Fish in Chili Bean Sauce (Pixian Douban Yu)
As you can see in the photo of fish in chili bean sauce, this long, lithe Spanish mackerel didn’t fit on my serving tray. Nor did it fit in the wok; even though I finally wrestled it into the wok, I had to be content to let its steely silver tail pop out from under the tin wok lid. But Fong Chong likes her fish “to have taste,” so we always opt for mackerel over the shorter, easier-to-handle, milder red snapper (the only two fresh whole-fish choices we can count on in landlocked Nashville). But the point is that even without the ideal serving or cooking equipment, it turned out perfectly tasty. Anything with a Sichuan sauce made with Sichuan ingredients has a way of doing that.
The sauce in Pixian douban yu may taste familiar to you even if you’ve never had fish in chili bean sauce, since it uses the typical Sichuan fish seasonings: Pixian chili bean paste, ginger, garlic, scallions and black vinegar. When this combination of seasonings is used with pork, eggplant or other main ingredients, they are then called yu xiang, or fish fragrant, as they are reminiscent of the flavorings for fish—though in no way fishy. But the Sichuanese don’t call this dish yu xiang yu, because, you know, “fish-fragrant fish” would be a tad redundant.
If you’ve never cooked a whole fish before, don’t be intimidated. It’s ok to make mistakes, as you’ll see from my mistakes below. I could have made this dish again to get perfect photos, but I thought these pictures might actually be more instructive—while proving my point that perfection is not required.
In fact, as far as Chinese fish-cookery goes, I messed up on the very first step, which according to the recipe I adapted from Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, is such:
“Kill and clean the fish thoroughly.”
Chinese chefs would never start a dish with a dead fish, of course, but I cook in America. Plus, I don’t want to kill and clean a fish. So, if you’re like me, whatever whole fish you choose, ask the fishmonger to fully gut and clean it, removing the gills and descaling if it has scales, but leaving the head and tail on in the Chinese way.
When I got home from the market, I realized that my almost 2-foot-long fish, weighing in at 2 pounds (about 900 grams), was not going to fit in my 14-inch wok, which measures 17 inches along the inside. But that was just the beginning of my mistakes.
The fishmonger is responsible for the gouge in the flesh, but I forgot to make slits on the sides of the fish for the marinade of Shaoxing wine to seep into the flesh. And, worse, I way underestimated the amount of oil I’d need to fry the fish, which is the first cooking step. You don’t need enough oil to deep-fry, but you do need enough to easily fry each side separately. About a cup of oil is necessary.
After the skin is cooked and beginning to brown and crisp on each side, you remove the fish and make the sauce, then return the fish to braise for a few minutes in the sauce and finish cooking. At this point you need to cover it with a lid, which I could only partially do due to that pesky tail, but it still created enough heat and steam to cook the fish. I occasionally moved the fish tail down into the braising liquid to cook it too. The one good thing about a fish that is too long is that I was able to use its tail as a handle, easily flipping the fish onto each side to cook. You may want to use tongs for that.
The part I got right was the sauce, because I make this sauce a lot for yu xiang eggplant (annoyingly called “eggplant in garlic sauce” in the U.S.). I make quick work of chopping the abundant garlic, ginger and green onions using a small electric chopper (a great time-saver in Chinese cooking).
Stir-fry the aromatics and the Pixian chili bean paste in a generous amount of oil until very fragrant. I used hong you douban, or chili bean paste with oil, since it is a redder color than regular douban jiang, but you can use either. Then add the liquid sauce to the wok, return the fish and braise it until done and beginning to easily flake when you test it with a fork—about 3 to 4 minutes on each side depending on the size of your fish. Remove it to a serving platter (preferably one large enough to hold it) and thicken the sauce with cornstarch before pouring it over the fish.
Once the fish is dressed in the sauce, all mistakes are hidden and forgiven. All that matters in the end is the taste.
- 1 whole fish (trout, mackerel, red snapper or similar), 1½ to 2 pounds, fully cleaned, head and tail retained
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 2 teaspoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) black vinegar
- 2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 cup (or more) canola or peanut oil
- 3 tablespoons Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang)
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped scallion
- 3 scallions, cut in 1-inch-long slivers
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 2 teaspoons water
- Make two or three slits with a knife into the flesh of the fish on each side and pour 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine over and inside the fish. Mix the chicken broth, soy sauce, black vinegar, 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine and sugar together in a bowl or measuring cup.
- Heat wok over a high flame until wisps of heat start to rise. Add 1 cup of oil, or enough to fry the fish, and heat to 400°F. Wipe the fish dry and carefully lower into oil. Fry on one side until the skin is lightly brown and crisp. Carefully flip the fish and fry equally on the other side. Remove fish and hold in reserve.
- Pour off oil, clean the wok and return to heat. When wok is hot, add 4 tablespoons fresh oil and heat over a medium-low flame. Add the chili bean paste, ginger, garlic and 1 tablespoon scallion and stir-fry until fragrant. Add the chicken broth sauce mixture and mix well. Return the fish to the wok, cover it with a lid, and let it braise and steam for about 3 minutes. Carefully flip the fish and let it braise on the other side for 3 minutes or until it is done and the fish easily flakes when tested with a fork. Remove the whole fish to a serving platter.
- Add the scallion slivers and cornstarch mixture to the wok and cook until the sauce is slightly thickened. Pour the sauce over the fish and serve.