Chinatown has been since the 1950s the busiest and most rapidly expanding part of Soho. As a cook I have found it completely impossible to ignore, nor would I wish to, but at various times my menus have seemed more Cantonese than anything else. By and large the food I serve has shifted away from using multi-ethnic influences, probably due to a desire not to be lumped with the ‘appalling mish-mash that is Modern British Cooking’, to quote Simon Hopkinson. However, dishes with some degree of authenticity, rather than pastiche, do appear from time to time, and this is one of them.
You will need to find scallops in the shell, and a large steamer is essential. Do not limit yourself to scallops for this dish: langoustines are brilliant steamed, queen scallops are equally good, but the best of all are live prawns. This means what it says, the prawns go into the steamer alive and kicking. Unfortunately live prawns are all but impossible to get in London.
Incidentally, the Chinese never leave the roe attached to the scallop. For a long time I thought it wasn’t suitable for this dish, but this wasn’t the case, they wanted it for another dish. Removed, dried and pulverised, the roes become the powder that is scattered on number 24, Crispy Fried Seaweed. So leave the roes attached, they steam beautifully.
The scallops must be in the shell. Ask your fishmonger to remove the flat shell and clean them for you, making sure that he knows to leave the meat and roe, or coral, attached to the deep shell.
Put a large pan on to boil with your steamer over it. Combine all the ingredients, except the scallops, in a bowl to make the dressing. Put as many scallops as you can into the steamer, bearing in mind that to steam properly they must be sitting horizontally and there should only be one layer. The scallops take about 5 minutes to steam; they are done when opaque and slightly shrunken. The restaurants in Chinatown tend to steam them for too long; they also slather them with the minced garlic, which I believe tastes better when mixed in the dressing.
Eat the scallops from the shell with a generous dollop of the dressing spooned on top. The juices that have run out of the scallops combine with, and slightly dilute, the dressing to spectacular effect.
© 1999 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.