One-Pot Weeknight Suancaiyu (酸菜鱼): Pickled Mustard-Green Fish Stew
Published Aug 28, 2022, Updated Oct 21, 2023
When it comes to weeknight 酸菜鱼 (suāncàiyú), spicy and sour Sichuan fish (yu) with pickled mustard greens (suancai), even devout cooks need the occasional shortcut. Like most fish dishes on the mainland, suancaiyu uses whole fresh fish. And try as one might, Ma simply won’t be found buying, killing and gutting live fish on a Tuesday. Not that there’s much live fresh fish to be found around those parts—what suburbs have in 4-bedroom family homes, they lack in specialty fishmongers.
So, we use fish fillets. No, it’s not the same as what you’d eat in a restaurant. And it doesn’t have to be. We don’t get the same rich broth from stewing the head and bones, but when you have fish and want suancaiyu, any approximation still means dinner. And when that dinner’s affordable, convenient, nutritious and ready in 15-20 minutes, it’s always welcome.
Background on Sichuan suancai
The one constant here is, of course, the suancai, or sour mustard green, base. You can buy it (pictured above) or make it yourself (below), but the packaged version is more accessible if you’re not in the habit of pickling. Although suancai is usually lacto-fermented in the Sichuan salt-brine paocai tradition, not with vinegar.
Suancai can be made with several varieties of leafy greens. In northeast China (think Beijing), locals actually use 大白菜 (dàbáicài), Napa/Chinese cabbage. Otherwise, throughout southern China, mustard greens are the default.
In Sichuan, we use the 芥菜 (jiècài) cultivar of Brassica juncea. You can find this in Asian supermarkets under its Cantonese name, gai choy. However, Sichuan locals call jiecai by the generic-sounding name 青菜 (qīngcài)—a phrase you can also use to describe other vegetables in Mandarin. Makes talking about it rather confusing, as asking someone what they use for pickling suancai will earn you the obvious-sounding answer, “green vegetables.”
Our first attempt making suancai at home backfired (pictured above), resembling salt-cured 咸菜 (xiáncài) more than suancai. We used a friend’s harvest of 雪里蕻 (xuělǐhóng), another Brassica juncea cultivar, known in its dried, fermented state as 梅干菜 (méigāncài) and beloved by all who have worshipped at the decadent altar of 梅菜扣肉 (méicài kòuròu).
(Fatty, braised, mouth-melting steamed pork belly over meicai is a Hakka dish so memorable I can recall every experience I’ve had in my life eating it. Pickled mustard greens are a staple for the Hakka people!)
Turns out we just needed to pickle it with less salt. Taylor has documented her own successful paocai-making experience with both wet-brine and dry-brine methods, and her instructional recipes help take the guesswork out of paocai so even beginners get it right. The key is getting the right salt ratio, which she details in the linked recipes. (Just don’t add mustard greens to your regular pickle jar, or everything will taste like mustard!)
Ma’s other twist to this one-pot suancaiyu is a generous bed of leafy greens. The nontraditional veggie base means you can serve this dish alone over rice, perfect for weeknight dinner. And it makes an excellent all-in-one leftover base for noodles the next day, when the veggies have soaked up the broth flavor overnight.
If you want to bulk it up further, soft tofu and enoki mushrooms would also be excellent ways to turn this classic flavor into a nutritious family dinner.
Select your favorite greens and chop into smaller sections so you can pick them up easily. We used a combination of Chinese/Napa cabbage and bok choy, which both hold up well to simmering.
After washing and slicing the vegetables, the remaining prep for this one-pot suancaiyu is marinating the fish. Ma prefers swai fillets (what you’ll find in Chinese restaurants too) because they don’t fall apart like tilapia when cooking.
Slice the fillets into 2.5-inch long sections at an angle and scrub them in a bowl with salt for one to two minutes. Usually the fish is sliced very thinly to cook quickly in the final broth, but since our stock comes together at once sans head and bones, it benefits from a longer simmer with the actual fillet.
Rinse with water and drain. Add ground white pepper, Shaoxing wine, egg white and corn starch and massage while stirring continuously in one direction to mix until sticky. And you’re done with prep!
Stirfry the suancai first until dry, then de-pan and heat whole huajiao in caiziyou until fragrant. Add garlic, ginger and chilies, then scallion whites. Pour in boiled water and add chopped fish fillets with leafy greens, then cover and steam on high for 3 minutes. Uncover, lower heat to simmer and season to taste with sugar, salt and white vinegar.
(Don’t skip the boiled water step. If you add cold water to a hot dish, say goodbye to the flavor. Hot dish, add hot water! Tips from grannies and chefs who have been cooking longer than either of us have been alive.)
De-pan and serve in a large, wide serving bowl. In lieu of the usual sizzling oil topping, drizzle some Yaomazi green Sichuan pepper oil to finish.
Yaomazi’s oil, known as 藤椒油 (téngjiāoyóu), comes from the special tengjiao/rattan variety of fresh green Sichuan pepper. It’s excellent for finishing off the region’s famous water-boiled fish and its close sibling, green Sichuan pepper fish. In fact, I ordered a namesake tengjiaoyu dish swimming in tengjiao and tengjiaoyou at Shang Cafe (香小馆) in Fremont, CA, last summer. So good!
For more quick and easy weeknight versions of classic Sichuan dishes, consider 蒜泥白肉 (suànní báiròu) for Sichuan garlic pork/”white meat” you may recognize from appetizer menus! The thinly sliced pork belly is often served with cold cucumber, but I love celtuce when it’s in season too.
Ma's One-Pot Weeknight Suancaiyu (酸菜鱼)
- 1 package suancai (pickled mustard greens), washed and drained approx. 7 ounces drained
- 2 pounds swai fillet (or any flaky white fish) sliced in 2.5-inch sections
- 1 teaspoon salt add more to taste at end
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 egg white
- 2 tablespoons corn starch
- 4 scallions, divided
- ½ tablespoon whole red or green huajiao (Sichuan pepper) more or less to taste
- ½ tablespoon Chinese roasted rapeseed oil (caiziyou)
- 1 thumb fresh ginger, washed and sliced into matchsticks
- 4-5 cloves garlic, sliced
- 4-5 dried chilies, chopped (zidantou preferred)
- 3-4 cups boiling water, as needed
- 1 pound leafy vegetables of choice, washed and chopped into small sections
- ½ teaspoon white vinegar more or less to taste
- drizzle Yaomazi tengjiaoyou (green Sichuan pepper oil) to taste, for finishing
- Roughly chop the drained suancai and set aside. In a separate bowl, add the sliced swai fillet and scrub with salt for one minute, then rinse under cold water and drain. Add ground white pepper, Shaoxing wine and egg white and massage into fish while mixing continuously in one direction for one minute, or until visibly sticky. Add starch and combine well, still mixing.
- Chop scallion in half to divide the white/light green stems and dark green tops. Slice the lighter stem into 2-inch long sections. Finely chop the dark green end. Set aside in separate bowls.
- Stirfry the suancai first until dry and depan. Add caiziyou to pan and heat whole huajiao until fragrant. Add garlic, ginger and chilies and stir-fry briefly, then add scallion whites and suancai again.
- Pour in boiling water and add chopped fish fillets along with leafy greens and scallion greens, then cover and steam on high for 3 minutes. Uncover, lower heat to simmer and season to taste with salt and white vinegar.
- Depan and serve in a large, wide serving bowl. Drizzle with a touch of Yaomazi tengjiaoyou (green Sichuan pepper oil) to finish.
Tried this recipe?