Steaming food is a healthy way to cook. As practiced in Western kitchens, mostly on vegetables, it’s also often a bland way to cook. In Chinese kitchens, it is an art. Chinese cooks use both steaming and smoking to infuse foods – especially meats and fish – with delicate, complex flavors.
Chef and cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo knows a thing or two about Chinese cooking. Daniel Boulud calls her “the Chinese godmother every chef wishes he had.” In her beautiful, thorough Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, she says, “Steaming is, in every respect, a restorative process that makes food glisten. It is a historic method of Chinese cooking that stretches back through the centuries to when there were no ovens and all food had to be cooked on the top of a brick stove over a wood fire, with woks as the steaming vessels.”
Bamboo steamers have become the traditional and most popular tool for steaming foods. We certainly love ours. But there are ways to steam food if you don’t have one. One is to set a wire cake rack inside a deep, lidded skillet large enough to accommodate a glass pie plate or other vessel to hold the food you’re steaming. That method works well for this dish.
Besides making food moist and preserving its natural flavors, steaming does a great job of transferring the tastes and aromas of aromatics to food. More even than marinating, the flavors seem to work themselves into whatever you’re steaming. The effect isn’t overpowering, though – it’s quite delicate.
You can use all kinds of aromatics for steaming. When I recently steamed some duck legs for a Chinese duck pasta dish, I used ginger, garlic, star anise and Chinese five-spice powder. For this fish, I again used ginger, star anise and garlic, but I also added scallions, cilantro and lemongrass. Some dry sherry (you can substitute white wine or Chinese Shoaxing wine made from fermented rice), soy sauce and sesame oil also add a lot of flavor to this dish.
I call this dish, rather generically, Chinese-style steamed fish (as do numerous other recipes you’ll find). I’m not overly concerned with absolute authenticity here, but with delicious flavors working together. In most Chinese restaurants, this dish would be made with a whole fish, ideally just pulled live from a tank when you order. I worked with easier to get (and cook and serve) fish fillets. I used farmed tilapia fillets from Regal Springs; you can read about their commendable sustainability and social impact track record in the post I did on tilapia fish tacos. If you can’t find tilapia, any mild, firm-fleshed white fish will do – orange roughy, cod, flounder or red snapper are all good choices.
Chinese-style Steamed Fish
1 to 2 stalks lemongrass (optional)
2 scallions, divided
2 teaspoons minced peeled fresh ginger
2 small garlic cloves, minced
2 whole star anise
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, divided
4 6-ounce tilapia fillets
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons dry sherry
4 teaspoons soy sauce
1-1/2 teaspoons oriental sesame oil
Place a round wire cake rack inside a deep, lidded skillet large enough to accommodate a 9-inch glass pie plate. Pour water into the skillet so it’s as deep as possible without touching the pie plate. Bruise the lemongrass stalks with the side of a knife, then slice into sections diagonally to expose the fragrant insides. If you can’t find lemongrass, you can use the zest of half a lemon or just leave it out altogether. Slice one of the scallions into 2-inch segments, also bruising it with the side of a knife. Scatter the lemongrass, scallion, ginger and garlic in the pie plate.
Arrange the fish fillets on the bed of aromatics and nestle the star anise among the fillets. The fillets may be a little crowded, but that’s okay. Drizzle the sherry over the fillets. Mix the soy sauce and sesame oil in a small bowl and drizzle it over the fillets. Season the fillets with freshly ground pepper.
Cover the pan and bring water to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Steam the fish until just opaque in the middle, about 10 minutes for fillets 1 inch thick. For thinner fillets, try 8 minutes or so. Meanwhile thinly slice the remaining scallion.
Transfer fillets to individual plates with a slotted spatula. Spoon some of the cooking liquids over the fillets (if you steamed a whole fish, I wouldn’t do this – the liquids would probably be too fishy). Top with remaining cilantro and scallion slices. Serve.
Related post: Chinese duck pasta dish