What’s so special about the Chinese method of steaming is that all the goodness and taste of the ingredients are retained, whereas one associates Western steaming with tastelessness. The method of steaming is as follows: Place the wok on its stand on top of the burner. Put either a metal trivet or a small bamboo cage upside down in the center of the wok. Put whatever food is to be steamed on a shallow heatproof dish, so that the juices are retained in the dish when the food is cooked. Put the dish on the metal or bamboo stand. Next, fill the wok with boiling water to about 1 inch of the base of the dish in order to prevent the bubbling water from getting into the dish and spoiling the food. Place the lid on the wok and turn up the heat, maintaining it at the same intensity to ensure that plenty of steam rises from the boiling water and circulates inside the covered wok to cook the food. If the food is to be steamed for a long time, as is the case for a duck, be sure to replenish the water from time to time. A piece of fish, however, cooks through very quickly. Another small but important point to bear in mind is this: Refrain from lifting the wok lid unnecessarily, for every time you do so, steam escapes and you will need to steam the food for a longer period in order to make sure it is cooked.
Steaming is one of the oldest cooking techniques in China, dating back at least 4,000 years. It was done in a primitive yet, for its time, most sophisticated steamer made of pottery or bronze. The base, called the li, was a cooking pot with three breast-shaped hollow legs that sat over a fire and in which water could be boiled or rice cooked. On top of the li stood a vessel called a zeng, which had a perforated flat bottom, the design of which is hardly changed today, through which steam came up to cook the food inside. This principle of steaming food has always remained the same, while the wok has long since become a substitute for the li.