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.
Since the 1980s, Laifeng fish has been a popular dish in Chongqing Jianghu cuisine. Tai'an fish, a newcomer to Jianghu cuisine, has always strived for excellence. In addition, other Chongqing dishes, such as chicken with chili peppers, spring fish, and Mao Xue Wang, have also been successful in the competitive market. In Jianghu cuisine, rival factions have formed a fierce competition, where "different roles take the stage one after the other."
The story of the Youting fish and the thousands of residents living off it in Youtin Town for decades begins in a time of intense competition. However, the origin of the dish can be traced back to the reign of Emperor Xianfeng of the Qing Dynasty.
At that time, Youting Town played a vital role in Chengdu-Chongqing transportation as the only route linking Chongqing in one direction with Chengdu in the other. There was always a need for tea and food for travelers from the south to the north. The development of food culture is always closely related to folk customs and historical developments. The locals are dependent on what they can find in their local environment, whether it is a mountain, a river, or whatever else they depend on.
Taking advantage of the business opportunity, the locals in Youting opened small eateries along the roadside, serving the local carp dish. The fish was so delicious after being seasoned and stewed that it was highly popular among diners. Local people have passed down this dish from one generation to another, and it has become irreplaceable in their hearts. Therefore, it was named after the town. Today, the saying "carp fish can never grow up in Youting" is still prevalent, which means this specialty is very popular.
Recipes and cooking methods have evolved with migrations since the 1980s, and by the late 1990s, Youting fish had spread throughout Sichuan, Chongqing, and even the whole country.
In February 2014, the traditional cooking methods of Youting fish were listed in the fourth batch of representative items of intangible cultural heritage in Chongqing.
Youting fish still holds a prominent position in Jianghu cuisine today. Located along the main traffic artery and near the Chengdu-Chongqing Expressway exit ramp, Youting Fish Street is bustling with business. When the peak period is in full swing, some well-known restaurants may serve thousands of kilograms of carp fish per day.
"Top food ingredients often need only the simplest preparation." This principle is vividly illustrated in Chen Qinghe's explanation of how to cook Youting fish, who is the founder of Chen's Youting Fish.
High-quality ingredients are the foundation of an excellent meal, and Mr. Chen applied this principle to his restaurant. The first step in cooking Youting fish is to choose fish that have been fed grains and bean powder. Then, clean the fish by removing the scales and gills. Besides, chefs usually make several cuts on the back of the large ones to ensure that they absorb the marinade better.
During that time, carp fish encounter condiments such as salt, ginger, green onion, and cooking wine for the first time. It is common for skilled chefs to rub seasonings into the fish with their hands. In Chongqing Jianghu Cuisine, seasonings are typically added to hot oil to warm it up while people cook. The unique aroma and flavor are released when Sichuan pepper, garlic, and other seasonings hit hot oil in a shaking wok. It is one of the secret recipes Mr. Chen will never divulge about this mysterious seasoning.
Next, add some stock or water to the fried condiments, when it is the best time to put the carp fish into the wok. Ten minutes later, they have their second close contact with the seasonings, such as cooking wine, green onion, celery, and other fixings. During this period, control of the heat is of the utmost importance for chefs. A classic way of cooking all dishes is to bring the stock to a simmer. At about 80% done, the fish is still moist and tender so that it can be removed from the heat. Make sure you use chicken powder or gourmet powder to serve the fish for a savory flavor before plating it. A little white sugar will also enhance the carp fish's flavor and mellowness, providing diners with some while experiencing the spiciness, according to Mr. Chen.
Chefs sprinkle crushed peanuts and sesame seeds on the fish for an umami crunch. A dash of rice wine and dry pepper can also add flavor. It is also necessary to make a special oil. Stir-fry the Sichuan pepper, garlic, and ginger until they are crisp and the oil is fragrant when the oil is hot but not yet smoking. The final step is to pour hot oil over the fish in a bowl.
Compared to the growth and decline of the town, the 30-year existence of Youting fish seems short. Nevertheless, it is enough for everyone in Youting to feel nostalgic about their hometown when tasting this dish. There are not only flavors of Youting fish involved, but also memories of mountains, water, wind, sunshine, time, and people.
Chinese script: Yang Siqi
Tutored by: Jing Xi
Translation: Zhu Ziying
Tutored by: Liu Yuting Wei Jingjun Hu Wei
Voice-over: Deng Qiqi
Tutored by: Ren Yi