This Sunday, February 10th, marks the Chinese New Year and ushers in the Year of the Snake. It is traditional in China to prepare a whole fish as part of the New Years meal. The Chinese word for fish – yu – sounds like the word for prosperity. The play on words is what inspired this tradition. This weekend on the show Evan interviews Fuchsia Dunlop – food writer, cookbook author and the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Her new book Every Grain of Rice, is a wonderful introduction to cooking Chinese food at home.
Dunlop describes this recipe for Steamed Sea Bass with Ginger and Spring Onion (Qing zheng lu yu 清蒸鱸魚) as “one of the easiest dishes to prepare.” She continues, “yet [it] is greeted with more delight at the dinner table than almost any other. The cooking method is typically Cantonese, which is to say that it relies on superbly fresh produce and minimal intervention: the seasonings are there just to enhance the flavor of the fish.” Here in Southern California where fresh produce is abundant, it feels like a perfect match.
Keep reading for the recipe…
Steamed sea bass with ginger and spring onion
Qing zheng lu yu 清蒸鱸魚
This is one of the easiest dishes to prepare and yet is greeted with more delight at the dinner table than almost any other. The cooking method is typically Cantonese, which is to say that it relies on superbly fresh produce and minimal intervention: the seasonings are there just to enhance the flavor of the fish. The only thing you need to be careful with is the timing, making sure the fish is not overcooked. Don’t worry too much about quantities, just use those I’ve given as a guide. This recipe will make a farmed sea bass taste splendid, a wild one sublime.
You need to steam the fish in a dish that fits into your steamer or wok, with a little room around the edges for steam to circulate. If you can’t quite fit the fish, lying flat, in your steamer, you can curl it around, or, in a worst-case scenario, cut it neatly in half then reassemble on the serving plate.
In China, the fish is presented whole. At more informal meals, guests will pluck pieces of fish with their chopsticks, dip them into the soy sauce, and then eat. In more formal settings, a waitress may lift the top fillet from the fish and lay it on the dish, then remove the backbone with attached head and tail. If you do this, don’t forget to offer the fish cheeks to your most honored guest before you remove the head!
5 spring onions
2 oz (50g) piece of ginger
1 sea bass, about 11/2 lb (700g), scaled and cleaned, but with head and tail intact
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
3 tbsp light soy sauce or tamari
4 tbsp cooking oil
Trim the spring onions and cut three of them into 21/2 in (6cm) lengths, then into fine slivers. Wash and peel the ginger, keeping the thick peel and any knobbly bits for the marinade. Cut the peeled part into long, thin slivers.
Rinse the fish in cold water and pat it dry. Starting at the head, make three or four parallel, diagonal cuts on each side of the fish, cutting into the thickest part of the flesh near the backbone. Rub it inside and out with a little salt and the Shaoxing wine. Smack the ginger remnants and one of the remaining spring onions with the side of a
cleaver or a rolling pin to release their fragrances and place them in the belly cavity of the fish. Leave to marinate for 10–15 minutes.
Pour off any liquid that has emerged from the fish and pat it dry. Tear the last spring onion into two or three pieces and lay it in the center of the steaming plate. Lay the fish over the spring onion (theonion will raise the fish slightly so steam can move around it).
Steam the fish over high heat for 10–12 minutes, until just cooked. Test it by poking a chopstick into the thickest part of the flesh, just behind the head; the flesh should flake away easily from the backbone. When the fish is nearly done, dilute the soy sauce with 2 tbsp hot water.
Remove the fish from the steamer and transfer carefully to a serving dish. Remove and discard the ginger and spring onion from its belly and the cooking juices.
Scatter the fish with the slivered ginger and spring onion. Heat the oil in a wok or small pan over a high flame. When it starts to smoke slightly, drizzle it over the ginger and spring onion slivers, which should sizzle dramatically (make sure the oil is hot enough by dripping a tiny amount over the fish and listening for the sizzle before you pour the rest over it). Pour the diluted soy sauce all around the fish and serve immediately.
Steamed fish fillets with ginger and spring onion
Fillets of fish can be cooked in exactly the same way, adjusting cooking times and quantities accordingly.
*Reprinted from Every Grain
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