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Stovetop Chongqing Kaoyu (烤鱼): Wanzhou Grilled Fish

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


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


  • 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


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!


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.