Steamed whole fish is an ubiquitous dish in many households, the preferred cooking method to simply present a fresh fish in its natural deliciousness. But steaming a good seasonal fish is not a straightforward task. From cleaning and cooking to making the sauce, there are secrets to every step that contribute to the perfect execution of the dish.
Chinese Cuisine Director of MICHELIN-recommended restaurant Silks House Wu Hoi Ming (right, courtesy of Silks House) loves seafood as much as the next Hongkonger, and is very particular about his seafood.
A favourite pastime on his days off is going to Taipei’s Dongmen Market to check out the day’s catch and to chat with the fishmongers there for tips on the best seasonal fish as well as what kind of fish the Taiwanese love to eat at this time of the year. "The last time I was there, I bought a Rock Porgy (a type of sea bream) and I used the belly portion for steaming and the rest for making soup with salt-braised tofu and tomatoes," he shares excitedly.
At the restaurant, the chef offers live seafood such as grouper and Marble Goby, which can be shallow-fried, stir-fried, and of course, steamed.
Although the steaming process is simple, there is a lot to learn about the selection of the fish, its preparation and seasoning. "It is rare to find a good fish of the right size and in the right season so when you do, you have to treat it well, from cleaning to steaming and mixing the soy sauce. Every step is a learning experience,” Wu says.
Selecting a fish for steaming: 12 to 16 taels (400 to 600g) is the best size
The first thing is to choose the right fish. Freshness is key and to judge that, the eyes of the fish which should be clear and transparent, Wu shares.
Another thing to consider is the size of the fish. The chef recommends avoiding fish that weigh more than one catty (600g), or you run the risk of overcooking it. Salt water fish such as seven-starred grouper and red grouper should ideally be between 12 to 16 taels (400 to 600g) for steaming. Larger fish should be split into parts for different cooking methods: for example, the more tender belly can be steamed while the head can be used for making soup, its back served as sashimi or sliced into smaller pieces for steaming.
Cleaning: Wash with salt water then hot water to remove the scales
The next step in preparation is to clean the fish. At Silks House, Wu only starts preparing the live fish when an order is received so as to ensure the meat will be especially white and tender when steamed. Frozen or processed fish can never achieve the same effect.
The fish is first washed lightly with water and sea salt to remove any slime and scales. The chef cautions against using too much salt, especially with fresh water fish to preserve its flavour. Hot water is then used to scrape off stubborn small scales and any leftover mucus on the fins and tail. This will ensure the fish is clean and without any slime or scales remaining and to improve the taste of the fish (Photo by Ming-Ling Hsieh).
Some fish, such as Marble Goby, have thicker belly parts. Wu suggests butterflying it open and washing the insides again with salt water inside to avoid uneven cooking.
Steaming techniques: prop up the fish with chopsticks and drizzle with chicken oil
To begin streaming, pat the fish dry with paper towels and place it on a metal or porcelain plate. Prop the fish up from the plate with chopsticks underneath for even distribution of steam.
Place freshly cut spring onion and ginger slices on top of the fish to remove any fishiness. A restaurant secret is drizzling a bit of chicken oil (from steaming corn-fed chicken with green onions and ginger) to add aroma and a smooth glossiness to the fish.
And off to the steamer it goes. The more water and steam, the shorter the steaming time should be to retain the tenderness of the fish. But remember not to keep opening the steamer to check during the steaming process, or the steam will escape and affect the taste, warns Wu.
Different people have different preferences for the doneness of steamed fish. Wu shares that while many people in Hong Kong like to eat steamed fish just slightly undercooked with the flesh still stuck to the bone in the centre, Taiwanese diners mostly prefer it fully cooked. A fish that is cooked through will have protruding eyes and have flesh that is soft enough to pierce through with a chopstick.
Once cooked, the steamed fish can be placed on a warmed plate and topped with shredded green onion, ginger, red pepper and other garnishes, and then drizzled over with bubbling chicken oil to bring out the aroma.
Seasoning: Use soybean stock to retain the aroma of soy sauce
When steaming fish, the sauce is added last to prevent the fish from becoming too salty and to preserve the fresh clean flavour of the flesh.
The sauce is made by first boiling the mushrooms, cilantro and soybeans in four parts water to make a soybean stock, and then adding in soy sauce and rock sugar. Using soy bean stock instead of water in the soy sauce mixture dilutes its saltiness while keeping a full flavour. To serve, remove the chopsticks and pour the hot soy sauce from the side around the fish not over it, keeping the garnishing fresh on top of the steamed fish.
This article is written by Hsieh Ming Ling and translated by Billy Kwan. Click here to read the original story.