A “clear-steamed” fish is one that is steamed without bean condiments, in a clear, clean sauce comprised of soy sauce, wine, and the natural fish juices. Beyond that, the steaming ingredients may be few or many, all depending on the region, the occasion, and most important, the personality of the fish.
Clean the fish meticulously. Rinse with cold water, inside and out, then pat dry.
Score the fish on both sides at 1-inch intervals from collar to tail. Cut to within ¼ inch of the bone for a good penetration of seasonings and steam. If you need to work in advance, the scored fish may be refrigerated for several hours before steaming, sealed airtight.
Put the shredded scallion or scallion flowers in a water-flecked plastic bag. Seal the bag so as to trap a lot of air inside, then shake to mist the scallion with the water. Refrigerate 15 minutes or longer to curl the scallions.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Combine the soy, wine, and sesame oil, stirring to blend. If the ham is not particularly salty or you are using bacon, sprinkle the fish inside and out with about 1½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt. If the ham is highly seasoned, you will need little or no salt, depending on your taste. (With Smithfield, I use none.) Grind fresh pepper over the fish to taste, then rub the salt and pepper into the score marks with your fingers. Lay the fish white side up in a deep serving plate or Pyrex pie plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. Pour the liquid seasonings evenly on top, scatter the minced ham and fat over the fish, then sprinkle with the ginger threads. Press the scallion lengths under the side of a cleaver or broad knife to release their juices, then array evenly over the fish.
Bring the steaming water to a full, gushing boil over high heat. Add the plate to the steamer, cover tightly, then steam over medium-high heat 12–15 minutes, until the flesh nearest the bone in the midsection of the fish is firm and white. Do not lift the lid to check the fish until it is almost done, lest you dissipate the steam.
Remove the plate from the steamer, or serve the fish directly in the steamer basket, if you have one made attractively of bamboo. If you need to transfer the fish, do so carefully, sliding it onto a heated platter with the aid of a broad spatula, then rimming it with the sauce. Discard the steamed scallion, then decorate the plate with several scallion flowers or a sprinkling of the curly scallion threads. Serve immediately, while hot and steaming.
Leftovers are excellent cold. Bone the fish, cover it with the sauce, then seal airtight and refrigerate. The juices will gel in a pleasantly peppery aspic, and the flesh will turn smooth and slippery once chilled.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.