No, Wushan is not a master chef who works out of his hutong kitchen, luring young Beijingers in the know to his grubby yet charming hidden restaurant¹. Straddling the Yangtze River, Wushan is the eastern gateway to Chongqing. Among other things, it’s known for its history as part of the Three Kingdoms, as well as its scenic beauty: Its series of mountains, Wu Xia is – or should I say was? – one of the famed Three Gorges, extolled by poets for centuries.
But in Beijing Wushan (巫山) is associated with Chongqing-style roast fish, and Wushan Roasts the Entire Fish is the literally translated English name of an extremely popular local restaurant chain, Wushan Kao Quanyu (巫山烤全鱼).
Once part of Sichuan, Chongqing is perhaps even more obsessed with bubbling pots of spicy chili peppers than its former parent province. There isn’t a self-respecting mid-sized city in China that doesn’t have a Chongqing hot pot restaurant, and Chongqing roast fish is at least as popular in major cities, while mala xiangguo (hot pot without the broth) has its own cult following in Beijing.
What makes Chongqing kao yu special is that it’s not barbecued over an open flame, as kao suggests. The fish is first marinated and then fried before being roasted in a large rectangular pan with a gazillion peppers (if that’s how you like it), peppercorns, scallions, and other spices found in Chongqing hotpot. By the time it’s served, with a small ethanol burner underneath the pan to keep the spicy broth bubbling hot, the flesh is thoroughly infused with the numbing burn that sets Chongqing food apart.
Of course, not everyone enjoys that many peppers, and so for us weak fools, Wushan Roasts the Entire Fish has prepared some other options, like chopped pepper, pickled pepper, double pepper, fragrant pepper, sour pepper, and spicy kimchee. See how nuanced and complex what that flavor some people just call “hot” can be?
We chose the “strange flavor” (怪味 guaiwei), which I hereby rename the flavor of indecision: it’s not so much strange as a little of everything – spicy, sweet, sour, and tingly from the peppercorns. But don’t expect sweet and sour fish; the hot peppers are still dominant, and the sweetness was subtle, with added depth from a barely-there sour pucker. The chili peppers and peppercorns had the last word – a fiery exclamation point.
You can choose up to five vegetables to cook in the broth with the fish, so that you can have the Meal of Monotony, in which everything tastes the same. It’s not as boring as it sounds: all the spices keep you on your toes, and different vegetables take up flavor in different ways. A cabbage tends to be a spice bomb, with all those ridges in which to hide pepper flakes and peppercorns, but potatoes and lotus roots are rather mild.
Three of us polished off a three jin (1.5kg) catfish (鲶鱼 nianyu). Catfish is not my favorite: the flesh is tough and gamy, and what’s with all the random pockets of fat? But it was the cheapest at RMB 28 per jin; at the same price level there’s also the extremely bony grass carp (caoyu 草鱼) – eat with caution. More expensive fishes (around RMB 36 per jin) include qingjiang yu (清江鱼) and snakehead (heiyu 黑鱼), which true to its name is a scary, invasive species and was dubbed “Fishzilla” by National Geogrpahic.
I haven’t even mentioned the most interesting thing about Wushan Roasts the Entire Fish – the sheer difficulty of getting a table. Fancy restaurants are not the most difficult to book here; it’s without a doubt the little chicken wing joints and barbecue restaurants that have achieved cult-like status among gourmands and young Beijingers. And Wushan, as one of the highest-rated roast fish restaurants in Beijing, is not for the impatient. Our first attempt, on a Friday night, failed out of ignorance and an unwillingness to wait two hours. On our 2nd try, we were lucky enough to snag a weekday lunch slot. Reservations should be made days in advance, and they’re only taken for the early seating; arrive late and you lose your table to the many hopeful diners who start lining up – on weekends – at 10am for lunch and 4pm for dinner.
I know; it’s insane, and all for fish, right? I suspect a certain part of Wushan Roasts the Entire Fish’s mystique lies in its hard-to-get tables. The fish was delicious though, rich and thoroughly infused with the complex broth of flavors we picked. If you’re a moderate spice wimp like me, it goes down very well with a bowl of rice, and pepper fiends can cheerfully root through that heaping platter of peppers and fish and vegetables, searching for every last fiery morsel.
¹ A growing trend in the Beijing dining scene, these days.There are seven locations of Wushan Roasts the Entire Fish; you can see them all on Dianping or their website. We went to the Chaowai branch, next to the old Alexander Creek. For such a popular restaurant, space is very tight, and diners are packed into booths. There’s only one toilet, and the wait is long. Wall decor is provided by the (many) sticky notes of inspired diners. All part of the charm I suppose! Wushan Roasts the Entire Fish [map]
Bldg 204, Jixiangli
Chaoyangmenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District
Tel: (10) 6552 6568