Sunday, December 4, 2011

Missing My Mom's Cooking- Chinese Steamed Fish

I've never missed a good home cooked Chinese dinner.  Not even when I moved to Toronto for a year.  Planning a dinner was always something like a good bowl of pasta, vegetable soup, stew, and if it came down to it, a sandwich or a bowl of cereal.  (Sorry mom).  Chinese food was never something that came to mind when thinking of what to make for dinner.  These past few months, it was all I can think of.

One dish I really miss is my mom's steamed fish.  It sounds really boring, but it's one of the simpliest and most common way of cooking fish.  The finale is when smoking hot oil is drizzled over top to sear it, and a few splashes of soy sauce to finish.  When I was a kid, I would always watch my mom or dad pour the hot oil over the fish and it was the most exciting part of the whole process.  The sound it would make... that loud "pssst" and the gentle smoke that came up was so exhilerating.

Since baking professionally and being sorrounded by chefs, I was constantly learning about new cuisine.  Everything but Asian cuisine seemed exciting.  All the ingredients, smells, and techniques were so new.  But now that I'm all grown up, it's time to go back to my roots.  The things that really brought me comfort and remind me of when I was a kid.  Being so far from home has gotten me cooking more Chinese food these days.

I went out to my local organic store that has a great fish market attached to it.  A whole red snapper is my fish of choice.  It's meaty, and the bones aren't too fine, which makes it easy to debone and eat.  The proper way to cook the fish is to steam it.  But the fish I bought was too big to fit on any plate I had, so I had to improvise and bake it in a foil pouch.  I was so excited to devour my fish that I actually forgot to take a picture of the final dish.  But just imagine it piled high with feathery green onion and cilantro, and soaking in a flavourful soy broth.

This one's for you mom.  My steamed fish with ginger, green onion, and cilantro.  Just like you used to make :)

*A little update:  after reading this post, my dad sent me an email saying that steamed fish shouldn't be salted prior to steaming as the salt takes away the natural flavor of the fish.  Instead, soy should be the final seasoning to the dish.  Thanks dad.

Chinese Steamed Fish

My mom usually trims the prickly fins of the fish with a pair of scissors before cooking. She says that it's so you don't injure yourself as you're eating the fish. If you are steaming the fish, be careful when taking the plate in and out of the steamer.  I usually try to wear rubber gloves to prevent any steam burn.  You don't want to lose all that flavorful broth that has come out of the fish after cooking.  That stuff is like liquid gold.

1 whole red snapper, scaled and gutted
3 green onions, cut into 2" lengths, and sliced as thinly as you can
1/2 bunch cilantro, rinsed well, and tougher stems picked
2" piece of ginger, peeled, and julienned finely
3 tbsp vegetable oil
soy sauce, to taste

Find a plate that has a rim of about 1" that your fish can fit in.  Make sure the plate also fits into your widest pot with enough room so you can lift out your plate of steamed fish.  Fill that pot with a few inches of water.  If you have a steaming rack, use it.  If not, using wooden chopsticks, place them in a tic tac toe fashion in the bottom of the pot.  This is to elevate your plate so it doesn't touch the water.

Bring the pot of water to a boil over medium high heat

Meanwhile, score three deep slashes on each side of the fish.  Lightly season the fish with salt.  Set aside 1/3 of the green onion and ginger.  With the other 2/3, take a small amount of the green onion and ginger and slip into each of the slashes and belly of the fish.

Place the fish on the plate and into the pot.  Cover tightly with a lid, and steam.  Depending on how big your fish is, it may take about 15- 25 minutes.  I baked mine in a tightly wrapped foil pouch at 375'F, and it took about half an hour.  (It was also a really big fish).  The great thing about steaming is even if you over cook your fish slightly, it will still be really moist.

To check for doneness, the meat should be opaque and flake off the bone easily.

Carefully, take the plate out and sprinkle over the remaining green onion, ginger, and cilantro. 

In a small pot over medium high heat, heat the vegetable oil until the slightest hint of smoke comes up.  Immediately drizzle over the fish.  You should hear a loud sizzle.  Season with soy sauce to your liking and serve immediately.

Serve with steamed jasmine rice and blanched Chinese vegetables.


  1. Love it! Keep 'em coming!

    That's how my Grandma makes fish too, except she usually fillets the fish, doesn't use a whole fish like they do in restaurants.

    I used to steam mine in a bamboo steamer (like the ones used for dim sum) and put a leaf of cabbage under the fish to keep the juices. Mmmm.

    Tanya xo

  2. I love whole steamed fish, with the head on, it's so flavorful. (The cheeks are the best part).

    I love those bamboo steamers. The fish was so big, we couldn't even finish it... brought some leftovers for work the next day. :)