Suan Cai Yu: Szechuan Hot and Sour Fish Soup

Suan Cai Yu: Szechuan Hot and Sour Fish Soup is an authentic meal-size spicy Chinese fish soup made from homemade stock.
Suan Cai Yu: Szechuan Hot and Sour Fish Soup

Suan Cai Yu: Szechuan Hot and Sour Fish Soup

By Sue Lau | Palatable Pastime

This is my first time sharing with the blogging group Fish Friday Foodies, where we get together once per month and blog on fish and seafood topics. This month, the topic is “Seafood Stews and Soups of the World.”

Be sure to check out the other Foodie Fish Friday Bloggers this month!

Click on the hop link button to be transported to the other recipes:

For my first event, I have decided to make Suan Cai Yu, which is an authentic meal-sized soup usually made with fish heads for the stock. I have instructions below. You can however, feel free to use prepared fish stock if you choose, but make it from scratch is not that difficult, unless you are squeamish about the fish peeking at you.

To prepare the fish head, it is important to use your kitchen shears to cut out the gills unless it is very fresh (caught it yourself). I bought mine from the fishmonger, a type of salmon from Canada. So I cut out the gills. Doing so is important as they may have soaked up blood which can taint your delicate Asian broth. Splitting the fish head is also important to have it make stock easier. It is not as hard as it looks. Split it with a cleaver, cutting through cartilage with kitchen shears if needed. Cover them with cold water (cold water keeps the stock from clouding, so don’t add hot water!) and I season simply with ginger.

Making fish stock from fish heads (video):

Suan cai yu soup cooking (almost done!)

Suan cai yu soup cooking (almost done!)

The soup itself is authentically made with pickled mustard greens (cai chua). This is to impart the “sour” part of the flavor. You can find this at Asian grocers packed in the refrigerated section. The flavor is a little bit sour like sauerkraut, but it has the flavor of greens, so unlike it as well. It is quite unique. If you have to use something else, I’d probably opt for heavier vinegar and avoid kraut.

For the Shaoxing rice wine, regular rice wine can be substituted, but not the seasoned type used in sushi making. The Pixian doubanjiang paste is a type of hot bean sauce made from broad beans. If the type is not Pixian, it is likely to be made from soybeans, but still can be used. It is generally agreed that the hot bean paste from the Pixian province of China is the best type, as well as being the original. For the ground Szechuan peppercorns, if you grind those yourself, make sure you sift well to filter out any grit from the pepperberries. If it isn’t sifted, it can be annoyingly gritty, like sand from shellfish, and we don’t want that, do we? The balsamic vinegar I used because I was out of Chinese black vinegar- you can use whichever. The Chinese version will have a better flavor, but balsamic will do fine.

The chin chiang is a type of bok choy of sorts, similar to choy sum as well (although choy sum doesn’t have the bulbish part at the bottom) but any kind of small greens will suffice, even chopped pieces of Chinese cabbage if you must.

The resultant soup is sort of spicy, but not overly so. I found it perfect to my tastes, but then again, the heat from your Thai chillies will decide that. I was going to point this for Weight Watchers, but don’t know the points on the fish head so skipped it. Outside of the sesame oil, I doubt anything would suffer heavy penalty.

Suan Cai Yu: Szechuan Hot and Sour Fish Soup #FishFoodieFridays

Suan Cai Yu: Szechuan Hot and Sour Fish Soup

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: moderate
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Suan Cai Yu: Szechuan Hot and Sour Fish Soup


For fish stock:

  • 1 pound fresh fish heads
  • 2 quarts cold water
  • 1 plum-size knob fresh ginger

For soup:

  • 5 cups fish stock (see above)
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1 plum-sized knob fresh ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
  • 1 leek (white and light green parts only), well rinsed and chopped
  • 5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons Pixian douban jiang paste or hot bean paste
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons ground Szechuan peppercorns, sifted
  • 20 ounces cai chua (pickled mustard greens), chopped
  • 8 ounces fresh whole chin chiang, choy sum, or baby bok choy
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped 
  • 5 Thai chillies, stems removed and split lengthwise
  • 1 pound fresh boneless catfish fillets, chopped into chunks
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 5 scallions, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Broth Method:

  1. Remove gills from fish head, split with cleaver and use kitchen shears to finish cutting through the cartilage, if necessary.
  2. Place split fish head in a pan with cut knobs of ginger and cover with cold water.
  3. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer until fish comes apart, one hour or more. 
  4. Strain broth and discard solids.

Soup method:

  1. Place 5 cups broth into soup pot with 3 cups chicken broth. If you have more fish stock, you can use that up to 2 quarts but amend with chicken base for flavor.
  2. Flavor stock with fresh ginger, leek, garlic, doubanjiang paste, soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, and ground Szechuan peppercorns, simmering for 15 minutes.
  3. Add chopped pickled mustard greens, whole pieces of chin chiang (or baby bok choy, etc,), bell pepper and split Thai chillies, simmering about ten minutes or until bok choy is semi-cooked.
  4. Add fish pieces, scallions and sesame oil, simmering without stirring, until fish is opaque and cooked through.
  5. Serve soup garnished with chopped cilantro.

From the kitchen of

Suan Cai Yu: Szechuan Hot and Sour Fish Soup

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20 responses

    • Fish don’t both me really. At least I didn’t have to gut the fish. But even that can be done. You should try playing around with the heads. It’s not that bad, and the resulting fish broth is far superior!

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