I have a feeling this is going to be a long post because I’m about to tell a story.
Growing up, I didn’t eat much spicy food because I didn’t like it. I would loathe if I knew my parents were going to a Szechuan restaurant because then I wouldn’t be able to eat anything except for cold vegetarian dishes and rice. At the time, I also disliked Szechuan food because of the numbing sensation. I would always unluckily bite into a Szechuan peppercorn, which tastes like soap, and still to this day, tastes like soap, and my mouth would go numb, while being on fire too. Needless to say, I was harshly against eating spicy food as a kid.
I didn’t start self-introducing spicy food into my diet until I was in college. I had a seafood soondubu jjigae (Korean seafood tofu stew) late one night and it was so delicious that I moved past the mouth burning sensation and devoured it, along with a lot of rice, since I was a novice.
By the way, chili flakes in Italian food is not considered spicy in my books. Unless, if I ordered the Linguine Misto Mare in Arrabbiata Sauce from Enoteca Vespaio – my favorite restaurant in Austin! I started cooking and experimenting with spicy food at home and moved slowly from there. I was more into Korean spicy flavors than Chinese spicy flavors in college.
It wasn’t until I spent a year and half back in Hong Kong that my addiction for Szechuan food skyrocketed. I was a private preparatory English teacher in Shenzhen and all of my coworkers were from Mainland China and most of them were avid Szechuan foodies. That’s when I started building my super high tolerance to Szechuan chili and peppercorns. We would eat spicy hot pot and Szechuan food almost everyday for lunch. Spicy frog hot pot was a common occurrence as well. I had the best Szechuan food in Shenzhen and it has had an everlasting impression on me. I have been to Szechuan province but that was during my childhood years and I chose to eat McDonald’s there. Hahaha…
So, ever since moving to NYC, just shy of 6.5 years ago, I have been on the quest to find a stellar Szechuan restaurant. I base all restaurants of every cuisine on the authenticity of their signature/classical dishes. And I know, I know, go to Flushing, people say… do you have any idea how far it is to go to Flushing just to eat? Taking the 7 to one of its termini is torture. And the Chinatown bus is just an accident away from happening. No, no, no, I live on Manhattan so there must be somewhere good. If my former colleagues were to ask me if I could find 水煮鱼 (Braised Fish in Chili Oil) in Manhattan, I would laugh in their faces and say that it is served as a variation here. Fish is not served whole nor chopped into chunks in America because “Americans” do not eat fish with bones. The so-called 水煮鱼 (Braised Fish in Chili Oil) in all Manhattan restaurants is always served with fish fillets. Hey, I’m not complaining about the fillets because it makes eating easier but I do miss eating the gelatinous parts of the fins.
水煮鱼 (Braised Fish in Chili Oil) in China is served with whole fish or chopped whole fish and you can choose the type of fish that you want, whether you want a freshwater or saltwater fish. It is also always served in a basin filled with chili broth, chili oil, and scattered with chili peppers. You cannot find that here, although I have had some really great contenders to the real thing at the following restaurants:
- The Bao
- Café China
Other great Szechuan restaurants/hot pot places are:
A Flushing import, Szechuan Mountain House, recently opened up shop on St. Mark’s Place and I was not impressed/severely disappointed with their 水煮鱼 (Braised Fish in Chili Oil). However, they nailed other really good dishes, such as the Fish with Pickles and Fried Cony with Green Chili Peppers.
Okay, so where does all this tie into my recipe? Since I have been constantly unsuccessful in finding a restaurant that would serve me authentic 水煮鱼 (Braised Fish in Chili Oil), I decided to make it at home. This recipe took me FOREVER to get right. It took years of researching and asking all my Szechuan friends (who asked their parents and previous generations for secrets and tips). This recipe results in a paste. You put the paste in a flavorful and seasoned broth to cook whatever protein you prefer but this braising/poaching technique works best with fish and frog, in my opinion. As of today, I have not perfected 水煮鱼 (Braised Fish in Chili Oil) at home yet. I need to continue with my trials and errors, i.e. what exactly is coated around the fish to make it to smooth and tender?… But I have perfected 水煮牛蛙 (Braised Frog in Chili Oil). I have been eating 水煮牛蛙 (Braised Frog in Chili Oil) for the past three weekends at home!
Feel free to adjust the spiciness level to your preference. Below, my recipe is quite spicy – based on a high tolerance to spice.
Yields 1 quart.
For the wet ingredients:
- 100 g bird’s eye chili (aka Thai chili, they also come in green but you want all red; approximately 1 loose pint, stems removed)
- 2 heads garlic
- 125 g ginger
- 50 g sand ginger
- 50 g Chinese fermented black beans
- 250g Szechuan spicy bean paste
For the dried ingredients:
- 12 g star anise
- 40 g Szechuan peppercorns
- 2 g black cardamom
- 1 g green cardamom
- 10 g cinnamon sticks
- 8 g sliced licorice
- 25 g fennel seeds
- 500 mL Shaoxing wine
- 40 g brown sugar
- Grapeseed or neutral oil
Remove all stems from bird’s eye chili peppers. Peel the garlic. Peel the skins off both gingers and cut into pieces, similar in size to that of the garlic cloves. In a food processor, blend all wet ingredients until homogenous.
In a wok, add cooking oil and have heat on medium. Add wet paste, and toss/turn/stir for 10 minutes. Add in Shaoxing wine and brown sugar and incorporate. Then turn heat to medium-low and add in dried ingredients. Toss/turn/stir frequently and cook for 20 minutes.
When paste is cool, place in air-tight containers and into the fridge.