Friday, August 31, 2012

Beer fish from Guangxi

If you thought Chinese beer was only for drinking, check this out: fish braised in a chili-laced beer sauce. And guess what... it's even better than it sounds, and it sounds pretty good!

Guangxi is another one of those remote provinces in south-central China that just doesn't get any respect. In fact, I have yet to find a single cookbook that centers on this intriguing cuisine. According to one of my eGullet correspondents, the folks there actually looked at him strangely when he kindly acceded to my plea and asked after a book of Guangxi recipes. 

Part of this has to do with the split personality of this province. The southeastern half is nestled up against the culinary powerhouse known as Guangdong. The eastern area is where the Han Chinese tend to live, where Cantonese is spoken, and where the foods tend toward the gentle flavors and refined cooking methods of that influential right-hand neighbor.
Map courtesy Wiki Commoms

But once you travel elsewhere in the province and head up into the mountains, you start to find yourself in chili country, in lands where the Zhuang minority lives, and in valleys where poverty has given rise to incredible inventiveness and delightful flavors.

It also doesn't hurt that Guangxi's southern neighbor is delectable Vietnam. Just saying.

Guangxi is probably best known for the intensely strange and fantastically beautiful mountains of Guilin in the northeast, but it's worth keeping in mind the old Chinese saying: Guilin shanshui tianxia mei, Yangzhuo shanshui jia Guilin. In other words, "Guilin's landscape is the most beautiful in the world, but Yangshuo's landscape is better than Guilin's!"

Yangshuo just to the south of Guilin is where Beer Fish comes from, and we can see from this dish that Yangshuo has yet another claim to fame: its local dishes.

The main ingredients
Traditionally, Beer Fish is made with a whole or filleted freshwater carp. And the fact that we can't easily buy Asian carp in the U.S. drives me crazy, because these fish have become a real nightmare in such places as the upper Mississippi River system, where they've taken over the ecosystems through a willingness to multiply like rabbits.

Not to say that they aren't tasty -- they are -- but why aren't they marketed? Grass carp, common carp, silver carp... all of these would be more than welcome on my dinner table!

Until the day that someone realizes that there is a gold mine to be had out there, I'll have to do without. But that doesn't mean I'll stop wishing or cease hunting down other good things to eat.

For today's dish, I went with something easy: filleted haddock. A saltwater fish, this isn't even close to carp in texture or taste, but it ended up making me happy nonetheless. It has a firm flesh with a delicate flavor that sits in the background of this dish, allowing the gorgeous spicy sauce to take center stage.

Tomatoes and aromatics
Like Guangxi's neighbor on the left, tomatoes figure in some of the local dishes like this one. I don't really know why tomatoes are so beloved here, but they are, and they do add a lovely tang and fiery color to whatever they are matched with, so I am not complaining. Besides, this is the time of year when tomatoes are at their best, so carpe diem and all that.

Unlike Guizhou's Chicken Slices with Tomatoes, though, Beer Fish is decidedly spicy. It gets its kick from two sources: fresh chili peppers and the local hot sauce. Plus, it has a healthy handful of julienned ginger and sliced garlic to send your taste buds over the moon.

Beer is the final important ingredient, and it adds a malty sweet undercurrent to the sauce. (You will have at least half a bottle left for dinner, if you are willing to wait.)

Try this with just about any fish or seafood you like; it truly is a versatile sauce. It would be terrific with something like salmon or shrimp or even scallops.
Add tomatoes to the wok

The only thing you need to keep an eye on is the cooking time and the fragility of the fish. (Vegans could even use bean curd here... I don't predict any disappointment at all.)

Beer fish 
Pijiu yu  啤酒魚  
Serves 4 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 as a main dish

8 to 10 ounces fish fillets, or a 1-pound whole fish
Regular flour
Peanut or vegetable oil

1 tablespoon julienned ginger
5 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 or more fresh chili peppers, sliced into thin rounds
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 cup beer
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon or more Guilin style chili paste, optional
Brown the fish
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped
Handful of cilantro, trimmed and chopped

1. Rinse the fillets and pat dry. Cut the fillets into largish pieces, about 2-inch squares.  (If you are using a whole fish, clean, gut, scale, and remove the gills from the fish, then rinse and pat dry. Cut a few slashes into the thickest part of the fish on its sides.) Toss the fish in flour until it is well coated.

2. Heat about 6 tablespoons of oil in your wok over medium high until the oil starts to shimmer. Add the fish and fry it on one side until the flour is golden brown, then flip the fish over. (Use half an inch or more of oil if you are frying a whole fish.) When the fish is browned and crispy, remove it to a serving platter and keep it warm.

Sample hot sauce
3. Add enough oil to the wok so that you have a total of about 3 tablespoons in there. Heat the wok again over medium high and add the ginger, garlic, and chili peppers. Fry them until the ginger starts to brown, and then add the tomatoes. Turn the heat up to high and cook these quickly to reduce the sauce without overcooking the tomatoes. Add the beer when most of the tomato juice has evaporated, along with the soy sauce and chili sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Lower the heat to medium high. Add the fish to the wok and cook it gently, swirling the wok around rather than stirring the fish to keep it from breaking apart. Gently turn the fish over and cook until the fish is heated through. Plate the fish and sprinkle with the cilantro.


  1. The locals would never use Tsingtao beer! Only Guilin's local brew - Liquan.

    And they only use filleted dish for the foreigners.

    1. Well, yeah. But we all don't have the incredible luck to live near Guiin like you, my friend!

  2. I'm going to Guilin, Yangshuo. and around some of the minority areas the week after next for 9 days, and will get to have the most authentic version of this possible! Any other special dishes I should look out for? Will appreciate any timely feedback. Thanks.

    1. Hi there. I answered this under the entry for Popcorn Chicken. Let me know if you have any further questions. Enjoy your trip!

  3. I was just looking up Guilin Beer. I had it warm on a cruise near Guilin and have been looking for it ever since. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to make this with some other Beer but I remember Guilin Beer as being the best beer I even had even though it was served warm.

    1. Sounds delicious! I think any lager or Pilsner would work well here. Let me know if you think differently. (Sorry it took so long to respond. I've been having trouble with comment notification.)