roasted rapeseed oil), divided more as needed
  • 2-3 whole fresh scallions, washed and chopped into thumb lengths, whites and greens divided
  • 4-5 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 4-5 slices fresh ginger, washed
  • half fresh white or red onion, peeled and chopped into wedges, then halved
  • 10 whole dried zidantou/chaotianjiao chilies, chopped in half
  • 4 whole dried erjingtiao chilies, chopped in halves or thirds
  • 4 paojiao (pickled erjingtiao chili), sliced in coins or other pickled red chili (Thai bird's eye for extra heat)
  • 4 tablespoons hongyou douban (red-oil broad bean paste), finely chopped Pixian Juan Cheng preferred
  • 2 tablespoons 3-year aged douban, finely chopped Pixian Yi Feng He Hao preferred
  • ½ tablespoon whole red huajiao (Sichuan pepper) more if not fresh
  • 1 whole waxy yellow or red potato, chopped into thin wedges
  • couple handfuls fresh mushrooms of choice, sliced if large enoki, fresh flower shiitake, oyster, etc.
  • splash any liaojiu (rice cooking wine) or light beer
  • 2 cups unsalted fish or chicken stock, hot more for a soupier base
  • handful fresh cabbage leaves, hand-torn into palm-sized pieces
  • 2-3 whole fresh jalapeño or serrano peppers, washed and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup fresh seaweed knots, washed and rinsed of salt usually comes soaked in saltwater. If using dried, follow package directions
  • any additional veggies see note for suggestions
  • ground huajiao (Sichuan pepper), for garnish optional, see note
  • fresh cilantro, for garnish
  • pan-fried peanuts, for garnish or store-bought roasted, see note

Instructions 

Prep steps

  • Soak a very small handful of dried wood ear or cloud ear fungus in cool water for 1-2 hours beforehand. When they begin to open up after 10-15 minutes, hand-scrub them thoroughly to remove any debris in a couple changes of water, until the water runs clear.
    While the wood ear soaks, air-dry the fish and please read through the rest of the recipe and prep all the ingredients as listed so you're ready to go once the cooking starts. 🙂
  • Drain and rinse the softened wood ear. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and quickly blanch the sliced celtuce first for about 30 seconds. Lift the celtuce from the pot, keeping the hot water. Return the pot to a boil and add the wood ear, cooking about 2-3 minutes depending on thickness/coarseness. Smaller, delicate cloud ear varieties require less time. Discard the boiling water. Set aside the cooked ingredients.
    Cook the wood ear last, or in a fresh change of water. Toxins that can leach from the wood ear into the boiling water make it unsuitable for reusing.

Pan-searing the fish

  • Heat a non-stick or cast iron pan over medium high heat. Add a small drizzle of the caiziyou (just enough to coat the bottom—it will spread) and heat until smoking to cook off the raw, grassy flavor of the uncooked oil. If not using caiziyou, heat to shimmering instead of smoking.
    Add the fillets to the pan, skin-side down, and lower the heat to medium. (It's better to cook several batches than to overcrowd the pan and steam your fish.) Sear for 15 seconds as the proteins seize up. Immediately press the fillets with a pan lid, wide spatula, panini press or whatever works to flatten them and prevent the skin from curling up. Keep it pressed and sizzle away until browned and crispy. Flip the fillets once the edges are caramelized, about 2-3 minutes. Use a spoon to baste the fish with the pan oil until cooked through, another 1-2 minutes, more if your cut is thicker.
    Depan and set aside. Repeat as needed until all fillets are cooked.

Cooking the kaoyu base

  • Heat a wide dutch oven or large wok over high heat. Add the rest of the caiziyou and heat until smoking to cook off the raw, grassy flavor of the uncooked oil. Again, if not using caiziyou, heat to shimmering instead.
    Add the scallion whites, garlic, ginger and ginger. Bloom until fragrant, tossing constantly so it doesn't burn. Add onion and stir-fry briefly, about 1 minute. Add dried chilies and paojiao. Stir-fry until fragrant and onions start taking on some color, another minute. Add the red-oil and aged douban and stir-fry to combine until fragrant and oil turns red.
  • Add the potato and any hardier ingredients if using (like lotus root) and stir-fry about 2-3 minutes, letting edges sear. Add the mushrooms, any softer ingredients (like tofu skin), a splash of liaojiu (or beer, as they often do in Chengdu) and hot stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, 3-4 minutes.
  • Add the cabbage by pushing it under the cooked ingredients so it can absorb the sauce flavors. Add the jalapeño peppers and the scallion greens on top, along with any fresh greens (like Chinese celery, mung bean sprouts). Then scatter the seaweed, celtuce and cooked wood ear. Simmer another 5-10 minutes to steam the seaweed and combine the flavors.
  • Top with the pan-seared fish fillets (or steam with the last step to reheat). Garnish with fresh cilantro and peanuts. Serve alongside rice and other veggies and dig in!

Notes

This recipe as made produces a great deal of food, enough to serve 4-5 people when eaten alongside other dishes (as Chinese people do when they eat at kaoyu restaurants). It really just depends on the size of the serving dish you have available to you, since it’s meant to be plated in a wide display (especially when using a whole fish, like restaurant kaoyu). 
If using dried shiitake mushrooms, wash well and soak in cool-lukewarm water for at least 3-4 hours before cooking. Other great add-ins that weren’t available to me when I made this are tofu knots, mung bean sprouts, Chinese celery, Taiwanese cauliflower, parboiled konjac jelly and fish mint.
PAN-FRIED PEANUTS (copied from Taylor’s gongbao chicken recipe):
Heat wok until hot and add 3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil. When oil is hot, turn heat to low, add nuts and gently stir-fry until toasty brown all over. Watch closely so they don’t burn. Remove from wok and let drain on paper towel. They will firm up and become crunchy when cool.
GROUND HUAJIAO (Sichuan pepper):
Toast whole huajiao in a dry skillet until pods start to smell very fragrant, but do not brown them. Let peppercorns cool, then grind in a spice grinder or in a mortar + pestle to your desired coarseness. Sichuan pepper powder will retain its potent flavor and numbing punch for only a few weeks.

Tried this recipe?

About Kathy Yuan

Kathy is a first-gen, twenty-something daughter of two Sichuan immigrants who cooked her way back to her parents’ kitchen during the pandemic and is now helping Ma (you can call her Mala Mama) keep generational family recipes alive. All photos shot and edited by her.

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