Chengdu Challenge #12: Shui Zhu Beef (or Fish) (Shui Zhu Niu Rou)

shui zhu

A Sichuan Outlaw~~

Shui zhu, or “water-boiled” dishes, may be Sichuan’s most notorious food—feared and loved in equal measure. Shui zhu’s reputation as a dish for the daring precedes it. But those brave enough to dip into its sea of mala—chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorn—to fish out a piece of buttery soft beef (or pork, or fish) are rewarded with the realization that shui zhu is not nearly as lethal as its reputation.

It was a shocking sight the first time I saw Chef Qing Qing make shui zhu beef at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. He knew it was, and he put in a performance worthy  of the bad guy in a classic Western movie, piling on the pain with a sinister grin—more and more chili bean paste (douban jiang), dried red chili peppers and Sichuan pepper—until it seemed the gunslinger would surely win and the clients I had brought to the cooking class would surely run for their lives.

First he made the crowning glory of the dish, scorching literally dozens of small red chili peppers and heaping spoonfuls of Sichuan peppercorns in a wok until nose-tinglingly fragrant. Out they came to a cutting board, where he proceeded to mince them into a heap of hotness, the giant cleaver rocking back and forth between his hands gripping it at either end.

shui zhu

Partially scorched chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns deliver authentic mala burn.

shui zhu

The hardest part of this easy recipe is mincing the chili and Sichuan peppers.

He then wokked some mild green vegetables—celery and scallion strips—as the “bed” of the dish and put them in a large bowl. Next came the part that gives shui zhu—literally “water-boiled”—its misnomer. He boiled some stock with a generous helping of douban jiang before adding the thin slices of beef to the broth, cooking them just until done and adding it all to the waiting bowl.

shui zhu

I snuck in some haricot vert on this test because we like extra vegetables; I would have done better just doubling the celery or using bean sprouts.

In the final step, the outlaw chef dumped the minced peppers and peppercorns onto the top of the bowl and doused it with a cup of heated cooking oil, sending the mala mixture into a sizzling frenzy and further toasting it to give it that incomparably Sichuan scorched chili taste.

shui zhu

The crowning touch of hot oil…

shui zhu

…sends the mala into a sizzling frenzy.

Then he invited us to taste it.

I gingerly dipped my chopsticks into the fiery broth to retrieve a piece of tender, melting beef and prepared myself for the worst, even though I love mala.

But just as in the classic Westerns, the bad guy turned out to have a heart of gold, and shui zhu turned out to be just the right amount of spicy, tingly, thrilling hot.

Oh, yeah. Shui zhu is notorious. But like the Doc Holliday* of Sichuan food, it doesn’t have to come out guns a-blazing; its reputation alone guarantees its outlaw allure.

shui zhu

Use this much or more—seeds and all—for real shui zhu.

Further notes on shui zhu:
  • Shui zhu dishes go by many translations in Sichuan restaurants in the U.S.: water-cooked, beef in spicy broth, fish in red soup, etc. My personal favorite, as spotted in Seattle: Swimming Fire Fish. If in doubt, ask if it’s shui zhu (“shway ju”).
  • You can make this recipe with good quality beef, pork loin, or mild white fish. One of my favorite renditions is shui zhu yu (fish) made with cod and soft, Chinese-style tofu. Whichever protein you use, do not overcook it, as meltingly tender texture is the goal.
  • The kind of chili pepper you use is all-important to the heat level. In Sichuan, they use a medium-hot, 1- to 2-inch-long pepper such as a facing heaven chili (which you can buy in our SHOP). That way they can pile on the chilies without piling on the pain. In Chinese markets in the U.S., look for packages of whole chili peppers labeled Sichuan, or a similar chili from a different region. You can also use Korean red peppers or what Mexican markets sell as chilies Japones. Do not use dried Thai chilies unless you want to blow your head off.
  • The finishing bath in hot oil is a must. Heat until hot, but not smoking. I find that 1/3 cup is enough for authenticity, but you can use more for even more authenticity.
  • Do not spoon the oily broth onto your dish. Do as the Sichuanese do and pluck the meat and vegetables out of the killer broth.

