I once passed a fruitful couple of hours with a friend counting down our top ten food experiences from 10 to 1, describing them in vivid detail as we went. My Number One involved freshly caught river fish, and a cold winter’s day with less than $5 in my pocket. The fish had been hauled up from the ice-green waters of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, onto the back of a rickety wooden boat tied to a bridge, filleted, fried in olive oil atop a 44 gallon drum converted to a griddle, and slapped between a half loaf of crusty bread. It was the best meal ever, for the taste, the view, and value for money; and a worthy Number One.
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.
Well, it’s now nineteen years since that Turkish fish meal, and I’m sorry Number One, you’re now officially Number Two, and Ten just fell off the end of the list to make way for the Best Fish Ever. There are remarkable similarities – freshly caught river fish, this time fried in a makeshift kitchen by the riverside, and paddled across to a floating mid-river restaurant by bamboo raft. It’s a hot summer’s day, rather than midwinter, and prices have gone up since 1991, so I now have the equivalent of $10 tied tightly in a plastic bag perched under my hat as I swim across to the restaurant from where my bicycle is parked by the river’s edge. Most customers arrive by raft, rather than by swimming, and so there is a lot of interest in the strange foreign woman who wants to freestyle her way to lunch.
The fish is the only dish offered. Recently alive, it has been fried until the skin crisps, then once cold, skewered and painted with a marinade made (I think) from ground peanuts, sesame seeds, chilli, coriander seed, cumin and oil. The fish is now cooked a second time on the floating raft restaurant by being barbecued over a charcoal brazier. The marinade melts into the skin with the heat of the coals and some kind of magical alchemy takes place between the oils of the fish, the nutty marinade and the smoke from the charcoal. The flavour is at once robust and complex, harmonising with the firm flesh of the fish.
I ply the waitress for the recipe, but my Chinese is too poor, and in my heart I know I can’t reproduce this at home, that this will only be a Number One meal when the other elements are all there too – the magnificent Yulong River all around, bamboo rafts floating past and the odd water buffalo wallowing lazily in the shallows…and the karst peaks rising up silhouetted against the sky.
The gorgeous Yulong River meanders pretty slowly down to its meeting with the LI River – perfect for taking a bamboo raft and opting out for two hours while a bamboo-poled boatman guides the raft along.
The raft station is not far from our digs at The Giggling Tree. As soon as our bicycles turn into the gate we are gently besieged by aged local women selling a very odd assortment of items. Firstly, there are woven floral head-dresses made that morning from fresh flowers. You can wear these as you raft, if the fancy takes you, and for some reason they are most popular amongst young men – I suspect it’s a kind of dare-double dare-you thing, they certainly look completely ridiculous and all their mates laugh at them. But they wear them anyway, so perhaps the old ladies tell them it’s a sign of virility.
The second odd item is a plastic walking stick. Why you’re going to need a walking stick while sitting on a raft is a mystery to me, until someone dips one in the river, then squirts me head to toe with river water. It’s a giant siphon with a plunger inside- having never really grown up, Chinese tourists pay a fortune to act like kids again.
Our chifu (boatmaster) chooses us, rather than the other way around, and off we go. Our bamboo raft has two reclining chairs, two worn-out orange life-vests, and a large, rainbow
sun umbrella, with our bikes balanced on the back. The boatman picks up an easy rhythm – the bamboo pole plunges deep into the water, strikes bottom and he pushes us off, then gently pulls the pole free and repeats the same manoeuvre on the other side. The first few minutes pass quietly by with just the sound of the water lapping the sides of the raft.
Up ahead I see a a lady sitting on her raft in the middle of the river, fishing I think. As we near, I realise she’s fishing for business. Her cries of ‘Pijiu! Shui! Kele!’ turn to ‘Helloooo! Helloooooo! Beeeeeeeer you want? Watuh! Kellllluh!’ as she waves a bottle of Pepsi at us from her tub of drinks. There is a drink seller stationed every twenty metres along this stretch, about fifty in all. The peacefulness evaporates.
Not far from where the drink sellers end, I see what looks like several rafts lashed together with a tent over the top. It’s a floating barbecue fish restaurant, with a tiny chargrill barbecue and miniature chairs. He calls out to us as we pass – ‘ Hello! barbecue fish? beer? kelluh? Hello!’ I politely decline but there are another twenty to float past. This could be a really long boat ride.
Then something different appears, although at first glance it looks like a barbecue fish raft, only slightly bigger, and with a larger tent. We get closer, and I see someone is perched on the edge of the raft taking our photograph as we tilt down a small weir. Our chifu motions for us to stop, and we clamber off our raft and into the floating tent. Inside? A 160gb pentium processed computer, a photo printer and a laminator, all powered by a floating generator. Churning out photo after photo of floating tourists just like us for 20 yuan a piece. If there is anyone out there who thinks China is some sort of third world backwater, get real. Not long after this our neighbouring boatmen takes a call on his iPhone.
It is eventually very peaceful again, once we’ve passed the Yulong River High Street and settled into a stretch with nothing but other boats, and the glorious sunshine, blue sky, and mountains.