Liquid Smoke Is the Secret Ingredient in This Deceptively Simple Catfish Recipe

Maryland blue catfish gets the five-star treatment from a James Beard Award semifinalist

April 4, 2023 7:12 am
Sichuan x Nashville Fried Catfish
Who knew catfish could make us drool?
Rachel Paroan

Kevin Tien recently earned a James Beard semifinalist nod for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic thanks to his work at Moon Rabbit, where the chef formerly of such storied spots as José Andrés’s Oyamel and Momofuku CCDC mashes up flavors that, at first glance, couldn’t be further removed from one another. But in Tien’s creative hands, the lines between Sichuan and Southern cuisines are beautifully blurred.

“I love finding the connections that bridge two cultures together, and in this case, it was my love for spices and heat,” says the chef, who spent much of his childhood in Louisiana. “Using Asian flavors and giving it the Southern technique and flair.”

This flavorful playfulness is evident in his Sichuan play on Nashville fried catfish, which is doused in sesame-scented chili oil and seasoned with house-made curry spice for loads of aroma and a pleasant kick.

Tien begins with local Maryland blue catfish, which, he notes, is “actually an invasive species.” For the chef, it boasts better flavor than many others on the market.

“Most catfish purchased are farmed and can have that ‘muddy’ taste people are accustomed to,” he says. Maryland blue boasts a fresher flavor, according to the chef, and it also helps maintain a healthy ecosystem, essential in a world that continues to be plagued by overfishing and other unsustainable methods of procuring seafood.

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Before being breaded in cornmeal and fried, the fish is first cured in salt and sugar.

“Curing the catfish adds a slightly firmer texture to the fish that gives it a nice bite — or, as they say in The Menu, ‘a nice mouthfeel,’” he says. “It also adds good flavor to the fish, so you don’t just get the heat from the spices and oil.”

Once breaded and fried, the catfish is tossed in house-made chili oil and then dusted in a spice blend: a flavorful mix of smoked paprika, sugar, ginger, garlic, gochugaru, turmeric and curry powder.

“We actually make our own curry powder in-house, but for your home, my family personally loves the Sun Brand Madras Curry Powder,” he says. “It has a great, well-balanced taste and more depth of flavor.”

The finished fish is paired with a tartar sauce rendered smoky, not by means of any cheffy technique, but thanks to a secret ingredient anyone can get their hands on.

“I am a big fan of using liquid smoke in sauces and brines,” says Tien. “It’s such a great time-saver for those who don’t have a way to smoke at home. And a little goes a long way.”

The finished catfish is drizzled with honey to taste for a hint of sweetness and served with white bread and pickles for what Tien terms “the full Nashville x Sichuan experience.” It’s hard to imagine a tastier culinary mashup.

Sichuan x Nashville Fried Catfish

Servings: 4

  • For the chili oil:
  • 800 grams (3¾ cups) canola oil
  • 140 grams (1⅔ cups) red pepper flakes
  • 25 grams (1 Tbsp. + 2 tsp.) sesame oil
  • For the catfish:
  • 1 pound Maryland blue catfish, cut into ¼-inch strips
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 8 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • Canola oil, for frying
  • For the curry spice:
  • 12 grams (1¾ Tbsp.) smoked sweet paprika
  • 17 grams (1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp.) light brown sugar
  • 10 grams (½ Tbsp.) kosher salt
  • 2 grams (¾ tsp.) ginger powder
  • 2 grams (⅔ tsp.) garlic powder
  • 7 grams (2⅔ tsp.) gochugaru
  • 1 gram (scant ½ tsp.) ground black pepper
  • 40 grams (6 Tbsp. + 1 tsp.) curry powder
  • 15 grams (1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp.) white sugar
  • 2 grams (1 tsp.) cayenne pepper
  • 5 grams (1 tsp.) turmeric powder
  • For the smoked tartar sauce:
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 10 grams (3 Tbsp.) chopped dill
  • 20 grams (2 Tbsp.) minced shallots
  • 40 grams (⅓ cup) minced cornichons
  • 2 grams (½ tsp.) lemon juice
  • 4 grams (1 tsp.) sugar
  • 2 grams (⅓ tsp.) kosher salt
  • 3 grams (⅓ tsp.) liquid smoke
  • White bread, for serving
  • Pickles, for serving
  • Honey (optional) for serving
    1. To make the chili oil, heat the canola and sesame oil to 300ºF. Remove from heat and add the red pepper flakes. Infuse 30 minutes, then strain.

    2. Meanwhile, toss the catfish with salt and sugar and let it cure for 20 minutes.

    3. Combine all spices for the curry spice blend and set aside to season the fried catfish later.

    4. For the smoked tartar sauce, finely chop the dill and mince the shallots and cornichons. Add all ingredients into a mixing bowl and mix until fully combined.

    5. Mix the cornmeal and cornstarch together. Season with salt to taste. Put the catfish into the milk, then directly into the cornmeal mixture, tossing until thoroughly coated. Set aside until ready to fry.

    6. Heat the frying oil to 350ºF. Shallow fry the catfish pieces 2 minutes on each side, then drain on paper towels.

    7. Dip each piece of fried catfish into the chili oil and shake off excess oil. Season each piece of fish liberally on each side with curry spice blend.

    8. Serve with your favorite pickles and white bread, and drizzle lightly with honey for a touch of sweetness if desired.


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