Authentic Sichuan Spicy Boiled Fish 四川水煮鱼
Sichuan Spicy Boiled Fish 水煮鱼 (shuǐ zhǔ yú), literally just “water-boiled fish” sounds ordinary but tastes extraordinary. You’ll sometimes see it labeled 水煮鱼片, where 片 (piàn) = slice, or 沸腾鱼 (fèi téng yú) “boiling fish”.
It’s a vibrant, moderately 麻辣 (málà) spicy and mouth-numbing dish of white fish and vegetables lightly poached in fragrant broth. I love to serve it alongside a steaming bowl of white rice. Alternatively, drop some 粉条 (fěn tiáo) glass noodles into the broth for an easy one-pot meal. The seasoning, like “fish fragrant” eggplant (yu xiang) 鱼香茄子, is traditional to Sichuan fish preparations.
A Little History
Compared to red-braised pork 红烧肉 and its 1500 years of history, spicy boiled fish is a relative newcomer to the scene. This dish’s popularity across China began in earnest in 1983, when a young Chongqing chef won first prize in a Sichuan food competition with this local invention.
Sichuan spicy boiled fish is a variant on the famous 重庆火锅 (Chóngqìng huǒ guō) Chongqing spicy hotpot, modified to serve large groups of taxi drivers during their breaks. Hotpot is generally a leisurely meal; diners cook their food in a boiling pot of broth a few bites at a time. Sichuan spicy boiled fish — along with its close cousins spicy boiled pork 水煮肉片 (shuí zhǔ ròu piàn) and 水煮牛肉 spicy boiled beef (shuí zhǔ niú ròu) — are dishes that can serve a hungry crowd all at once.
Sichuan spicy boiled fish shouldn’t be outrageously spicy
The original inventor of the spicy boiled 水煮 method was 范吉安 Fàn Jíān, a chef in 自贡 Zìgòng city in Sichuan province. There are three regions of Sichuan with distinct culinary identities:
- 上河帮 (shàng hé bāng) Upper river style from 成都 Chéngdū
- 下河帮 (xià hé bāng) Lower river style from 重庆 Chóngqìng
- 盐帮 (yán bāng) Salt merchant style from 自贡 Zìgòng
Compared to neighboring Chongqing, the dishes from Zigong are focused on variety and nuance.
All this history is just to say that I believe spicy boiled fish shouldn’t be outrageously, tear-inducingly spicy or numbing. The heat is only one component of the dish because I still want the fish to shine. Since we’re putting so much effort into making a nuanced and fragrant spice broth, I like being able to spoon into onto my bowl of rice. For the same reason, I call for only 1/4 cup of oil to finish the dish, vs. some versions that call for an entire cup.
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As with most Chinese food recipes I’ve featured on this blog, you won’t need much equipment to make Sichuan spicy boiled fish. The ones below are the must-haves
Large, heat-safe serving bowl
It needs to be totally heatproof: we will be pouring boiling broth and hot oil into this bowl. It also needs to be large: 3+ quarts to hold all the delicious broth, fish, and veggies.
Stick to porcelain or stoneware like this Le Creuset. Glass or stainless steel would also work, but be very careful because the outside will be scalding hot.
A spider is a long-handled strainer or skimmer. You’ll need one to remove the whole spices, fish, and veggies from the broth.
A pot to cook everything
A pan to heat the oil
In the final step, we’re going to pour hot oil over the top of the dish to cook the aromatics. You can either use your wok or a small saucepan.
Sichuan Spicy Boiled Fish Broth
Since the dish is originally derived from Chongqing hotpot, a lot of shortcut recipes for Sichuan spicy boiled fish call for prepackaged spicy hotpot base. It turns out that making your own broth is incredibly easy and far tastier.
I researched Chinese language resources to develop this made-from-scratch spicy boiled fish recipe. This video was the one that helped me most.
