When I first began learning about Chinese cuisine, I found that food names could be confusing.
The poetically named “ants climbing a tree,” for example, does not involve insects. It’s a noodle dish sauced with minced pork or beef that, if you squint hard enough or have an especially vivid food imagination, might look like tiny ants marching along strands of pasta.
Nor are “lion’s head meatballs,” a classic pork and cabbage stew from eastern China, made from anything that roars.
Then there’s “water-boiled fish,” a popular dish from China’s Sichuan province.
It sounds innocuous enough, right? You’d think “boiled fish” might be something to serve with mushy peas, or at least something you’d order to temper the heat of other spicy plates.
But like many Sichuan dishes, this innocent-seeming seafood specialty can be a bowl of fire.
What is Sichuan Water-Boiled Fish?
Known in Mandarin as shui zhu yu, Sichuan water-boiled fish typically comes to your table in an oversized soup bowl, with fish filets (or sometimes a whole fish) floating in a fire-engine-red broth, swimming with Sichuan peppercorns.
It’s not a soup, so while chili heads might slurp up some of the fiery broth, you’re meant to fish the fish out of the stock.
Describing the “water-boiled” cooking technique, Sichuan food authority Fuchsia Dunlop writes in her cookbook, Land of Plenty, that this “sensationally hot” preparation is “based on lashings of chili bean sauce and finished off with a sizzling pile of ground chiles and lip-tingling Sichuan pepper.”
Water-Boiled Fish at New Spicy Chili
New Spicy Chili Restaurant (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
When my husband Alan and I ordered the water-boiled fish at Richmond’s New Spicy Chili Restaurant (160 – 4200 No. 3 Road), where the colorful photo-filled menu calls the dish “No. 83, Tilapia fish with spicy sauce” ($35.98), the nearly overflowing bowl that arrived on our table certainly looked fiery.
Scooping out the fish at New Spicy Chili Restaurant (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
With a mound of cilantro-topped fish filets in the center, and cabbage leaves and bean sprouts floating below, the broth was thick with chili peppers. I scooped a slice of fish from the cauldron and cautiously took a bite. The flaky fish had the distinctive flavour the Sichuanese call mala – the pleasantly mouth-numbing tingle of Sichuan peppercorns (ma), slightly muting the hot pepper heat from the chilies (la).
Alan and I both love spicy food and found the dish deliciously addictive, though not sensationally hot. Perhaps our helpful server had asked the kitchen to tone down the spice a notch for our non-Chinese palates? Even with its moderate heat, though, it was an excellent, well-balanced dish.
How to Tame the Fire
Of course, you can ask for your water-boiled fish to be made mild, but really, it needs some heat to get that delectable balance of flavor and fire.
Simple water-boiled dumplings moderate the chili heat (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
So instead, think about complementary dishes that can balance the spice. Plain rice is an obvious pairing, and simple boiled dumplings are another good accompaniment. Many people (including my husband) swear by beer as the perfect coolant.
Everything’s Better with Bacon
At New Spicy Chili, we paired our fish with several dishes ranging from mild to moderately hot.
Smoked bacon with bamboo shoots (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
Our favourite was “No. 58, Smoked bacon with bamboo shoots” ($18.99), which our server told us the kitchen cured in-house. The smoky meat was stir-fried with crisp slices of fresh bamboo shoots and enough chilies and Sichuan peppercorns to give it that can’t-stop-eating-it-even-though-it’s-hot mala flavour.
(And when we happened to walk through the parking lot behind the restaurant, past the open door to the kitchen, we did indeed spot slabs of curing meat hanging from the ceiling.)
Then We Ate a Sponge
“Sponge cucumber” with dried shrimp (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
We also tried “No. 133, Dried shrimps with sponge cucumber” ($15.99), because we had no idea what “sponge cucumber” could be. Our server struggled with an English explanation – “a vegetable, like a cucumber and like a sponge” – but she assured us that it was good.
It turned out to be a luffa (or loofah), which in its uncooked state looks like an English cucumber with long ridges down its dark green skin. It tasted mildly cucumber-like with hits of salt from the dried shrimp.
Though its texture was oddly spongy, the pale green vegetable did balance the heat of the fish and pork dishes. Besides, it’s not every day that we get to eat a sponge.
Where Else to Get Your Fish Fix
In addition to New Spicy Chili, Richmond has several restaurants serving Sichuan-style water-boiled fish.
Lee Man, a local Chinese food expert and a judge for the annual Chinese Restaurant Awards, recommends the water-boiled fish at Golden Szechuan, a preparation he says is “always reliable and solid.”
Another local Asian food aficionado, Fernando Medrano, likes the fish at both New Spicy Chili and Golden Szechuan, as well as at Szechuan Delicious.
In the 2016 Chinese Restaurant Awards, the Diners’ Choice vote for best Sichuan water-boiled fish went to New Spicy Chili, while the Social Media panel chose the version of this dish at Tian Shi Fu Restaurant (8251 Alexandra Rd.).
Clearly, we have more bowls of this fiery red, but innocuously-named, seafood to sample.
Do you have favourite places to eat water-boiled fish in Richmond? Or other tips for managing chili heat? Leave a comment and let us know.