Steamed Whole Fish with Seared Scallions

豆豉蒸魚

For simplicity, clarity, and purity of flavor, I can think of nothing more appealing than a perfectly steamed fish. When I am worn out from cooking, eating, or just plain living, it is the dish I always turn to.

  • You need little else but a splendidly fresh whole fish. Black sea bass, available on the East Coast, is my favorite; flounder, porgy, or walleye pike are other choices. Look for a fish with red gills, clear, bright eyes, and a firm, delicate-tasting flesh. The gills, eyes, and firm flesh are your insurance of freshness, while the neutral character works best with these seasonings. Have the fishmonger remove the scales, fins, guts, and gills, but leave the head and the tail (including the fan-like caudal fin at the end) intact. The fish has no majesty without them.
  • Readying and steaming a whole fish of this size takes only 30 minutes and requires preparation of only a few ingredients. Like all steamed fish dishes done in a classic Chinese mode, it has a versatile, dual character—wonderfully simple for a cozy dinner for two or equally appropriate as the elegant finale for a banquet.

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Ingredients

  • 1 whole, extremely fresh fish, sea bass preferred—1½ pounds before gutting, head and tail left on

For seasoning the fish

  • 2 teaspoons salted Chinese black beans (not the variety seasoned with five-spice powder)
  • 1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil (increase to 2 teaspoons for flounder)
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ tablespoon fine julienne threads of fresh ginger, cut 1½ inches long and as thin as possible
  • 1 medium whole scallion, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 1–1½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt

For the scallion net

  • 2 tablespoons corn or peanut oil
  • 1 medium whole scallion, cut into shreds 2 inches long and 3/16 inch thick

Method

Preparing the fish for steaming

Thoroughly clean the fish, removing scales, membranes, and blood. No matter how good your fishmonger, this double cleaning is crucial. Be especially sure the bladder has been removed, or else the fish can be stained with bitterness. Wash the fish with cold running water inside and out, then pat dry.

Lay the fish flat and score it crosswise at 1-inch intervals, from neck to tail on both sides of the fish. Cut to within ¼ inch of the bone for a good penetration of steam and seasonings.

Chop the black beans coarsely. Do not wash them; the salt will contribute to flavoring the fish. Combine the beans, soy, wine, oil, and sugar, stirring well to blend.

This much may be done several hours in advance. Refrigerate the fish, ginger, and scallion, sealed airtight.

Steaming the fish

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Rub the salt evenly over the fish, inside and out, rubbing into the score marks with your fingers. Lay the fish in a Pyrex pie plate or shallow bowl at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer, ideally one in which you can serve the fish to avoid having to transfer it. (If the fish is a few inches too large, you can “bend” it to fit: Thick, round fish like bass can be stood on their belly, then curved to fit the dish. In this posture, they must wear the seasonings along their “back,” that is, their dorsal side. Flat fish like flounder can have their tails curved over, then threaded or skewered in a graceful arc; you should season them before skewering. Fish steamed in these postures can look very playful and lively.) Stir the liquid seasonings to recombine, then pour evenly over the fish and scatter the ginger threads on top. Crush the thick scallion lengths lightly with the broad side of a cleaver or knife to release their juices, then array over the fish.

Bring the steaming water to a full, gushing boil over high heat. Add the fish to the steamer, cover tightly, then steam over medium-high heat for 12–15 minutes, until the flesh at the base of the score marks in the thickest part of the flesh is white. Do not be surprised at the “natural sauce” the fish renders during steaming, which you will see when you lift the lid. It is absolutely delicious and is meant to be served with the fish.

Searing the scallion net

When the fish is within several minutes of being done, heat the oil in a small saucepan over low heat, until hot but not smoking. Have the shredded scallion nearby.

As soon as it is done, remove the plate from the steamer. If it is necessary to transfer the fish, slide it with care onto a heated serving platter, along with the sauce. Discard the steamed scallions. Scatter the fresh scallion shreds over the fish, then drizzle the hot oil evenly on top, standing at arm’s length from the fish and averting your face. The oil will sputter and hiss in a fragrant explosion.

Serve the fish at once, while the aroma is pronounced. Use the score marks as a convenient way to lift the fish from the bone and save the tender fish cheeks for the guest(s) of honor.

Leftovers can be good to excellent cold, depending on the fish. Bone the fish, cover with the leftover juices, then seal airtight and refrigerate. The sauce will congeal in a tasty aspic, and the fish will turn smooth and slippery once chilled.

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