Dai Chile-Fish Soup with Flavored Oil

Updated February 23, 2016
This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

Behind most Dai houses in the villages of southern Yunnan, there’s a small pond. Fish live there, and when the cook wants fresh fish, she can just go to the pond and scoop one out, or send a child to get one for her. As a result, there’s a large Dai repertoire of dishes using fresh fish. This is one of the easiest soups we know, a pleasure whether served as a fish course in a Western-style meal or as one of several dishes in a rice-centered Southeast Asian–style meal. It reminds us of the fish soups from farther south in the Mekong Valley, in Laos and Cambodia. As in those soups, there is acidity, in this case from tomato, and coriander leaves are used to flavor the broth rather than simply as a garnish. The soup has a fair amount of chile heat. To cut back on it, reduce the number of chiles. The secret ingredient is the Dai Flavored Oil, which tempers the soup, bringing flavors together. Assemble the ingredients for the oil before you start the broth. That way, you can quickly make the oil while the broth is cooking, then add it to the soup, hot and aromatic, straight from the pan.

NOTE ON SERVING: The soup is traditionally served with all the flavorings still in it. The chiles and garlic clove are not meant to be eaten, but are just put aside by each diner as he or she eats. If you wish, you can strain the soup before serving it, so that it comes to the table as a broth. In that case, though, we’d suggest that you remove the garlic slices from the flavored oil before adding it to the soup and set them aside, then add them to the broth when you serve it.

NOTE ON PEPPER: Both white and black pepper are used in Southeast Asian cooking. White tends to be used in pale dishes such as this, partly for aesthetic reasons. But we find we always prefer the rich taste of black pepper to that of white; suit yourself.

WHOLE FISH OPTION: We suggest that you use fish steaks or fillets, but you could start with a whole fish weighing close to 2 pounds. Trim off the head and fins, lift the meat off the bone, and cut it into 1- to 2-inch pieces. Then simmer the trimmings and bones in 3 cups water, and use the strained broth as part of the liquid for the soup.

Serves4 as a soup course or as part of a rice meal



Total Timeunder 30 minutes

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationdiabetic, egg-free, gluten-free, halal, kosher, lactose-free, low calorie, low carb, low-fat, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free



Taste and Texturegarlicky, herby, hot & spicy, light, savory, spiced, sweet, umami

Type of Dishhot soup, soup


  • 1¼ to 1½ pounds firm-fleshed fish steaks or fillets, such as tilapia, striped bass, or lake trout, or an ocean fish such as snapper or cod
  • 4 cups water
  • 3 dried red chiles
  • 2 fresh green bird chiles or serrano chiles
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, cut into small matchsticks
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 1 large or 2 small scallions, sliced lengthwise into ribbons, then crosswise into 2-inch lengths
  • 1 cup coriander leaves and stems, coarsely chopped
  • 1 medium tomato, ripe or green, as you wish, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Dai Flavored Oil, or to taste
  • 1½ to 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper (see Notes)


  1. Cut the fish into 1- to 2-inch pieces. Place in a small pot, add the water, whole chiles, ginger, garlic, scallions, and coriander, and bring to a boil, then immediately lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

  2. (Meanwhile, prepare the flavored oil.)

  3. Add the tomato, the oil, including the garlic slices, and 1½ teaspoons salt to the hot broth and simmer for another 5 minutes or so. Taste for salt and adjust if necessary, then add pepper to taste.

  4. Serve hot or warm.



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