Water-Boiled Fish With Tofu (Shui Zhu Yu)

Water-boiled fish with tofu (shui zhu yu) by The Mala Market
Swimming Fire Fish~~

Shui zhu yu, translated literally as water-boiled fish, may be the most misleadingly named dish ever. Far from swimming in a sea of water, the fish fillets float in a luxurious bath of mala spicy broth. Restaurateurs in the U.S. often give it a more fitting translation, the most creative I’ve seen being “swimming fire fish.” And yet, as I previously discussed when I published a recipe for shui zhu beef, shui zhu dishes are not as explosive as they appear at first sight. Yes, the main ingredient shares space with heaps of chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, but, as in most Sichuan dishes, you can control the heat to your own liking by making the dish yourself.

I think I probably chose this recipe to tackle now because I am looking for something I can control. As those who follow this blog know, Fong Chong and I have been working for months to import our own Sichuan spices and sauces for The Mala Market. We spent the summer in Chengdu researching Sichuan pepper and chilies, visiting farms and finding the right supplier.

I thought at the time that the U.S. side of the import-export equation would be our biggest hurdle, so I spent months researching the past, present and future of Sichuan pepper and its tortured path from Chinese farm to American table over the past 50 years. I ended up debunking a lot of myths about Sichuan’s defining spice and reported it all in a 3,000-word piece for Roads & Kingdoms (the James Beard Foundations’s 2017 publication of the year) and its publishing partner Slate. Check it out if you are as big a Sichuan pepper geek as I am.

So I was prepared for the hurdles on this side of the pond. What I was not prepared for was the unending challenges in getting the spices out of China. There has been delay after delay with our first shipment as our relatively miniscule order undergoes inspection after inspection to get certification after certification (incurring fee after fee) to satisfy the Chinese government and shipping companies. The latest inspection will certify that our ground chilies are not explosives. Seriously.

No matter how much research and reporting I do, or how many friends and colleagues I have to help me in Chengdu, or how much money I spend, I cannot speed up the process or control it any way, which is killing me. So it’s a particularly good time to cook. Because while I cannot control all facets of a new recipe or dish, I can, with effort and persistence, successfully complete the task (this one took four tries for a flawless recipe and an acceptable photo). And, unlike our products, it is something I can deliver to you when I say I will. (My sincere apologies to those of you who are waiting for ingredients.)

mise for water-boiled fish with tofu (shui zhu yu)

As always, have everything ready to go before you begin cooking. The fish is marinating and the tofu will be spooned directly from its package.

This recipe is for my favorite shui zhu dish, shui zhu fish with tofu, which I believe is sometimes called just dou hua yu. Dou hua refers to very fresh, soft doufu that has not been pressed to release water. It’s my favorite tofu, because it’s more like a pudding than a  solid block, and somehow it just tastes fresher. It tastes especially fresh if you make it yourself from scratch, but that’s not what we’re doing here because that requires a whole other subrecipe. Just look for an Asian-style tofu that says “silken,” “extra soft” or “soft,” and it will be of similar texture, if not quite as custardy.

vegetables for water-boiled fish with tofu (shui zhu yu)

Stir-fry scallions and bean sprouts and place in serving bowl as the base of the dish

broth for water-boiled fish with tofu (shui zhu yu)

The head and bones flavor the broth; it’s up to you whether to include them in the final dish

I also highly recommend that you use a fresh, whole fish and have the fishmonger fillet it. Then keep the bones and head to use for the broth, which adds a depth of flavor you can’t get otherwise, unless you happen to have some fish stock on hand. (Shout out to long-time reader Xianhang for this tip!) The recipe that I loosely followed in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English uses the fish head and bones to make the broth and then chops them up and adds them to the serving bowl.

