The mouth-numbing bite of Sichuan spices is initially a little discomforting, but hopelessly addicting once your tastebuds have adapted to the burn. I grew up initially afraid of spicy food, asking for mild options at every restaurant, watchful for stray jalapenos in every dish; now, however, I’m a spice fiend! La jiao jiang, gochujang, sriracha, sambal oelek… bring it on. I remember specifically the meal at which this transition happened. One of the most popular Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia, where I went to school, was a Sichuan restaurant called Han Dynasty. A friend and I went there for dinner, not realizing that on their spiciness scale (0-10) there were few options on the menu any lower than a 5. It seemed downright stupid to have trekked off campus during midterm season to have a meal entirely composed of white rice, so I cautiously chose the mildest sounding options.
For our appetizer, wontons arrived drenched with bright red chili oil, glistening like a warning of the sweaty meal about to ensue. The color stained the pale wonton skins and our tingling lips orange; tiny amounts of stray oil dripping from our chopsticks were enough to fully pigment the heaps of white rice necessary to provide respite from the heat. Eggplant with spicy garlic sauce sounded tame enough, but eggplant is one of those vegetables that slurps up flavor greedily when sautéed and releases it violently when tasted. And mapo tofu was really just not a wise choice for a novice. Following this meal, we had to appease our stinging mouths with ice cream sundaes, which seemed almost bland after the dramatic tastes we had just experienced. Surprisingly, however, this initiation by fire converted me completely to a complicated love affair with all things spicy.
There are few things now that I wouldn’t hesitate to add a good dose of chili flakes to. I particularly love this dish – shui zhu yu – because fish and cabbage make the perfect blank slate to pile with intense, penetrating flavors. Tofu, though not present in all versions of shui zhu yu, serves the same purpose. The broth is a bit too strong to have more than a few spoonfuls (although tougher individuals may disagree), but can be saved and reused for the next time. I have made this three times in one weekend, the spice level hotter and stronger each time…
Han Dynasty, what did you unleash?
Shui Zhu Yu Recipe (serves 2)
- 3/4 lb (1 fillet) of sea bass
- 2 tbsp of rice wine
- 1/2 tsp of rice vinegar
- 1 tsp of salt
- 6 oz of firm tofu, sliced
- 1 cup of sliced cabbage leaves
- 1 cup of bean sprouts
- 3 scallions, sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
- 2 shiitake mushrooms
- 1 tbsp of doubanjiang
- 1 tbsp of fermented black soybeans, douchi
- 1 tsp of chili flakes
- 1 tsp of Sichuan hong you (chili oil), or to taste
- 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 star anise
- 1 tsp five spice powder
- 1 very small piece of dried Chinese licorice (cam thao), optional
- 10-12 whole dried red chili peppers
- 2-3 cups of water
- Cilantro, for garnishing
Prep work: Slice the sea bass fillet into even bite size chunks. Mix the rice wine, rice vinegar, and salt and set aside in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare other ingredients: slice the scallions, garlic, ginger, cabbage, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, etc.
Aromatics, flavorings, and vegetables: Heat vegetable or canola oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Saute half of the scallions (white and light green parts only; reserve the darker green parts for garnish), along with all the ginger, garlic, and shiitake mushrooms until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add in the Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, five spice powder, and cam thao next, stir frying for another 30 seconds. Then add in the spicy pastes and oils - doubanjiang, dou chi, chili flakes, chili oil, stirring to combine well. When all is combined and very fragrant, add in the vegetables - cabbage leaves and bean sprouts. Stir fry over medium heat until the cabbage leaves are mostly wilted. Add in 2-3 cups of water. Taste for seasoning; add salt as needed. If there is too much bitterness in the soup from cam thao (cam thao is pretty strong), add some sugar; alternatively, if your rice wine is sweet (mirin is very sweet), adding the fish later will probably help. Add 10-12 chili peppers (or to your taste) and wait for the soup base to come to a gentle simmer. At this point, lower the heat to medium low.
Tofu and fish: Add the tofu and fish to the gently simmering water, along with a splash of the marinade if you think that the soup needs any more sweetness. Cover and let cook on medium low heat for 5-8 minutes, or until the fish is white all the way through and very tender. Fish will become dry and chewy if overcooked.
Serve: with plenty of rice, garnished with the remaining dark green scallion portions and cilantro (optional).