This is not a dish I ate while I was growing up, but I get 水煮魚 almost every time I go to a Sichuan restaurant. I did my best to re-create it here, after reading Chinese and recipe databases and consulting with my mom and my grandma (po3po2), who moved to Chengdu when she was 4 or 5.
I love Sichuan food because it is spicy (peppers) and numbing (Sichuan peppercorn, or hua1jiao1 花椒), which is pretty exciting to my tastebuds. 好過癮! (hao3guo4ying3)
My Caucasian/American co-worker’s wife bought Sichuan peppercorns from Penzey’s, and apparently she was really frustrated because try as she might to grind the peppercorns as finely as possible, they tasted “gritty”. Turns out the problem was that the peppercorns she got still had lots of the black seeds in them! At the Asian or Chinese market, look for peppercorns that have mostly the husks/shells, because those are what give the numbing or ma2 麻 flavor.
For more tips and pictures of ingredients that I commonly use in cooking Chinese food, click here!
Water Cooked Fish
1-1 1/2 lb fish fillets, sliced crosswise into large chunks
2 Tbsp rice wine
1/4 cup oil + 1/4 cup oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 1/2″ slices ginger
3 stalks of scallions, cut into 1 inch sticks, divided
1/4 cup ground red chilies
1/2 cup dried red chili peppers, plus more for garnish
2 bay leaves
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp fennel seeds
2 Tbsp spicy fermented soybean paste (la4dou4ban4jiang4 辣豆瓣酱）
3-4 cups soybean sprouts, or 3 big handfuls (see notes)
1 1/2-2 cups water (see notes)
1 Tbsp soy sauce
Salt to taste
A few sprigs of cilantro, coarsely chopped (optional)
1-3 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, finely ground
1) Marinate the fish fillets in 2 Tbsp rice wine.
2) Add 1/4 cup oil, sliced garlic, ginger, half the sliced scallions, ground red chilies, dried red chili peppers, bay leaves, star anise, cinnamon stick, and fennel seeds into a pan (all your aromatics!) Heat oil on medium low, stirring to keep the garlic from browning. This is the step called 爆香(bao4xiang1) which google translate defines as saute, but 香(xiang1) means fragrant, so I think of it as the flavor-releasing step. Adjust your heat so that the ingredients heat up gradually without burning.
3) When you smell the garlic and peppers, add the la4dou4ban4jiang4. Stir the paste often, being careful not to let it burn. Once you also smell the soybean paste, add 1 1/2 cups water/stock and add soy sauce, and salt to taste. The liquid should be slightly saltier and spicier than you want the final sauce/liquid to be. Bring to a boil.
4) Add fish carefully, making sure to space them out so they cook evenly. You want the fish to be almost completely covered by the liquid. If not, add a little more water/stock.
5) When the fish is done, cover and turn the heat off.
6) Add 1/4 cup oil to a clean saucepan and heat until the oil is shimmering or when the viscosity has significantly decreased (check by swirling the oil around).
7) Place the remaining scallions, Sichuan peppercorn powder, and additional peppers (whole or pieces) on top of the fish. Carefully pour the hot oil over those spices. If you don’t hear an intense sizzling, your oil is not hot enough!
-Ground red chilies- how? I have a spice grinder (who, in its former appliance life, was a coffee bean grinder, but was so bad it was relegated to spices only =p) that I use for grinding up whole dried red chilies.
-For a better sauce, one would use fish stock instead of water- sear fish bones/head/tail in some oil, add enough water to cover, then simmer.
-I used Tien Tsin chili peppers, but the spiciness level will vary depending on the type of pepper you use. As always, taste often and add more ground chilies as necessary.
-Tim has a gag reflex to cilantro, so I didn’t use it..otherwise, it’d be a nice garnish.
-Feel free to use whatever firm-fleshed white fish you can find.
-If you can’t find soybean sprouts, mung bean sprouts, enoki mushrooms, or napa cabbage are good substitution.s You could also do a combination, as I’ve seen done at my favorite Sichuan restaurant in CA that is no longer there. 🙁