I know, many of you are wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Fish fragrant? Yu Xiang? Are we talking about a fish dish or a chicken or pheasant dish here?
A ‘fish fragrant’ sauce is a venerable sauce in Sichuan cuisine, and while there are many theories as its origin, the one I believe in is that this spicy sauce was used to mask fish from the province’s rivers that might have gone a little off.
Called yu xiang in Chinese (Sichuan? Not sure which exact dialect), fish fragrant anything is zippy and spicy and tingly from a healthy mix of ginger, scallions, garlic, chiles and Sichuan peppercorns — these are the powerful, memorable, addicting flavors that first seduced me as a child, when I used to eat often at a Hunan restaurant; Hunan cooking uses this sauce, too.
You will often see fish fragrant sauce paired with eggplant, in no small part due to the success of Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent book The Food of Sichuan, which I highly recommend. That said, fish fragrant beef, pork slivers, and chicken are all pretty common. So why not pheasant?
After all, pheasants are Chinese in origin. And sexing up an otherwise mild (bland?) disco chicken breast with a fish fragrant sauce is just the thing.
While I, like most American lovers of Sichuan food, am influenced by Dunlop, my recipe’s origin is another addictive pheasant recipe I make: General Tso’s pheasant, which if you haven’t made, you need to. It’s basically crack. It’s the same breading and pre-frying process, only in this case I use a different sauce.
Nothing in yu xiang sauce is hard to find with the possible exception of Sichuan peppercorns. I buy Sichuan peppercorns from Penzey’s, but I’ve been really enamored with green Sichuan peppercorns lately, which are more citrusy and fragrant than the regular ones; you can get them on Amazon via that hotlink.
And if you don’t have pheasant breasts, virtually any other meat will do. Obviously chicken, turkey, quail, grouse, partridge are all good options, but so would slivered pork loin. If you are a vegetarian, try it with substantial mushrooms, like cremini or chanterelles or porcini.
I haven’t tried making fish fragrant venison or duck yet, but I can’t see how it would be bad.
As with all stir-fries, you want to have everything cut and ready in advance, as it comes together quickly. The initial frying step can be done up to a few hours in advance, however. That’s how they do it in Chinese restaurants.
Serve with steamed rice and a beer.
Sichuan 'Fish Fragrant' Pheasant
- 1 pound pheasant breast meat, cubed
- 4 tablespoons potato, tapioca or corn starch
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- Oil for frying
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 4 scallions, sliced thin (white and green parts separated)
- 6 to 10 small hot chiles, like Thai chiles, minced (optional)
- 2 tablespoons chile bean paste (Pixian or doubanjiang)
- 1/2 teaspoon potato, tapioca or corn starch
- 1/4 cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons Chianking or malt vinegar
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
- Whisk together the marinade ingredients (except the oil), leaving no lumps, then work them into the pheasant breast with your hands until each piece is well coated. Let this sit while you chop everything else.
- Using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, grind the Sichuan peppercorns to a powder.
- In a wok or deep pot, heat several cups of oil until it hits about 325°F to 350°F. If you don't have a thermometer, flick a little flour into the oil and when it sizzles instantly you are good to go. Add about 1/3 of the pheasant pieces and use a butter knife or chopstick to separate them. Let them fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes or so. Move the pheasant to a cooling rack set over paper towels to drain. Repeat with the next third of the meat, and then the last third. This all can be done up to a couple hours before you serve.
- When you are ready to serve, have your steamed rice already made. Heat about 3 tablespoons of the oil in a wok or frying pan over very high heat. When it begins to smoke, add the garlic, ginger and the white parts of the scallions, as well as the chiles (if using), and stir fry them about 30 seconds. Add the chile bean paste and the reserved pheasant and toss to combine for a few seconds.
- Whisk in the 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch with the stock and add that to the wok, along with the vinegar and soy sauce. Toss to combine and boil furiously for a minute or so. Turn off the heat, add the Sichuan peppercorn and the green parts of the scallions, toss to combine, and serve over rice.