I don’t understand the appeal of that, but I did add the whole head and bones to the dish in one version, since everyone knows snapper has some tasty cheeks, and it made for a true Sichuan visual with the head sticking  out one side of the bowl and the tail out the other.  You can leave them out of the serving bowl if you prefer. And if you prefer not to deal with a whole fish at all,  you can buy fish fillets and use good chicken or fish stock.

making water-boiled fish with tofu (shui zhu yu)

After douban jiang is added to the broth, the filleted fish pieces and soft tofu cook briefly. When fish is barely done, pour contents over waiting vegetables in serving bowl.

Another stand-out in this recipe is the use of green Sichuan pepper. Green—vs. red—hua jiao is normally paired with fish in Sichuan. It has a distinctly different perfume and taste than red, brighter and more vegetal, though you can certainly use red in its place. And of course you want to use a lot of dried chilies. Try to use a Sichuan chili, most of which are medium-hot and won’t overwhelm even if used in abundance. The finishing bath of sizzling red chili oil  is made from ground chilies or chili flakes and it’s what really brings the heat, while the whole chilies provide the visual punch.

chilies for water-boiled fish with tofu (shui zhu yu)

The mala finishing oil is the crowing glory of shui zhu yu. Heat until hot (but do not brown the chilies) then pour over the top of the fish in the serving bowl and watch it sizzle (you might want an audience)

As promised, you can control the heat through the amount of ground chilies and Sichuan pepper you use. But Sichuan ground chilies are not overwhelmingly spicy. The red oil and heaps of peppers will look hellishly hot, but are really just wonderfully numbing and spicy. Like the ground chilies trying to make their way to me from China, they may be hot, but they are definitely not explosives.

Water-boiled fish with tofu (shui zhu yu) from The Mala Market

A little scary, but delicious

Water-Boiled Fish With Tofu (Shui Zhu Yu)
  • 1 whole white-fleshed fish such as red snapper or grouper, 1½ to 2 pounds (or ¾ pound fillets)
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 8 scallions, cut in 1-inch lengths
  • 2 cups mung bean sprouts
  • 3 tablespoons thinly slice ginger
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons Pixian chili bean paste with oil (hong you douban jiang)
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
  • 12 ounces silken, extra soft or soft tofu
  • ½ cup oil, preferably Chinese peanut oil
  • 4 tablespoons Sichuan ground chilies
  • 4 teaspoons green (or red) Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 cup (or more) Sichuan dried chilies, snipped in half or left whole
  1. Ask fishmonger to clean and fillet the fish but retain the head and bones, which will come as one piece. Mix egg white, corn starch, wine and salt in a medium bowl. Cut fillets in large bite-size pieces and add to marinade.
  2. Heat wok until wisps of heat start to rise and add 1 tablespoon oil. When hot, add scallions and stir-fry until they wilt and begin to brown. Add bean sprouts and stir-fry briefly. Remove vegetables to a large, broad serving bowl.
  3. Wipe out wok, return to heat until hot and add 1 tablespoon oil. When hot, add ginger and garlic and stir-fry briefly. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil, then add fish head and bones if using. Cook at a low simmer for 10 minutes, flipping fish half-way through to cook both sides. Carefully remove fish head and skeleton and place on top of vegetables in serving bowl (or discard).
  4. Add chili bean paste, soy sauce and wine to the broth in the wok and return to a boil. Lift fish fillet pieces from marinade, add to the stock and simmer over low heat for 1 minute. Spoon the soft tofu directly into the stock in large pieces. Simmer another 1 to 2 minutes, turning the fish and tofu very gently in the sauce, until fish is just cooked through. Remove from heat and carefully pour the mixture over the other ingredients in the serving bowl.
  5. Add the ½ cup peanut oil, ground chilies and Sichuan peppercorns to a small sauce pan and heat over a low flame until they sizzle and turn the oil red; do not burn. Add the whole chilies to the chili oil and stir briefly. Pour hot oil mixture over the top of the serving bowl, which will sizzle as it hits the broth. Serve immediately with rice. Diners should pluck fish, tofu and vegetables out with chopsticks or spoon, leaving oil behind.

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