Amongst the world’s cuisines, there are two preparations for fish that are far superior to any other: these are 1) Japanese nigirizushi and 2) Cantonese steamed fish. The school of thought in both of these methods is to use the freshest fish possible while preserving its soft, delicate texture and enhancing its naturally sweet taste. In comparison to a properly steamed fish, a French chef’s poisson meunière would seem like a chewy piece of leather.
The procedure for steamed fish begins at the fishmonger, selecting fresh fish that have a smell reminiscent of the ocean, patent, reddish-pink gills, and clear, bulging eyes. At home, the fish is stuffed with pungent and savory aromatics and steamed under simmering water. When the fish is done, it is garnished with fresh scallion greens and cilantro and a sweetened soy sauce that is infused with aromatics. Finally, sizzling oil is doused over the fish just prior to serving to give it a savory crisp.
A flat dish propped on a large 12″ skillet, a metal strainer lined with parchment paper, or the more traditional bamboo steamer within a large wok can be used as steamers. A bamboo steamer has a porous, convex top that that elevates the level of the steam and prevents condensation from dripping back down – these are desirable properties that help to produce a moist, but not soggy fish.
CANTONESE STEAMED FISH // GINGER + SCALLION
- 1 whole 1½ lb cleaned and gutted whitefish, such as a flounder, sea bass, or red snapper
- 1 large chunk of ginger, minced and sliced into strips
- 1-2 bunch scallions, chopped and julienned
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped and minced
- 1 bunch cilantro
- ½ cup sweetened soy sauce
- 2-3 tbsp of vegetable oil
Before cooking, julienne a medium-sized ginger root, mince several cloves of garlic, and coarsely chop one bunch of cilantro. Finely julienne one bunch of scallion greens into long, thin strips and reserve the white scallion bulbs.
Rinse and dry the fish with paper towels. With a sharp knife, diagonally score the fish 3-4 times on each side (this is not necessary for flounder or other flatfish). Season generously with salt, pepper, & sugar and stuff the scores with garlic, ginger strips, and scallion bulbs. Place the fish inside your steaming apparatus and arrange additional garnish on and around the fish. It is preferable to elevate the fish with either chopsticks or 3-4″ pieces of scallion bulbs to avoid braising it in its own juices.
Pour several inches of water into your steamer and bring to a gentle simmer. Steam under medium heat until the fish is opaque and fork-tender at its thickest point – for a 1½ lb fish, begin checking at 6-8 minutes and check every 2 minutes thereafter. This is the most difficult step – the margin of error between under and overcooked is no more than a few minutes, and the actual cooking time will depend on intuitive experience with your particular steaming setup and the size/shape of the fish.
Meanwhile, take a small amount of chopped garlic, ginger, scallions, and cilantro and stir into a ½ cup of soy sauce that has been generously sweetened with sugar. Microwave the mixture for 30 seconds to infuse the flavors into the sauce.
Carefully remove the fish from the steamer and transfer to your serving dish, discarding the garnish and steaming juices. Pour a portion of the infused-soy sauce onto the fish and garnish with fresh scallion greens and cilantro. When ready to serve, heat 2-3 tbsp of vegetable oil over high heat with any remaining ginger, scallion bulbs, and garlic and douse the fish in the sizzling oil. Serve immediately with jasmine rice.