If you've never eaten kaoyu (烤鱼), Chinese roast fish, you're missing out: the whole fish, grilled and braised in sauce alongside fresh vegetables, is hearty, fresh, delicious and really easy to get in Beijing.
Whether you're a kaoyu novice or just want to brush up on how and where to make the most of this simple and satisfying dish, our guide has you covered.
What is it?Kaoyu
literally means roast fish
– but in Beijing the term has come to
refer to a multi-stage cooking process for
freshwater fish that was originally developed
Fresh fish from the Yangtze River
were butterflied, dry-grilled and then served in a
shallow brazier with sliced vegetables, chillies,
herbs and flavoured oils. The grilling prevents the
spice and seasoning from overpowering the fish
while the brazier keeps the dish hot and lets
the natural juices cook the fresh vegetables.
The modern version retains the two-step genius of the original with the
improvement of a variety of add-ons and seasonings for
Why eat it?
Something we hear all the time in the
capital: ‘Beijing doesn’t have a sea, why
would I eat seafood here?’ That may be true
for some choicer aquatic victuals, but wild river
fish and their farm-raised brethren are tasty,
fresh, very often local and affordable.
Kaoyu joints are everywhere and once you know the ropes you’ve got a solid,
reasonably priced evening plan for anywhere
in the city. It’s fun for groups of fve or six
people, and we bet your friends aren’t
bored with it. Get
How to order
Sold? Here's how to order.
1. Get a really fresh fish
When ordering whole fish, the simplest
and easiest way to make sure you are
getting a fresh one (and not the bottom of
the barrel) is to ask to see your fish.
kaoyu places have tanks and serve only live,
whole fish to order as the fish weighs more when
alive and can fetch a higher price per jin (around
500g). Ask your server to bring the fish out or ask
if you can go through to the back and pick one
Remember, you’re looking for vibrant
scales (or bright skin in the case of catfish
that don’t have scales), plump wet eyes
and some healthy movement. There
shouldn’t be any foul or sour odours,
but a hint of fishiness isn’t a
2. Pick the right fish
Most kaoyu restaurants will have several types of fish available, representing a range of flavours - from mild and light suited to fish beginners and simple sauces to very boldly flavoured flesh suited to fish lovers and strong, spicy seasoning - and of bone types.
Jiangtuan yu 江团鱼
Why? It has mild and light flavour with thick, strong bones spaced far apart. Very easy to eat.
With silvery white scales,
the channel river fish, or long
snout catfish, is
prized for its fatty fresh and
mild flavour. Best in winter
and spring, this is a good
candidate for milder sauces,
fresh mushrooms and green
veggies. With large bones,
it’s easy to eat and well
suited to first-timers.
Cao yu 草鱼
Why? It has mild flavour, which tastes of the waves and spray, with thick, strong bones spaced far apart. Very easy to eat.
The grass carp is the
most widely available and
reasonably priced fish.
They reproduce quickly and
grow fat on a diet of aquatic
plants, giving them a clean,
mild flavour. Grass carp is
the classic match for dried
and fresh chilli sauces
with spring onions, golden
mushrooms and cauliflower.
Qingjiang yu 清江鱼
Why? Mild flavour, that tastes of the waves and spray, with medium-sized strong bones, medium
spacing. So you need to take your time.
The Qingjiang river fish has
supple, flaky white flesh
and a mild flavour. This fish
can only thrive in very clean
water so its flesh and skin
are often bright and have
a clean fish flavour that
can stand up to spice and
Sichuan peppercorns. It’s
our personal favourite and
Hei yu 黑鱼
1.5kg and up; 35-45RMB/jin
Why? Bold flavour, benefits from strong seasoning and spice with medium-sized strong bones, medium spacing. So you need to take your time.
The ‘black fish’ (northern
snakehead) is a ferocious
carnivore. Its diet and
vigorous lifestyle results in
a nutrient-dense fish with a
strong flavour and denser
flesh. The black fish’s strong
flavour makes it ideal for
spicier sauces and crisp
slices of lotus root, peanuts
and sliced potato.
3. Choose your sauce
The sauces offered by many places
will vary by brand, with some having their
own names for their signature version, but the
basics remain the same.
Mala (麻辣), spicy hot
chillies with numbing peppercorns; xiangla
(香辣), fresh and dried chilli; suanla (酸辣), sour
vinegar and hot chillies; yuxiang (鱼香), ginger, garlic,
sugar and spring onion.
Mala is certainly the most
challenging for those unfamiliar with the effect
of the Sichuan peppercorn, and yuxiang is the
mildest crowd pleaser. Although all kaoyu arrive
in chafing dishes of red oil, don’t be alarmed:
the oil’s bright red colour is less an indicator
of spice than the presence of fresh
chillies, which really contain the
real face-melting heat of
How to eat a whole fish with chopsticks
Many people aren’t used to eating whole fish with bones, but there are a few tricks that make it
a breeze – even with chopsticks.
• Have a plan of attack, clear off the toppings and scope out a good view of the piece you want
• Take stock of the direction of the bones. If the chef has butterflied the fish with the spine in
the middle, both sides will radiate out; if the spine is on one side, only one side with radiate out
and the centre will be all flesh.
• Approach from above, using your chopsticks to break the piece free and then slide it along
the grain of the bones.
• Take smaller bites from pieces of fish on your plate or over rice, this way any stray bones that
made it to your plate have a chance to get screened before slipping down the hatch.
• Savour the fruits of your labour! It’s not as easy as carving up a steak, so enjoy the various
favours and textures by combining different toppings with bites of fish.
Where to get it
Beijing is stuffed full of kaoyu
restaurants and there are a number of excellent chains with branches throughout the city.
Here's are a few of our favourites.