At first glance, I was a bit skeptical of this broth method; it mainly involves boiling spices in water. On second thought though, it all makes sense; 水煮鱼 translates to “water boiled fish”, so we really don’t need stock to muddle the flavor. I promise that this broth recipe will be fragrant, aromatic, and the perfect counterpart to delicate slices of fish.
Easy 2-step process
I used the whole spices below, but it’s totally fine if you’re missing several. I’ve made this recipe before without 1/3 of the spices (including the Sichuan peppercorns!), and it was still a huge success.
- 15 cloves 丁香 (dīng xiāng)
- 1/4 tsp fennel seeds 小茴香 (xiǎo huí xiāng)
- 2 bay leaves 香叶 (xiāng yè)
- 3 star anise 八角 (bā jiǎo)
- small piece of cinnamon stick 桂皮 (guī pí)
- 1 Tbsp Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 (huā jiāo) — substitute more regular peppercorns
- 1/4 tsp each of black and white peppercorns 黑白胡椒 (hēi bái hú jiāo)
- 6-10 dried red chilies 干辣椒 (gān là jiāo)
- 1/8 tsp nutmeg 豆蔻 (dòu kòu) — I only had ground nutmeg
- 1 black cardamom pod 草果 (cáo guǒ)
- 2 slices ginger 生姜 (shēng jiāng)
- 2 Tbsp chili oil like Laoganma — substitute up to 1 Tbsp with 郫县（红油）豆瓣酱 spicy broad bean paste for a vibrant red-colored broth
In a wok or Dutch oven on low heat, fry the whole dry spices until fragrant. Add 1.5 quarts of hot water and remaining spices, salt to taste, and simmer with the lid on for at least 20 minutes. Strain out the dried spices, reserving the dried red peppers for later use.
This simple broth forms the flavor base for our Sichuan spicy boiled fish. Of course, if you have packaged hotpot base on hand, you can use that. But I recommend making your own broth for better flavor.
Sliced White Fish Fillet
Grass carp 草鱼 (cǎo yú, “grass fish”) is the most traditional choice for Sichuan spicy boiled fish. Aka white amur, it’s a large, herbivorous freshwater fish from Asia, introduced in the US to control algae and vegetation.
There are any many sustainable white fish fillet options that work just as well. I’d recommend catfish, tilapia, or flounder. Recently I made this with twice, once with tilapia and once with some mystery whitefish fillets from the depth of my freezer. Both versions of spicy boiled fish were equally delicious.
How-to: slicing fish fillets
Because the fish is only taking a quick dip in the broth, we need to slice them on the bias thinly, but not so thin that they fall apart when cooked. 3mm or 1/8-inch slices are perfect.
I find it’s easiest to cut the fillets if they are slightly frozen. To reduce the risk to my fingertips, I like to use a fork. Hold your fork at ~30 degree angle to the cutting board. Use the fork to guide your chef knife, and use even downward pressure for clean cuts. Click here for a video of 王刚 Chef Wang Gang cutting a whole grass carp in the traditional manner.
A marinade for tender, silky fish
Once the white fish fillets are sliced, we assemble a marinade. Beat an egg white and 2 tsp corn starch together until evenly mixed. Add Shaoxing cooking wine (substitute vodka or dry sherry) and salt, and stir well to combine.
Next, drop in the sliced fish fillets, and stir continuously in one direction until the liquid marinade is fully absorbed into the fish. I recommend using your fingers, as you want to stir vigorously enough to fully coat the fish slices without breaking them. This egg white and corn starch marinade is a classic Chinese method to keep fish silky and tender 嫩 (nèn). Let the fish marinate for 15 minutes while the broth is simmering.
