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Pickled Fish: An Atypical Home Dish of Huayao Dai People

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Pickled Fish: An Atypical Home Dish of Huayao Dai People


By Yang Xiujie    Edited by Wei Ranran     Photographs by Meng Zhigang


Living on the side of Ga Sa River has many benefits, one of them is the diet. The local dishes have less oil and salt, but they go well with rice. The organic vegetables and fruits are fresh and juicy. The mutton soup pot with rich aroma is one of the best dishes of Huayao Dai people to serve the guests. Besides, the salted duck eggs with golden and oily yolk are outright yummy...However, only few people know that there is a secret and great dish in Shui Tang Town by 2Ga Sa River. That is the pickled fish!

The Souvenir of Huayao Dai


Huayao Dai people who lived in the area of Ga Sa River are lucky to live in the tropical river valley year-round with favorable climate of ample moisture.  The spicy and sour food is not only for appetizing, but it also can relieve the summer-heat. The fruits are changing with seasons, even the unknown fruits on the roadside are readily edible. There is plenty of water for the fertile fields, and the vast paddy fields are inundated in pleasant rice fragrance in the harvest season.

There is a special dish circulating in Shui Tang Town which comes from the cookbook of the Huayao Dai people, and it only present on the table of locals since the taste is unique. It is closely related to the unique eating habits of Yunnan people. And also reflects the creativity of raw material for the locals. It is a kind of pickled food with no strict restrictions. It can be prepared in all seasons and able to eat after three months.

Pickled fish, as its name implies, is to preserve the fish meat in a traditional way, and sealed in the earthenware pots. It will treat your taste buds with fascinating experiencing.

Pickled fish is not only a kind of dish, but also a gift for friends and relatives. The pickled fish, especially the authentic ones, are often accompanied by relatives and friends in the local area.

The first time I saw a dish of pickled fish was at a family banquet of Huayao Dai people. By the recommendation of the locals, I tried a small piece of fish meat.“This is the most common way to eat pickled fish locally.” The fish was cut in a moderate size, and covered by the red chilis with distinct texture and intact skin.

With the rich seasoning, the fish meat had no fishy smell at all. The meat is firm and chewy, and a sour taste brings out the original flavor. Different from using edible vinegar and lemon vinegar, the sour taste of the fish is natural. After a long time sealed fermentation, tender fish meat became firming. The fish skin is elastic after preserved, which could be a dish that goes well with liquor perfectly.

Fishing Methods for Huayao Dai


Usually, the fishes for pickling are get from Ga Sa River. The local people always obtain the raw material locally as their principles. Fishermen like Sun Wengui finally had their own fishing methods after a long accumulation of experience.

July and August are the best time for fishing as well as the abundant water period of Ga Sa River. However, experienced fishermen can have a full harvest anytime as long as the “Earthworm” is placed. Earthworm, named for the shape which is a common local fishing tool with the length of  10 to 30 meters. Placing the earthworm in the river also required experience. Sun Wengui, who has rich experience in fishing, knows that the shallow is not able to fish, and fishes can be caught only in the deep end. Because Sun Wengui grew up on the riverside, he had excellent ability in swimming. He only needs a tyre to move form the river bank to the center. The deep water area is generally five to six meters deep, and the fishermen have to dive into the river for the placement of the earthworm. After the earthworm is set up, they need to wait for a whole day and collect the fishing net the other day. When Sun Wengui was lucky, he could catch 20 to 30 Jin(1Jin=0.5 Kilogram) fish at a time. If he had bad luck, he would only get 5 to 6 Jin. However, Sun Wengui doesn’t care, he always think positively, “I will make the pickled fish once I caught some.”

There are some agreements between Sun Wengui and other local fishermen, “No electric shock and drugs, let nature take its course”. The living attitude of Huayao Dai people can be seen everywhere beside the Ga Sa River.

An Atypical Home Dish


In Shui Tang Town, pickled fish is actually a home dish, “everyone can do it, but each has its own flavor.” Today, the history of pickle fish has not been verified, but as a traditional dish, pickled fish represents the overall diet and memory of the locals.

In order to get delicious pickled fish, we found Sun Wengui who is makes and sells pickled fish. For 8 years, Sun Wengui and his pickled fish have become a local gold-lettered signboard. “Whenever running banquets or preparing gifts in the village, pickled fish form Sun Wengui will be the first choice .”

It is not the planned thing for Sun Wengui to sell the pickled fish. He was not willing to deal with business at first, and making pickled fish just to satisfy his own appetite. He served the tasty pickled fish to entertain his relatives and friends sometimes, and more and more people know that “the pickled fish made by Sun Wengui is delicious” with the word of mouth. Today, pickled fish business of Sun is still a soft spot, but he still continue doing it as his delight in life, “I usually made 20 to 30 cans per year, no more no less.”

According to Sun, the palatable pickled fish need best raw materials as the priority, followed by seasonings, and then the containers.

It is said that there are many fish species in Ga Sa River, such as carp, small white fish, moonfish and pelteobagrus fulvidraco fish... But Sun Wengui prefers carp to make the pickled fish. After he slaughters, washes and dries, then he adds salt, chili, cooked glutinous rice, cooked rice, fennel seed, garlic and other ingredients to mix with it well. And finally place the mixed fish into the earthenware pot. White liquor is used for sealing to discharge the air inside the jar. 

The containers of pickled fish are also to be particular about. The earthenware pots have no need to be pottery from Jian Shui Town or Hua Ning Town, but the earthenware pots have to be cleaned in advance and dry naturally to ensure free of oil and water. “Ingredients for making pickled fish also need to be judged at the right amount.” Sun Wengui said that making good pickled fish depends on the experience, and there must be a certain reason if the taste is wrong, such aspoor ingredients or improper sealing ,or excessive salt, ect.

Making pickled fish has no strict time limit, but with years of experience, local people know that when the weather is hot, the time needed for the ferment will be shorter than usual, which means “able to eat in a shorter time”. Sun Wengui said that the best length for fermenting fish is usually 3 to 5 months. “If over 5 months, the texture and taste will be greatly reduced.”

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