鱼香肉丝 “fish-flavored, but not fish”

I first arrived in China–way back in the 90s–just in time for eggplant season.

As I have discussed at some legth, that was a time when produce chains consisted of a guy with a truck, so when (local) eggplant season hit, baby you knew it, mostly because you were eating one hell of a lot of eggplants.

Luckily, I never got tired of eggplants–cooked in Shandong style with star anise and sugar, or in the Sichuan style called yuxiang.

Now yuxiang 鱼香 literally means “fish taste,” which is a mystery because this style of cooking has neither fish, nor fish taste. Nor is it a way of serving fish. In fact there is no cooking method in existence that has less to do with fish than yuxiang. So simply, what the hell?

Now in the two years when I was eating this “Sichuan” dish in Shandong, I was eating something that was already pretty acclimatized to northern tastes–goopy and fairly sweet, with only a slight spice in the background. This was true for eggplant, which is first deep-fried, or the most common form of the dish, yuxiang pork 鱼香肉丝 –thin strips of pork, fried in the same sauce with other thin strips–carrots, lettuce heart (青笋), bamboo, etc.

The Sichuan (aka real) version of the dish is very different. It starts with an intense burst of pickled ginger and pickled red peppers, which are chopped into a paste and fried with garlic. To this, add chopped strips of your favorite vegetable–a good rule of thumb is one crispy and one tasty–so bamboo plus shitake mushrooms, or carrots plus wood ear. The meat needs to be prepared beforehand by chopping super thin, basting in onion, cooking wine, ginger, white pepper, and corn starch, and then a quick dunk in hot oil. It sounds like some work, but the texture is exquisite. The meat gets tossed in with the vegetables, fried around, and finally finished off with a quick few spoons of vinegar, sugar and corn starch. The version I had in Shandong was all sugar and starch, but in Sichuan, these are just an accent. The difference is night and day.

Like every dish I learned, part of the education was going around and trying the same dish at different places. And so, dear readers, I present to you the parade of (yuxiang) pork!

teacher’s model version
my first try
restaurant in Chengdu (Sichuan style).

Note the red peppers. Because they’re cut too large, they don’t properly flavor the sauce, which comes out looking a little anemic.
restaurant in Jinan (northern style)

No worries about how the peppers are cut–because there aren’t any! I’m guessing bottled sauce for this one.

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