Bed of Fresh Vegetables
We’ll build our final product in layers in a large bowl. The bottom layer is a bed of fresh vegetables. You can get creative with choices here; the key is to choose 2-3 bulky vegetables that will hold up to the hot broth. Some good choices are:
- bean sprouts (soybean) — this is the most traditional
- asparagus, thinly sliced on the bias
- romaine hearts, quartered and cut into segments
- 莴苣笋 (wō jū sǔn) celtuce / Taiwan lettuce / AA choy stalks, thinly sliced
- 莴苣叶 (wō jū yè) celtuce / Taiwan lettuce / AA choy leaves
- celery hearts, thinly sliced on the bias
- baby bok choy, quartered
- zucchini or cucumber, thinly sliced on the bias
- white button mushrooms, thinly sliced
- kale or swiss chart, cut into segments
I used fresh celtuce stalks and leaves from my mom’s garden in this version, but almost any relatively mild veggies can work. I would stay away from delicate greens like spinach that would completely wilt in the hot broth.
Quick-cooking vegetables that are good to eat raw like bean sprouts can go directly into the bottom of the serving bowl as-is. For the sturdier ones like celery hearts or baby bok choy, we’ll cook them in the spice broth.
Final Assembly of Sichuan Spicy Boiled Fish
Cook the components individually
After we make the broth and prepare the fish, the hard part is done. Bring the pot of broth up to a rolling boil on high heat, and blanch any sturdier vegetables until they are 80% cooked and still crisp — in Chinese, 断生 (duàn shēng). Remove the vegetables from the broth using a spider or tongs, and arrange them in a layer on the bottom of the serving bowl.
Bring the broth back up to a rolling boil, and drop in the fish slices. I prefer to go one slice at a time to prevent them from clumping, but work quickly so they all cook together. The fish only needs to cook for about a minute after all the slices are added. They’ll continue to cook when we add the broth, so at this stage they should be barely cooked to remain tender. Remove the sliced fish from the broth and layer it on top of the vegetables.
Bring the broth back up to a rolling boil, and strain out any solids or scum. Prepare a thin slurry (1 tsp corn starch in 1 Tbsp water). While stirring continuously to prevent clumping, add it in then let the broth boil for ~30 seconds until slightly thickened. Ladle the boiling broth into the serving bowl until it’s just below the top of the fish.
Finely mince the holy trinity of Chinese cooking: ginger, garlic, scallions. Coarsely chop cilantro (optional, replace with shiso leaf or more scallions) and the reserved dried red peppers from making the broth. If you like heat, you can add a few more chopped red peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. Sprinkle all the aromatics on top of the fish slices.
The final step is 泼油 (pō yǒu), literally “pour oil”. Heat up 2 Tbsp of neutral cooking oil and 2 Tbsp of chili oil (just the oil, no chili solids — or substitute with more cooking oil) in a small sauce pan on medium-low heat. We want the oil to be shimmering; if it’s smoking, it’s too hot. Pour it over the top of the minced aromatics. You’ll hear a very satisfying sizzle — it’s the best part of this entire process!
Serve Sichuan spicy boiled fish piping hot, paired with a bowl of white rice and a glass of white wine.
Wine Pairing for Sichuan Spicy Boiled Fish
I like to serve Sichuan spicy boiled fish with my go-to for 麻辣 málà Sichuan food, gewurztraminer. The predominant flavors are fruit (lychee), floral (rose), and spice (ginger), which combine to give it a sweeter flavor than the residual sugar would suggest. Just as the addition of small amounts of sugar in Chinese cooking bring out the 鲜 umami of a dish, the hint of sweetness in gewurztraminer highlights the flavors of Sichuan food. Alsace in Northeastern France on the border of Germany and Switzerland, is the largest grower and my favorite expression. The entry level wines are great with a meal, but the grand crus and better single-vineyard and reserve options are simply spectacular. 2015 and 2016 were both excellent vintages in Alsace.
Alternatively, since this version is not crying-level spicy, a dry riesling from Germany or Alsace also plays well together. Compared to its 水煮牛 beef and 水煮肉片 pork counterparts, the broth for Sichuan spicy boiled fish is milder and more fragrant. For this reason, we served it with a dry German trocken riesling. The minerality and youthful acidity were a perfect complement to the fish and aromatic broth, and at under $20 it was a great value.
