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!