7 March 2011

Fish soup with pickled greens (suan cai yu)

All this fun with chilli-bean paste had to end some time. It's regular and welcome appearance in my fridge, pan and mouth was making me forget the amazing Szechuan food that existed without the wondrous paste. It was time for a go at something else.

This soup with pickled mustard greens and fish looked just the ticket as I had some super fresh mackerel from a trip to Billingsgate in the freezer. I thought an oily and meaty fish would stand up well for itself in a hot and sour soup filled with pickled vegetables.

wonderful pickled mustard greens

Here is a recipe modified from FD.

  • one mackerel per person
  • one pack pickled mustard greens (300g)
  • 1l+ stock
  • pickled chillies (if you have no Szechuan ones use Turkish)
  • Shaoxing wine, ginger, garlic
  • bunch spring onions

Firstly fillet the fish and pour a little salt and Shaoxing wine over the fillets.

Next you need a stock. If you have any fish stock to hand use (or maybe a light chicken one, just?), otherwise make a quick stock with the spines and heads of the fish, some appropriate spices and a pinch of veg stock. I boiled the bones (after smashing open the heads) with Szechuan pepper, a couple of dried chillies, fennel seeds, star anise, false cardamom and a scant handful of dried oyster and porcini mushrooms for some depth. I also added a small amount of Gentleman's Relish, containing as it does mainly anchovy and salt, this is a good short-cut when bolstering a fish stockStrain the stock well - lots of small black particles will have exited the fish heads and entered the liquid. My Le Creuset was a warlock's crock-pot of grey sediment and unidentifiable bits of mackerel matter by this point: muslin recommended.

false cardamom - amomum subulatum

Fry the garlic, chilli and pickled chillies, all cut fine. The yellow-green Turkish chillies that you get with kebabs worked great as they are a bit sour and suitably tangfastic. I asked Fuchsia Dunlop on her blog about the right pickled chillies to use and she was kind enough to reply. The ones in my previous post are a hot mountain chilli. What is needed here is the milder, sour ones - hence me using the Turkish option. I don't know what the authentic version of this soup tastes like and I don't think it matters hugely, but this substitution hits the right notes in my opinion.

Add the strained stock and mustard greens (cut ragged). Add the chopped spring onions. Bring everything to a simmer and leave for five minutes to bring things to a head.

Gently introduce the fish pieces and poach for a few minutes until cooked. FD suggests thickening but I loved the soup thin and broth-like. She also offers an option for chilli lovers of pouring on a layer of hot oil and Szechuan pepper. Now normally I'd be all over that, but the beauty, to me, of this soup lies in its soothing qualities. It is a balm, a tonic, and the pickled chillies give a gentle and suggestive heat that needs no augmentation. I saw somewhere the taste of the false cardamom described as 'antiseptic'. That's apt - initially I was worried by its strident flavour but the menthol notes of the pod assimilated well and added to the overall taste pretty well. You end up with a soothing savoury broth, the sourness of the pickled vegetables, some welcome squeak from the mustard greens and then the dense mackerel, surprisingly delicate in its liquid matrix. It tastes downright healthy this soup in fact.

note the beautiful, miso-like, fine particle cloud of the soup

I suggest eating this with a bowl of brown rice at your elbow.


  1. I agree, I love thin broth-like soups. The Cantonese have a bowl of it with their evening meals, a nice bland foil to start the meal with.

    (you can buy jars of pickled chillis in the shop in chinatown near newport place, near the pagoda.)

  2. This looks very tasty - and I am with you on the issue of thickening. There is not much as soothing as a tasty thin broth. All those tangy pickled flavours must have made pretty lively on the tongue. Tasty.

    Is false cardamom the same as black cardamom? I have some of that from numerous Indian recipes in the cupboard.

  3. You're going Sichuan crazy at the minute.

    Those pickled veg do make great soups. I make one occasionally with tofu and some minced or sliced pork. Definitely feels healthy.

  4. Lizzie, thanks for that tip and as ever thanks for checking. I must get some proper pickled chillies and will endeavour to track those down.

    Grubworm, yeah it was pretty great to be honest. I love gloopy sauces for stuff like tofu but thin seems perfect for this. I -think- it's the same but wouldn't swear to it. Will investigate.

    Joshua, I tend to get hammer stuff that I really get into, I like the feeling of being very into things and think you might as well keep at it whilst enjoying it all... Must try with tofu, the packets of pickled mustard greens are a wonder to have in the cupboard.

  5. Thanks a lot for this very nice recipe. Do you perhaps still know in which book of FD wrote this recipe? I would like to buy her book, but it's important that the suan cai yu recipe is included. (i can only order her books online because our bookstores don't have a lot of english books). thanks a lot in advance

  6. Hi there, it's in her Sichuan one.


  7. Hi, thanks a lot. Ordered the book today, looking forward to cook a lot of Sichuan food in the near future