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‘Pretty Ladies! Handsome Men! Barbecue Fish!’

It’s only 10.30am but the lunch rush has already begun at the oddly-named Shouzi Roast Fish Main Store, mid-stream on the Yulong River. Actually a floating restaurant rather than a ‘store’, the charcoal grill is smoking away and the smell of barbecued fish wafts gently across the water, reaching the noses of tourists rafting down the river on narrow bamboo rafts. 

Their boatmen pull in alongside the surprisingly sturdy bamboo pontoon and lash their own raft to its side, and guests clamber across and take a seat on tiny wooden stools aside small square tables. The bamboo floor of the pontoon is covered in wood-patterned linoleum, and the makeshift roof is lined with blue plastic to protect from sudden showers, but there are no walls, and the gentle river breezes keep everyone cool away from the blazing sun outside. The ‘menu’ runs to just three items – barbecue fish, ice tea, and beer. Perfect. The ‘kitchen’ consists of a single brazier, a low table for condiments, a cabinet covered in netting for storing the fish, and a large polystyrene box held together with yellow duct tape, for keeping the beer cold. It’s a pretty simple set-up.
There’s a holiday mood all round – everyone boating down the river is here for fun, most having been bussed in from Guilin, several hours away, or nearby Yangshuo. We’re lucky to be staying very close by, in Aishanmen village, and the restaurant is, for us, a ten minute bike ride followed by a five minute swim across the river.
Meet Tao Hai Ying, who mans the grill 365 days a year. It’s her restaurant, and her mother helps out most days, calling out “Pretty ladies! Handsome men! Barbecue fish!” to the passing rafts, and acting as waitress, dishwasher, and cashier all in one. Tao Hai Ying’s younger sister runs a similar enterprise further upstream, and her younger brother supplies both places with the fish he catches in a neighbouring river, reputed to be even more pristine than the Yulong.

But back to the fish. Long time readers know I’ve visited here before, and friends with similar food obsessions know it’s Number One on my list of ‘Best Fish Meals’ (everyone has these lists in their head, right?). The whole family have talked about nothing but this fish since we left Longji rice terraces yesterday, and I am worried it might be better in my memory than in reality. Sometimes memory can be unreliable, particularly mine.
I needn’t have worried, because it is the best barbecue fish you will ever taste, hands down. Tao gets up every day at 4am, to prepare the hundred or so fish she’ll sell. There are a number of steps to preparation, including scaling, gutting, drying, deep-frying, cooling, halving and skewering the fish. This is all done beforehand in her home, and the fish transported across to the restaurant early each day by raft. 
Each fish (or half a fish, sliced lengthwise) is grilled to order over charcoal, basted with an aromatic mixture of ground peanuts, sesame paste, cumin, sesame seeds and la jiao (chili paste) while it grills. My Chinese is a little better this year (OK, it’s a lot better) so I understand more of the cooking instructions she gives me, and I become even more certain that this is a dish I will never be able to re-create at home. For a start, I can’t get my hands on the right kind of river fish, caught fresh the day before, and Tao makes her own basting mixture and la jiao from home grown peanuts and chilies, mixing the ingredients together without use of any recipe.  When I ask about measurements Tao says, like most Chinese cooks, “Just add the ingredients until it looks and tastes right to you”.
The intoxicating smell of the roasting fish is killing us as we wait, but at last it’s ready and Tao’s mother brings it to us on a tin tray, with extra la jiao to the side. Like a flock of seagulls devouring a fish supper, we demolish the fish morsel by tasty morsel, until all that’s left is a pile of bones. We order another, and another.
As the next round of fish cooks, Tao and I chat and she brings us little gifts, a few cucumbers from her garden, and a plate of peanuts and home-made bean pickles. She remembers us from last year, the Australian family who swam across the river to her restaurant nearly every day, money in a plastic bag. This time the language barrier is not so great and she invites us to her home for dinner. ‘I tried to invite you last year too, but you didn’t understand!’ she laughs. So that will be something to look forward to – the day after tomorrow, with her extended family in their village home on the far side of the river. I’ll keep you posted, promise.
Shouzi Kao Yu Zongdian 瘦子烤鱼总店
Yulong River, near Aishanmen Village
Open every day from 8am until 6.30pm
From The Giggling Tree Guesthouse, turn left, then left again onto the main road. It’s about 7 minutes by bike, keeping to the riverside road all the way and heading in a downstream direction. When you see a riverside restaurant with a paddle wheel, look for the restaurant pontoon in the middle of the river, just downstream from a weir. Swim across.