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Sichuan Spicy Boiled Fish 四川水煮鱼 (Shui Zhu Yu)
- Wok, Dutch oven, or stock pot
- Small saucepan
- Large heat-safe serving bowl
- Spider strainer or sieve
- 2 white fish fillets like grass carp, tilapia, flounder, or catfish -- roughly 12 oz 草鱼
- 3-5 c thinly sliced vegetables like bean sprouts, asparagus, romaine hearts -- see
postfor suggestions 青菜，共2把
Spice broth -- eliminate any unavailable ingredients (see notes) 汤汁食材
- 1 Tbsp Sichuan peppercorns substitute regular peppercorns 花椒，½茶勺
- 6-10 dried red chilies 干辣椒，6-10颗
- 15 whole cloves 丁香，15颗
- 3 whole star anise 八角
- 2 bay leaves 香叶，2片
- ¼ tsp whole black peppercorns 黑胡椒，¼茶勺
- ¼ tsp whole white peppercorns 白胡椒，¼茶勺
- ¼ tsp fennel seeds 小茴香，¼茶勺
- cinnamon stick ~¾" piece 桂皮，一小块
- ⅛ tsp ground nutmeg or 5 white cardamom pods / 肉豆蔻粉，⅛茶勺
- 1 black cardamom pod 草果，1颗
- 2 Tbsp chili oil like Laoganma, substitute up to 1 Tbsp with spicy broad bean paste / 四川辣椒酱，2汤勺
- 1 Tbsp neutral cooking oil like canola or avocado 菜油，15克
- 2 slices ginger 姜，2片
- 1½ qt hot water 开水，1500克
Fish marinade 腌制鱼片
- 1 egg white 蛋清，1颗
- 2 tsp corn starch 淀粉，2茶勺
- 2 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine or dry sherry / vodka 绍兴料酒，10克
- ¼ tsp kosher salt 食用盐，1½克
- 2 tsp minced ginger 姜，2片切末
- 2 tsp minced garlic 蒜，2颗切末
- 1 scallion chopped 小葱，1根切碎
- ¼ c cilantro optional, replace with another scallion
- 1 Tbsp chopped red chilies optional 剁椒，1汤勺（可无）
- 2 Tbsp neutral cooking oil 菜油，45克
- 2 Tbsp chili oil like oil drained from Laoganma chili oil, liquid only -- or substitute more neutral cooking oil 辣椒油，15克
Prepare Spice Broth 准备汤汁
- Heat a wok or Dutch oven to low heat, and add the 1 Tbsp oil. Toast the whole dry spices in the oil until fragrant, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes.
- Add the sliced ginger, salt, chili oil, and water. Simmer with the lid on for at least 20 minutes.
Slice and Marinate Fish 准备鱼片
- Cut the fish on the bias into 3mm = ¼" slices, using even pressure and a downward angle.
- Whisk together egg white and corn starch until smooth. When there are no more lumps, whisk in Shaoxing cooking wine and salt
- Add the sliced fish fillet into the egg white mixture. Using your fingers, gently stir continuously in one direction until the fish fully absorbs the liquid.
- Marinate for 15 minutes.
Cook the Components
- Remove the whole spices from the broth, and bring it to a rolling boil on high heat. Reserve and chop the whole red chilies, discarding the remaining spices.
- If using any sturdier vegetables, scald them in the spice broth until 80% done but still crisp. Remove the vegetables from the broth and arrange in the bottom of the serving bowl. Add any delicate vegetables that don't need to be cooked.
- Bring the broth back up to a rolling boil. Slide the slices of fish into the broth, one at a time to prevent clumping but working quickly. After the last piece of fish has been added, boil for an additional 1 minute or until fish is just cooked. Arrange the fish on top of the vegetable layer.
- Bring the broth up to a rolling boil again. Skim out any solids or scum. Pour the boiling broth into the serving bowl atop the fish and vegetables.
- On medium-low heat, heat the neutral and chili oils in a saucepan until shimmering but not smoking.
- Sprinkle the ginger, garlic, scallion, cilantro, and chopped red peppers on top of the fish layer. Carefully pour the hot oil on top of the raw aromatics; it should sizzle.
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