Editor's Note: This article is produced in collaboration with the Chongqing Institute of Foreign Studies as part of a series of ongoing reports exploring the city's abundant resources in intangible cultural heritages.
Laifeng Fish, a delicacy made from braised grass carp in spicy soup, was invented in the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.), while its making techniques developed during the reign of Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty (1662-1722). With a history of 304 years, the dish has been passed down through fourteen generations. A forerunner to Jianghu cuisine, Laifeng Fish is highly popular in Laifeng Town, Bishan District, Chongqing.
Laifeng Posting Station (now Laifeng Town), one of the "Four Famous Posting Stations" along the Chengdu-Chongqing Post Road, has been a land of honey and milk since ancient times. The first volume of Huayang National Chronicle, Records of Bayu, reads: "Blessed with fertile soil and dense forests, Bayu has abounded in various livestock and assets such as silkworms, flax, fish, and salt, which are all fine tributes to the emperor." Such descriptions can also be found in Bishan Chronicle, which records that the "snakehead," "Eryghroculter ilishaeformis," and "black carp" from the Binan River in Laifeng were presented to the emperor as tributes in ancient times.
During the Late Ming and Early Qing Dynasties (1600－1644), many immigrants from the south of the Yangtze River arrived in Laifeng Town. With them came their fish-cooking technique, which later became part of Chongqing cuisine. Its unique culinary technique and palatable taste helped Laifeng Fish earn its reputation as the forerunner of Jianghu cuisine. The culinary technique of other Jianghu dishes, such as Chili Chicken, Tai'an Fish, and Braised Chicken with Taro was modified based on Laifeng Fish.
In the mid-1970s, a group of Jianghu cuisine chefs headed by Deng Yongquan and Tang Zhirong invented the dish based on the traditional cooking skills of Sichuan cuisine. Known for its peppery and spicy taste, as well as its freshness and tenderness, Laifeng Fish was a popular choice among customers. A famous calligrapher once tried the fish and praised it as "extremely fresh and delicious." Since then, a growing number of customers have visited the restaurant specifically to try the fish.
As a delicacy with a history spanning 300 years, it has been declared part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Chongqing, and it certainly deserves its reputation.
In order for this dish to be successful, it is imperative to select the right ingredients, cook the dish properly, and heat it properly. Therefore, only an experienced chef can replicate it perfectly.
Qiu Guocai is among those chefs who excel at cooking Laifeng Fish. In 1986, he opened his first restaurant in Laifeng Town. His apprentice, Long Dajiang, says slicing techniques and heating are very important to cooking this dish. In addition to over 20 ways of slicing, including chopping, slicing, peeling, and so on, there are also more than 30 cooking methods. Nevertheless, the key to delicacy lies in heating. Cooking it too softly will cause the fish to have no taste while overcooking will result in it being overdone.
There is an elaborate process involved in the making of Laifeng Fish. First and foremost, you need to prepare grass carp: clean the fish, cut it into pieces, and marinate it in cooking wine. Then pour some oil into the wok, and wait for it to heap up before adding condiments, including dried chili, pepper, and Pixian bean paste. Stir fry until they are blended. Then add marinated fish pieces with some cooking wine and green Chinese onions, and stir until the Chinese green onion color turns white. Next, add the proper amount of fresh soup. Add salt, sugar, and pepper when the soup comes to a boil. Pay close attention to the fish during the process. Once the fish is medium well done, add soy sauce and vinegar and thicken the soup with starch and water. After scooping the fish onto a plate, sprinkle pepper powder, ginger, scallion, and garlic over it before pouring boiling oil over it. With all these steps, a succulent and toothsome Laifeng Fish is done.
Making Braised Grass Carp in Spicy Soup requires complex and exquisite processes that often take chefs years to master.
As a matter of fact, Laifeng Fish is not just a dish, but also an embodiment of Chongqing's culture and history.
Chinese script: Xu Chi
Tutored by: Jing Xi
Translation: Zhu Ziying
Tutored by: Wen Yinchen Cao Li Ren Yi
Voice-over: Deng Qiqi
Tutored by: Ren Yi