(*An Old West gambler and gunfighter, who may or may not be an ancestor of mine…)

Chengdu Challenge #12: Shui Zhu Beef (Shui Zhu Niu Rou)
Adapted from Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, published in China in 2010 by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association.
  • 2 dozen (or more) dried red chili peppers, preferably from Sichuan
  • 2 teaspoons (or more) Sichuan peppercorns
  • ¾ pound (340 grams) high-quality beef such as rib-eye or top sirloin cut in thin slices
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 6 to 8 celery stalks, cut into thin strips 3 inches x ¼ inch, leaves set aside for garnish
  • 6 to 8 scallions (or baby leeks), cut into thin strips
  • ⅓ cup peanut or canola oil
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons Pixian douban jiang (chili bean paste)
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  1. Heat wok until hot. Add 1 tablespoon oil and lower heat. When oil is just hot, add whole chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and toss and toast until partially browned and super fragrant. Be careful not to burn them. Remove to a cutting board to cool off, then mince with a knife into small flakes.
  2. In a bowl, mix the beef slices with the 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine, ½ teaspoon salt and the cornstarch mixture.
  3. Wipe out wok, return to heat until just starting to smoke, add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until hot. Add celery and scallion strips and stir-fry until celery is beginning to soften and scallions are beginning to brown and caramelize. Salt and remove to a large serving bowl.
  4. In a small saucepan, heat ⅓ cup oil until hot, but not smoking, about 250° to 275° F. Let it heat up slowly while you finish the dish.
  5. Wipe out wok, heat until hot and add the stock, douban jiang, soy sauce and Shaoxing wine. Bring to a boil and add marinated beef. Lower heat and gently simmer beef until just done. Pour the entire contents on top of the waiting bowl of vegetables.
  6. Top the meat with the minced chilies and Sichuan pepper. Do not stir. Carefully pour the hot oil over the chilies and watch them sizzle. Garnish with celery leaves and serve.

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29 Responses

  1. Christine says:

    Hi! I am currently living in Chengdu and trying to learn how to cook Sichuan food. There are so many names of dishes I love but do not know the translation to yet (I am slowly learning Chinese). I actually just found this book on Taobao and am ordering it as a souvenir I know I’ll treasure for years to come. Thank you for you beautiful writing and informative posts! I can’t wait to see the next one! 再见!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Christine. Thanks so much for the kind note. I’m jealous of your living in Chengdu. I always have so much to eat there in so little time. I’d love to hear back about your own experiences with the cookbook. Good luck!

  2. Is this very different from the soup base used for 麻辣鍋? It seems similar, but less complicated, and I think they often /look/ similar on the table. I know both made me drool in anticipation of the tasty, tasty pain…

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Keili,
      Shui zhu broth and mala hotpot do look similar, and do have similar ingredients. But as you guessed, hotpot has a lot more going on in the broth. I’ll tackle The Cookbook’s hotpot recipe soon! Thanks for your note.

  3. OK. You have done it. A dish that has replaced mapu tofu as my new favorite. (Something I never thought would happen). I made this Sat night with friends and the complexity and depth of flavor was nothing short of amazing. I cannot even begin to describe how good this dish was. Everyone lapped it up like we hadn’t eaten in days! BTW – I think this would be unbelievable with fish. Going to try it soon and will let you know. Thanks again Taylor for the great new recipe. Keep up the good work!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Jim,
      I feel like I should pay you, since you’re by far my best recipe tester. But since I don’t get paid to blog, guess I’ll just pay you in “thanks.” I so appreciate your feedback!

  4. Jay says:

    I’ve been pouring over your blog for the past hour and every dish here looks amazing! This specific one reminds me of the soups they sold in Chengdu street restaurants which they brewed up in large pots… obviously it’s a different dish because it’s made differently and the one I had used pig intestines. Luckily I’m in Houston and there is quite a few large markets to get all the ingredients and restaurants if I’m feeling lazy.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you, Jay! I’m glad it reminds you of Chengdu. I love those street restaurants with the stews/braises and the cold dishes. Street dining at its best! You’re lucky to have the great Chinese supermarkets in Houston. As for restaurants, have you tried Mala Sichuan Bistro? I hear it is fantastic, and I’ve been in touch with the lovely owners.

  5. james says:

    Hi, love reading this blog, can’t wait to try this recipe!
    just one question, the celery, is it Chinese celery?
    thanks in advance

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Yes, preferably Chinese celery, but the Western kind is also great in it. I should also mention that people often add bean sprouts to this dish for a little more crunch. Hope you enjoy it, and thanks so much for writing!

  6. Mike says:

    Hi, I lived in Leshan south of Chengdu for a year and couldn’t believe how incredible the food was. I actually feel homesick reading these recipes! My friend’s father made the best Shui Zhu Niu Rou I have ever had and I can’t wait to try your recipe to help cure my home sickness. Do you possibly have a recipe for Malatang and/or Dou Fu Nao?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Mike. It must have been very interesting to live in Leshan. I’m sure they have their own specialties as well. The SHIC’s cookbook has several recipes for mala hotpot, so I’ll try to do that soon. It unfortunately does not have doufu nao. I wish it did! I hope the shui zhu beef satisfies your craving. Thanks for writing!

