Sichuan Poached Fish
Chengdu: City of Gastronomy #13
水煮鱼 – Shuǐ Zhǔ Yú
Shui Zhu is a special Sichuan cooking technique that adds a spicy numbing kick to a poached fish. This is one of the most famous fish dishes in Sichuan.
This was my first time trying shui zhu, the special Sichuan cooking technique that’s used on pork, fish, and beef dishes.
Shui zhu means water cooked, but it’s not the verb to boil. The whole idea is to keep the meat tender by not cooking it too much. Instead of frying it in a wok with all the oil and everything, they’re basically boiling it in a broth and pouring the oil on after.
The fish is likely prepped ahead of time – perhaps it sits in a marinade until the dish is ordered. It will take less than a minute to cook it. They’ll boil a stock in a wok and then throw the fish slices in, letting it cook for just a couple minutes. Then they remove it from the heat and top it with a dried chilis and Hua jiao, the Sichuan peppercorn. Finally, they’ll pour hot oil on it, which cooks the hot peppers and the Sichuan peppers a little. That’s shui zhu!
Unfortunately, we’re trying the fish version – what I now can say is my least favorite version. I have a love hate relationship with fish in Chengdu.
The main river that runs through Chengdu is the Brocade River, or in Chinese the Jin Jiang. It’s name comes from the decorative woven fabric that is famous here. The Jin Jiang flows south and eventually meets up with the Yangtze. At one time it was one of the most polluted rivers in China, but in 1997 the local government did this big huge clean up project, which they actually won an environmental award for. But perhaps it was too little too late. The river probably does have some fish in it still, but nothing I would be willing to eat. Back in the days when this dish was invented, the waters were clear and the fish were delicious. Nowadays, almost all the fish are farmed. If you want freshwater wild fish, you need to go west up into the mountains. Farmed fish just doesn’t taste as good, but luckily, Sichuan food is incredibly flavourful, so any off-tastes are usually hidden by the hot peppers and numbing peppercorns.
Usually the fish used in this dish is snakehead, carp or catfish – all species that are pretty boney.
Sharp bones stabbing me in the throat aside, the difference between a good shui zhu yu is the broth it’s cooked in.
Where to try Shui Zhu Fish in Chengdu
There are many places that serve this dish. We took the recommendation from the card, but now that I’m a seasoned Chengdu veteran I’d recommend this place:
饕林餐厅 – Tāo lín cāntīng
They have multiple locations in Chengdu, but this location is convenient and is one of the nicer restaurants in Chengdu.
Address: 东升街58号 – 58 Dongsheng Street
Map in China
In Chinese, the dish is 水煮鱼. The cost will be around 80 RMB or $12.
For EVERY DISH featured in the Chengdu: City of Gastronomy Series, you can find my favorite Chengdu place to eat it in my Sichuan Food Guide. The guide has 70 dishes and plenty of food to keep you full while visiting Chengdu, one of the best food cities in the world.