Five years ago, when I started blogging, the first thing I wrote about was Chinese New Year. So it seems appropriate to come back to it in time for the Year of the Snake (which is to be celebated tomorrow, on Sunday 10 February) with a healthy recipe that is packed full of flavour, looks ambitious, but in reality is incredibly easy to prepare.
Just like a lot of the traditional foods consumed during Chinese New Year, steamed fish is symbolic because the word in Chinese, ‘yu’, sounds like ‘wealth’ or ‘abundance’. Many festive foods revolve around similar Chinese puns, which is great fun to discuss during dinner, but hard to replicate unless you’re very fluent in Chinese!
You need a whole, white fleshed fish to make this dish – pink fleshed fish such as salmon or trout are too strong for the delicate seasonings used here. You can be flexible with the type of fish you buy – go for what looks the freshest, or take advantage of a special offer. Sea bass is usually an expensive option, but consider bream – my favourite! Ask your fish monger for advice if you’re not sure which type of fish to buy.
When you get your fish, chances are it will be gutted but not descaled. If you can get the fishmonger to descale it for you, all the better, but it’s not too difficult to do at home, and it keeps the fish fresher if you do it just before cooking. Simply rub a spoon (or knife) firmly along the fish, towards its head. This can be quite messy, so ensure you do it over a sink, and wash the fish after to remove all the inedible, loose scales. If you’re not used to cooking with fish, it could be hard to tell if the fish has scales or not – rubbing a spoon or knife backwards over the fish will soon help you tell. Whatever you do, rinse the fish thoroughly afterwards!
- 500 –750g whole white fish
- 3 spring onions
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 inch ginger
- 2 tbsp fermented black beans
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp rice wine
- 1 tbsp sesame seed oil
(In order to cook this dish, you will need a steamer – it sounds obvious, but make sure your fish will fit in your steamer before you buy it! Electric steamers are more convenient for this dish than bamboo steamers on a wok, mostly because they are generally oval, and therefore fish-shaped!)
- Wash and dry your fish thoroughly. In a shallow dish, pour over the soy sauce and rice wine, then sit the fish in the fridge for ten minutes to marinate while you prepare the other seasonings.
- Clean the spring onions and shred them finely. Crush the garlic with a garlic crusher. Skin the ginger (you can do this really easily by rubbing on the papery brown skin with the side of a spoon) and slice it, then cut it into fine matchsticks. Wash the black beans thoroughly, then crush them slightly to release more of their flavour.
- Remove the fish from the fridge, and place it either on a heatproof dish that will fit your steamer, or in strong, double wrapped foil. Scatter the seasonings over the top and inside of the fish, then pour the liquid marinade on the top, along with the sesame seed oil.
- Steam the fish for at least ten minutes. You can check whether the fish is done by pressing the flesh with chopsticks or your fingers. If the flesh is very firm and doesn’t flake, or still looks translucent, it will need longer. Check the manufacturer’s advice for cooking fish in your electric steamer.
- Serve the fish on an oval platter, picking the flesh away from the bone with your chopsticks. Don’t forget to eat the tasty cheek flesh – or save it for your honoured guest! Serving a whole fish is a traditional way to end a banquet, but if you don’t like the thought of eating a fish with the head on, the flesh can be stripped from the bone before serving instead – but do try this recipe with a whole fish, as fillets of fish can produce a drier finished dish.
A Cantonese way of finishing the dish is to heat a couple of tablespoons full of hot vegetable oil in a wok, in order to pour it over freshly sliced spring onions and ginger which have been laid over the surface of the cooked fish. This then cooks the aromatic seasonings, as well as crisping the skin of the fish slightly. I left this step out to make the finished dish healthier, but I won’t tell anyone if you give it a go!