  7. Mike says:

    Hi Taylor,

    After my friends and I had finished enjoying this Shui Zhu Niu Rou, I kept the soup by placing it in a plastic container and freezing it. The other day, I placed the frozen contents into a pot, added an extra handful of dried chilli and hua Jiao, and 2 cups of chicken stock to make a pretty darn good hot pot. After this, the usual rules of hot pot ingredients apply: throw in anything and everything that might seem like a good idea… beef, bacon, lamb, cauliflower, broccoli, potato, fish, mushroom, cabbage, tofu, beans, spring onion, leek, pumpkin, boiled egg, endless etc!

    Reusing the Shui Zhu Niu Rou soup is probably considered cheating, but it tasted like authentic huo guo, and I’m all for a quick win 🙂

    And, of course, the sesame oil, garlic and coriander dipping tray is a must!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Mike,

      That is a great short-cut to hotpot! Two dishes in one. And, in fact, the recipes for shui zhu broth and hotpot are similar, so why not? Thanks for sharing with us. I’m trying that next time…

  8. Spike says:

    When my favorite Sichuan closed up here in Atlanta, I had to learn this dish – it’s my favorite and hard to come by, even in a restaurant crazy town like mine. This was my third recipe and the clear winner. So good I made it two days in a row. Wish I could post a pic, look forward to trying other things on the blog. Also saves me a 20 mile trek out to the burbs!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks, Spike! I test these recipes several times before I publish them, but it’s always reassuring to hear that they work for other people. I too wish you could post a photo. I don’t know why that’s not an option in comments.

      Are you referring perhaps to Gu’s Bistro in Atlanta? I love that restaurant! I sure hope they reopen…

  9. David says:

    I just got an intense desire to make this dish again. This is one of my faves that you’ve posted! Delf’s recipe does not have the finishing touch of putting the peppers on top and pouring the hot oil over it, but imo this was the best part of the dish after the hot, cool/numbing flavor of the beef! I especially enjoyed when my wife jumped a little as the chiles started loudly sizzling 😀

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Great visual! Thanks a lot for letting me know. You remind me that it’s time to make it again myself. Have you tried it with fish fillets?

  10. Molly says:

    You are my hero.

  11. Molly says:

    I love this website. I lived in Sichuan for two years and there’s been a whole in my heart ever since. Your recipes help fill the void just a little bit.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Awww, thanks. I always love hearing from fellow lovers of Chengdu/Sichuan. Making the food can take you back!

  12. Jon says:

    Hi Taylor –

    I lived in Nashville for a few years and while I’ll always love the “Meat & Threes”, Princes & Hattie B’s hot chicken and some of the best BBQ in the world that I had there, it was discovering the worldliness of the cuisines Nashville had to offer as well. There were many great Asian markets and restaurants to visit – Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and of course Chinese. I often enjoyed going to Lucky Bamboo for a particular dish they called ” Sichuan Soupy Style Entree” with your choice of fish, beef or shrimp. Have you been to this restaurant and do you think Shui Zhu is equivalent? The first time I had this dish there, it didn’t have too many dried chilies, but boy did it have the Sichuan peppercorns. Subsequently the ratio of chilies increased. The dish was also – as the name suggests – much more soupy/had more broth than your recipe for Shui Zhu calls for. But it otherwise looks and I’m sure might taste very similar. Can’t wait to make it on my own. Thanks for your informative and intriguing site!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Jon,
      I do indeed know Lucky Bamboo. Here is the piece I wrote for The Tennessean when it first opened:
      And you are correct that their “Soupy Style” dishes are their version of shui zhu dishes. I particularly liked their version with fish and soft tofu. When they first opened they had FIVE Sichuan-trained chefs and the food was fantastic. Unfortunately, it was too spicy for the locals and they had to tame it down and let the Sichuan chefs go. 🙁 Not sure how they are preparing the dish now, but I hope this recipe will scratch your itch for it. Thanks for writing!

  13. Mike Spence says:

    Hi Taylor, thanks to your recipe for shui zhu niu rou I received the single greatest compliment I think a chef could ever be given. I recently had some friends from Chengdu visit me in New Zealand for 2 weeks. Halfway through their stay here I thought they might be craving some Sichuan food so, in the absence of huoguo ingredients, I decided to cook shui zhu niu rou. What I forgot to consider was the fact that they were both originally from Leshan and as such are both staunch chihuo! My every move during preparation and cooking was scrutinized thoroughly, and verbal feedback was brutally honest. However, upon presenting the finished product, a stunned silence ensued as they both devoured the dish in a muted frenzy. When its contents were spent and almost everyone was bloated, my friend Li Yan pulled the dish in front of her, wrapped her arms around it in a loving embrace and proceeded to use her spoon to drink all of the of the leftover soup. She took the time remove her face from the dish and look up to say, “Sorry, I need to do this. I need a taste of home.”

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