Monday, June 10, 2013

Sichuan classic updated: hot bean sauce fish

One of our favorite places to eat on the outskirts of Taipei was a Sichuan-style place near the little port of Tamsui (Danshui) at the mouth of the river that weaves through the capital. The place was always packed, and almost everyone ordered this specialty of the house.

First, though, we had to take life and death into our hands and decide which fish would end up on our plates, which started out feeling rather grisly, but as time went on it made me more appreciative of the sacrifice that something was making (i.e., the live carp) to feed me.
Look for bright eyes and a fast swimmer with no suspicious fungi or parasites calling it home. But then comes the harder part: figuring out whether it is a boy or girl.

Why? Because we (and everyone else, for that matter) were always hoping to snag a fat one filled with the lovely, tasty, texturally wonderful coral roe (yúzĭ 魚子), rather than packed with a bland sperm sac. The males had what is called “fish white” (yúbái 魚白) in them, which still was edible, but it always felt like a consolation prize.

Frying salmon filets
One time we had settled on the perfect one when another person in our party insisted that we were wrong, that she had honed in on a female jam-packed with roe. She was so definite that we let her decide, and so we ended up with a boy on our plate. Oh, the shame she had to bear.

Those in the know like us would finish up the fish and then send the plate with all of its sauce back to the kitchen for a second round of either regular white bean curd or “red bean curd” (i.e., coagulated blood) quickly braised in all of those delicious leftover flavors, and that would be the point at which we’d scoop up as much as we felt we could get away with onto bowls of freshly steamed rice. At the end of the meal, even saddling us with fish white could be generously forgiven… but never forgotten.

There is probably no fish dish more quintessentially Sichuanese than douban yu, or possibly even more delicious. But it is in serious need of updating, as the traditional way with the ingredients is to use a whole freshwater carp, braise it in the sauce, and then add the bean curd later as a final course.

Sichuan bean sauce + ginger + garlic
I've found a much easier and tasty way to cook this, one that assumes you have little more than 30 minutes from start to finish, and one that will require you prepare only a pot of steamed rice and possibly a side vegetable in order to make this a truly memorable dinner. 

This is traditionally made with a whole fish, but since they are hard at times to hunt down, I've come to rely on salmon filets, which are perfectly tasty here, gorgeous to look at, and firm enough to stand up to a simple braise.

Fish and bean curd in fermented bean sauce
Dòufŭ dòubàn yú  豆腐豆瓣魚
Serves 4

12 ounces (or so) salmon filets, or 1 pound whole fish
¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
Fry the bean sauce
3 green onions, white parts only, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

Bean curd:
1 pound fresh firm bean curd or coagulated pork, chicken, or duck blood
Boiling filtered water, as needed
1 tablespoon sea salt

3 tablespoons hot fermented bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
¼ cup rice lees solids
2 tablespoons rice lees liquid or Shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
¾ cup unsalted stock or filtered water
1½ teaspoons dark vinegar
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons filtered water
½ teaspoon finely ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
3 green onions, green parts only, coarsely chopped

1. Clean and scale the fish, but keep the skin on; pat it very dry. If you are using filets, cut the fish across the grain into strips as wide as you want them. If you are using a whole fish, leave it whole.
Simmer the bean curd

2. Heat a wok over medium-high, add the oil and swirl it around before adding the ginger. As soon as it is fragrant, lower the heat to medium and place the fish skin-side down in the oil. Leave the fish be while it browns, and as soon as it moves easily when you shake the wok, turn the fish over and add the green onion whites and garlic to the oil. When the second side is lightly browned, either scoot everything up the sides of the wok out of the hot oil or remove the fish and aromatics to a plate.

3. While the fish is browning, cut the bean curd or blood into 16 pieces. Place the bean curd or blood into a small saucepan, cover with the boiling water, and add the salt. Bring the water to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the pieces for around 5 minutes and dump out the water.

4. Remove all but about 2 tablespoons oil from the wok. Heat the wok to medium high and add the bean sauce. Stir this for about 30 seconds to get the sauce hot and smelling terrific, and then add the rice lees and liquid (or rice wine), sugar, soy sauce, and stock or water. As it comes to a boil, add the bean curd or blood and simmer these for around 5 to 10 minutes, until they are cooked and flavorsome. Make a well in the center of the wok and return the fish to the bottom of the wok, heat the fish on both sides in the sauce, and swirl in the vinegar; taste and adjust the seasoning. Dribble in the cornstarch slurry, swirl the wok around to mix it in, and then plate the fish and bean curd/blood. Dust the top with the Sichuan peppercorns and green onion leaves and serve immediately.