Chinese-style Steamed Fish

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It was in Soho's Chinatown that I first ate steamed fish and discovered that many of the restaurants there sold whole cooked sea bass as loss leaders at a price that was about the same as you could buy it at the fishmonger, sometimes less.

Steaming is a great technique for many different fish, as long as they are cooked whole and on the bone. They don't have to be expensive: lemon sole, for example, is excellent cooked this way, as is whiting. If you want to go up-market try steaming a Dover sole.

You can use a range of different pieces of kit for steaming. I like the bamboo baskets you buy cheaply in Chinese markets, but you can also use a custom-made metal steamer or just a large wok with a lid and a rack. You steam the fish on the plate on which you will serve it Make sure it is large enough for the fish to sit flat on the plate when it is placed in the steamer.

This dish can be for two people, or provide a small amount for four. In a Cantonese meal the fish would be brought at the same time as all the other dishes, but I prefer to eat it on its own. The Chinese also tend to scatter the fish with lots of flavouring ingredients, like dried shrimp and bits of ham, which I find unnecessary.

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Ingredients

  • 450g/1 lb very fresh fish on the bone (skinned and gutted, but otherwise whole)
  • 1 carrot
  • 2 spring onions
  • 2.5cm/1 in piece of ginger root
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 red chilli pepper
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 4 tbsp Kikkoman soy sauce
  • coriander leaves, to garnish

Utensils

  • steamer
  • serving plate of a matching size
  • bowl
  • small pan
  • 2 sets of chopsticks

Method

Mise en Place

Set up the steamer with water in the bottom and put it to heat • Make sure the fish is scrupulously clean. If there is any blood in the body cavity, rub this with salt and rinse under cold running water • Cut the carrot, spring onions and peeled ginger into julienne strips, putting them immediately into iced water in a bowl and tossing to mix the strands • Cut the garlic into paper thin slices. Cut the chilli across into thin rings and remove the seeds.

Cooking

Put the sesame and sunflower oil in a small pan to heat gently - be careful, sesame oil has a very low burning point.

Pour a little soy sauce on the serving plate and then arrange half the drained vegetable julienne on it to make a bed for the fish. Place the fish on top, and scatter over the rest of the julienne. Pour over the remaining soy sauce and put to steam. The size of the fish does not affect the cooking time, which will be between 12 and 15 minutes. Test that it is done after 10 minutes by sliding the tip of a knife into the back at the centre and pulling upwards: the flesh should detach easily. You do not want it undercooked because it will not come off the bone. It is, however, difficult to overcook because steaming is a gentle, forgiving technique and you would probably have to leave the fish for 25 minutes before it was ruined.

Half-way through the steaming, put the garlic and chilli to infuse in the warmed oil.

Serving

Remove the fish plate from the steamer, spoon some of the juices in the bottom of the plate over the fish and wipe round the edge of the plate for a neat presentation. Pour the now hot and aromatic contents of the saucepan over the fish and scatter some coriander leaves over.

Eat immediately on hot plates using chopsticks. (If the oil is allowed to cool it will make the dish greasy.)

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