Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Lost Secrets of Traditional Asian Whole Steamed Fish

I love to cook. Asian, Italian, American, it doesn't matter - I love to cook. One of the most delicious and easiest dishes in the world is traditional Asian whole steamed fish with ginger and scallions. Yet, every recipe I've seen on the Internet and in cook books neglect several key points which often lead to a bland, dry dish. Even my mom has forgotten the secrets, I know that because she started asking ME how to cook this dish after sampling my fish.

So I figured it's best to share the secrets and spread the word. Forget that this dish is healthy and good for kids, it's downright delicious, better than the best steak I ever had when done right! My kids love it.

OK, first the basics. It follows what nearly every recipe calls for - a fresh whole fish, scallions & ginger, soy sauce and a steamer. You can definitely add a few more ingredients and I can offer my opinion on that but later. However, the dish will suck unless you remember these key points:

1) The fresh fish - even if it was alive and swimming, that isn't enough. The flavorful sauce you get from steaming fish comes from the blood. Yes, the blood of the fish is key! So remember this, never let them cut off the fins, never buy pre-gutted fish (it's the worse!), the blood will drain out and you will have a tasteless piece of cardboard to eat. I go as far as to gut the fish myself at the last minute to reduce fluid loss. Fresh frozen and thawed whole fish can be just as good as a more expensive living fish.

2) Undercook the fish. That's not quite the same as saying don't overcook it. When you remove the dish from the steamer the fish should still be a bit raw at the spine. The way to check is to use a knife to cut along the spine and see if the flesh parts from bone and if the bones are still translucent (raw). A regular 2lb fish like bass or tilapia requires only like 8-9 minutes of cooking. Just make sure the fish is fresh. (Thinner or thicker fish require different times based on weight - experiment and write down the cooking times, fish is good for you.)

3) That final splash of hot oil on scallions. Ah how I dread having to heat up the oil so hot it's steaming. After the fish is cooked, pile on the chopped or julienned scallions (ack a guy using the word julienne!) on the fish and pour the scalding oil on top. Always be careful, this is why I cook fish and not my wife who wants to avoid getting burned - use mitts. But the hotter the better to release the scallions' flavor into the sauce. And be generous on the oil.

You know why whole fish is better than filets? Because the head, bones and skin add flavor, the blood adds flavor. The best part of the fish is the fatty belly meat (just be careful not to break open the gall bladder when you gut the fish). Steamed fish on top of rice with sauce on top is just awesome.

My personal recipe uses the white parts of the scallion stalks as a rack to to lay the fish on top of (this let's the bottom of the fish cook faster). My sauce is 4 parts light soy, 2 part dark soy, a little sugar, 1 part Shao Xing rice wine and a dash of sesame oil which I pour over the fish to marinate prior to steaming. Ginger is placed on the skin and in the gut of fish, the chopped scallions are for later. I don't like making diagonal cuts on the fish to let it cook faster - blood will leak out of the flesh. Lot's of people add garlic or black beans and other stuff - all good as long as you follow the secrets!

Enjoy, maybe next time I will share my award winning Chili recipe!


Gayle said...

god that sounds good... Thanks for the pointers. my husband will enjoy experimenting with this.

Anonymous said...

would you mind clarifying?

after getting the oil nice and hot, do i slip the fish into it OR do i ladle it over the fish?

thank you so much for posting this - i've been looking for a steamed whole fish recipe FOREVA!

Darryl said...

is there a more delicious fish?

i'd put halibut, trout and maybe

a striper on top...but then again

fresh is the best tip, here.

great suggestion

your mum is probably proud of ya

Monster Daddy said...

Thanks for all the kind comments.

Hi angie. Right after you cook the fish and check the bone to make sure it is done, you take those chopped scallions and make a nice compact pile of it on the fish itself.

You do that so you can pour the hot oil all on that one pile of scallions. Don't pour oil on anything else (cause you'll probably get hurt from all the splatter and sizzle, it's really that HOT!)

After that is done, I would take a spoon and scoop up some sauce and pour that over the scallions to spread the flavor and scallions all over the fish.

It's perfectly OK to let the fish sit a little bit before serving to let the flavor meld.

darryl, remember not every fresh fish is the same. The secret's in the blood!

P.S. Whole ungutted rainbow trout is extremely good in this recipe. Damn it to hell that I can only find pre-gutted ones now where I live - tastes like cardboard. :(

Anonymous said...

good stuff! thanks for the clarification . . . the devil is in the details and when working with SCALDING HOT oil, i'd rather risk asking a silly question than getting burned! . . . i am so trying this recipe after a fishing trip . . . fresh, lake catfish/carp!

Mama Nabi said...

mmmm, once in college, a Vietnamese friend steamed a whole rainbow trout for people who didn't have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving - it was heavenly! I think the yummiest I've had ever was in Cambodia, where we sat in a gazebo-like open structure and waited for the fisher to catch the fish first before the cook could prepare it for us. Yummmmmmmm! You're right, fish does taste so much better when cooked whole.

SoulSnax said...

cool, thanks! just in time for Good Friday. Salamat!

Anonymous said...

Pictures, we want pictures!

thisislarry said...

Monster Daddy it is 11:00 at night and all I can think about is: I WANT THAT FIIIISH!

Thanks a bunch.

Hey, if your mom is asking you for pointers, you've passed some sonic barrier of authenticity!

Monster Daddy said...

Yum, steamed Tilapia for Easter! Sauce turned out nice and tasty (awesome on rice) and I presented the head of the fish to my parents as guests of honor. As a bonus, I didn't slice open the gall bladder when gutting it this time, woohoo!

P.S. Thinner/smaller fish are much easier than a big fish to cook. Note to self: 2.5 lb Tilapia = 16 min cook time.

Sugarbread said...

Thanks for the recipe! I used to always eat a version of this with sea bass at this cute little Vietnamese restaurant in Park Slope. But you had to pay an arm and a leg for it! Better to make at home.

Supermom said...

Hi I'm new here, don't even know how I got linked to this page.

I love this fish recipe, I do almost everything the same except I cheat a little with the sauce. I used to do the soy sauce/sugar sesame oil thing but I discovered this seafood soy sauce they sell at asian supermarkets, YES, I know it's not the same... but so much easier when you have to tend to a steaming fish and hot oil on the wok!

Monster Daddy said...

Yum, Supermom I'll need to check that seafood soy sauce out :)