Water Boiled Fish – A Lesson In Translation

Boiled Water Fish

The translated name of this dish, “Water Boiled Fish” sure doesn’t sound all that interesting; in fact, it sounds down right boring and bland. Surely, something is lost in translation here because it is nowhere near boring. It is the antithesis of boring. Instead, it is a firecracker of heat that has layers and layers of flavor with contrasting textures of perfectly tender fish complemented by crunchy vegetables. The broth is spicy with a hint of sweet – perfect for pouring over steamed white rice. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

You can’t just walk into any old Chinese restaurant and expect to find this on the menu though. You have to search around to find places that even make Water Boiled Fish. And then you need to do some trial and error to actually find a place that makes it great. I have to give a special thanks to my buddy, Ben Wu, who introduced me to this dish and has helped me hunt down some great renditions. With him in mind, I set out to recreate this little known specialty and recorded the recipe below.

Warning: I don’t know how to say “mise en place” in Mandarin, but when it comes to cooking Asian food, you better get everything in its place before you even think about digging your wok out of the back of the cabinets. Start by getting everything completely chopped and ready in separate bowls. Line up the stocks and spices in the order they will be added. The secret to Asian cooking is building layers of flavor over high heat so it is a complex, fast process.

Also, note that Szechuan peppercorns are not meant for eating – they make for a funny feeling on your tongue, sort of like a spearmint numbness. It is ok to leave them in your serving bowl, just push them aside if they and up on your plate. If you read this last sentence and asked, “plate?” – the answer is, yes, plate. This is not a soup; it is a fish and vegetable dish in a whole lotta spicy broth.



¼ cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp mirin
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp garlic chili sauce
1 Tbsp spicy black bean sauce


½ head of napa cabbage rough chopped
2 cups of bean sprouts
1 cup of loosely broken apart cilantro
Wok Oil
1 zucchini sliced
2 cloves garlic minced
2 Tbsp minced ginger & 10 slices of ginger
¼ cup sliced green onions & (6) 2” inch chopped pieces
1 lb fish fillet (white fish like Cod)
1 Tbsp garlic chili sauce
1 Tbsp spicy black bean sauce
2 cups whole dried red chilies
Szechuan pepper corns
White pepper
1 Tsp Sugar
1 Tbsp Soy Sauce
2 cups of chicken stock & 1 cup of hot water


Marinate the fish in the mixed marinade sauce for 30 minutes. Prepare your serving bowl by putting cabbage, sprouts, and cilantro in it. You are going to put the steaming hot fish/liquid over it just before serving.

Heat wok on medium-high heat and add wok oil. Add the zucchini and cook for 2-3 minutes stirring quickly so it does not burn. Remove zucchini to a separate bowl. Stir in ginger, green onions, and garlic, stirring frequently so the garlic does not burn, about 3 minutes. Remove vegetables and add to zucchini bowl.

Keeping the wok well oiled, add the pat dried fish to the wok (discard the marinade). Fry two minutes on one side then flip and fry two more minutes. Add in the dried chilies and Szechuan peppercorns just after the flip. Using super wok skill – move fish up the side and add garlic pepper sauce and black bean sauce, stir, then add in reserved vegetables (fish is still up on the side of the wok), stir, add a dash of white pepper, the sugar & soy, then stir in stock/water. As stock comes to a boil, move fish down into broth and reduce to lively simmer. Cook for 4 minutes. Remove the fish and put on top of the vegetable mix in the pre-prepared serving bowl.

Boil down broth an additional two minutes then pour boiling broth directly into serving dish covering the fish and vegetables. Resulting dish should have peppers and oil on top with a few veggies, then underneath a mix of fish, sprouts, and cabbage. Use a slotted spoon and chopsticks to serve.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: