Water-Boiled Fish With Tofu (Shuizhuyu, 水煮鱼)
Swimming Fire Fish
Shuizhuyu, 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 shuizhu beef, shuizhu 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, Fongchong 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. It also ran eventually on Anthony Bourdain’s website for Parts Unknown (to which I will eternally be proud to have any connection). 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 trusty recipe and an acceptable photo). And, unlike our products, it is something I can deliver to you when I say I will.
This recipe is for my favorite shuizhu dish, shuizhuyu with tofu, which I believe is sometimes called just douhua yu. Douhua 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 a Chinese-style tofu that says “soft,” and it will be of similar texture, if not quite as custardy. (“Silken” tofu is too soft for this use and may fall apart in the broth.)
Another stand-out in this shuizhuyu recipe is the use of green Sichuan pepper. Green—vs. red—huajiao 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, or a combination of the two. 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 secret to using mala in this dish is toasting the snipped chiles and peppercorns in advance in a little oil in the wok, bringing out their smoky flavor and aroma without browning them.
For the body of the dish, you start by stir-frying the vegetables as the base. Next you heat the broth and a healthy dose of Pixian doubanjiang, the fermented chili bean paste that is the soul of shuizhuyu, and quickly poach the fish and tofu in it, before pouring that mixture over the waiting vegetables.
Then after you’ve finished the vegetable and fish layers, you scatter the toasted chili mix over the dish and douse the whole thing with hot oil, which sizzles and distributes the mala flavor throughout.
As promised, you can control the heat through the amount of chilies, chili seeds and Sichuan pepper you use. But Sichuan chilies are not overwhelmingly spicy. The heaps of peppers will look hellishly hot, but are really just wonderfully numbing and spicy. Just remember that the chilies and peppercorns are there for flavor and visual panache—not to be eaten—or this really will be a swimming fire fish.
Water-Boiled Fish With Tofu (Shuizhuyu)
- 1 pound white fish fillets (catfish, red snapper, grouper, etc.)
- 1 egg white
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 3 teaspoons green and/or red Sichuan peppercorns
- 1½ cups Sichuan dried chilies, snipped in 2-3 sections, seeds mostly discarded
- 8 scallions, cut diagonally in 2-inch pieces
- 2 cups mung bean sprouts
- 3 tablespoons ginger, thinly sliced
- 3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 3 cups chicken or fish broth
- 3 tablespoons Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
- 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 10 ounces soft tofu (not silken)
- ⅓ cup canola or other neutral oil
- Cilantro for garnish
- Mix egg white, corn starch and 1 tablespoon wine in a medium bowl until smooth. Cut fillets in large bite-size pieces and add to marinade.
- Heat wok until moderately hot and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add the snipped chilies and peppercorns and stir-fry until fragrant and toasty but not browned. Remove and reserve.
- And another tablespoon of oil to the wok, and stir-fry scallions until they wilt and begin to brown. Add bean sprouts and stir-fry until just cooked. Remove vegetables to a large, broad serving bowl.
- 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, chili bean paste, soy sauce and 2 tablespoons wine and bring to a boil.
- Spoon the soft tofu directly into the broth by large spoonfuls. Pour off any extra marinade from the fish, lower the pieces into the broth and simmer, 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.
- Heat up 1/3 cup oil until hot but not smoking, around 300°F. Scatter the chili and peppercorn mixture over the top of the fish, and pour the hot oil over the top of the serving bowl, which will sizzle as it hits the broth. Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately with rice. Diners should pluck fish, tofu and vegetables out with chopsticks or spoon, leaving oil, chilies and peppercorns behind.