Monday, February 17, 2014

The Cantonese way with perfectly fresh fish

Cantonese restaurants flourished in Taipei when we lived there, not only because their delicate dishes are welcome pretty much everywhere on planet Earth, but also because Taiwan boasted some of the freshest fish around. I had always enjoyed seafood as a child, but I never really understood its beauty until I lived in Taiwan, and part of the credit for this has to go to the local Cantonese chefs, for few people seem to be able to quickly turn a plain fish into a feast for the senses like they did.

Freshness is and always has been key for dishes like Cantonese steamed fish, because in something as light and simple as this recipe, nothing can be hidden. And so, whenever we entered a seafood restaurant in Taipei and the waitress steered us toward seafood dishes laden with heavy sauces and deep flavors, my husband’s brow would furrow and I could see the bubble of his anticipatory glee almost pop before my eyes, because the waitress was hinting that the fish really wasn't all that fresh.

My trusty scaler
Cantonese steamed fish, though, is precisely the sort of thing you should make when you come across a wonderfully fresh fish with delicate texture and excellent flavor. For example, the last time I made this I found a petrale sole that had just been plucked from the San Francisco Bay that morning, and the results were ethereal. I used my best soy sauce because it is the focus of the sauce; I also finished the dish with rice bran oil due to its high smoke point and because its flavor lingers on the tongue after the initial sweetness of the fish and savoriness of the sauce, and so you want something very tasty here.

When you do find that good fish, have the fishmonger do no more than gut and scale it; leave the head, tail, and fins on, not only because they make the dish look so nice, but also because so much fat is located down there at the bottoms of the fins and in the head, and the tail is always such a joy to eat, as the texture is firm and lively down there. And be sure and tell them to leave any roe they find in the fish; that is an exquisite gift of the sea… it’s a type of caviar, after all!
Fit the platter to the steamer

Now, as you search for just the right fish, try to get one that is relatively small—a bit over a pound is ideal—because you not only want it to steam quickly, but you must ensure that it fits easily into your steamer. At home, I place the fish on a platter that barely sits inside a wide wok I have reserved just for steaming; a trivet holds it steadily above the water, and a glass cover allows me to keep a close eye on its progress. Learning to correctly calculate when a fish is perfectly done takes a bit of practice and experience, but having a setup like this makes life a whole lot easier.

Please do not feel confined to using only flatfish here, as any number of other fine-textured fish will do. But a flatfish is a good fish to learn with, and the amount of sauce and so forth are calibrated just for this variety and this size. Once you master this, though, try orange roughy or rock cod or even sea bass; as long as the fish is fresh and tender, it will shine here.

Slash deeply
Cantonese steamed fish
Guǎngdōng qīngzhēngyú 廣東清蒸魚
Serves 2 or more

1 whole flatfish (about 1¼ pounds)
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup finely shredded ginger
1 large or 2 small green onions, trimmed

2 tablespoons good soy sauce
1 tablespoon filtered water
1 tablespoon rice wine of any kind
1½ teaspoons sugar
¼ cup fresh vegetable oil (rice bran, peanut, or canola are good)

Stuff & sprinkle ginger
1. Clean the fish by removing the guts and gills, and then scale it on both sides; leave the head, tail, and fins attached. Use a sharp knife to cut 3 deep diagonal slashes on both sides of the fish; this will make the fish steam quickly and evenly, and also will allow you to see how done it is. Rub the salt into the cavity and the slashes, as well as on the outside. Place the fish on a platter that fits in your steamer and let it marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Set up your steamer equipment, too.

2. Have the ginger ready, and cut the green onions into fine julienne; keep these in separate piles.

3. Prepare the sauce by mixing the soy sauce, water, rice wine, and sugar together until the sugar dissolves. Measure out the oil in a separate cup and have it next to the stove.

Ha! These are ALL the bones!
4. Pour enough water into the steamer that it does not reach the top of the trivet; cover the steamer and bring it to a full boil. Put a good pinch of the ginger inside of the fish’s cavity and then sprinkle the rest along the top of the fish. Place the platter with the fish inside the steamer, cover, and steam it on high. Start checking the fish at around 8 minutes, although it may take over 12 minutes before it is perfectly done. Look inside of the slashes: when the bases are no longer pink, it is done; make dead certain by plunging a chopstick through the thickest part of the fish, and if it goes through it like it was piercing butter, the fish is done. Remove the fish from the steamer and drain off the liquid in the platter. (This point is key, as it allows the pure flavors of the sauce and oil to shine through. Don't bother saving the juice, as it will be very salty and just spoil the dish.)

5. Sprinkle the green onions over the top of the fish. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over high heat, and when it just starts to smoke, drizzle it down the length of the fish so that it immediately cooks the green onions. Give the sauce a swirl and then pour it too down the length of the fish. Serve immediately with lots of rice, as this sauce is delicious spooned on top of the grains.

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