Ginger Scallion Steamed Whole Fish
In anticipation of the Chinese New Year (aka Lunar New Year as other Asian countries celebrate it), I thought I'd take a departure from my usual Japanese recipes and share one of my favorite Cantonese dishes: Ginger Scallion Steamed Whole Fish. I'll definitely be eating this with friends this weekend at Oriental Garden to celebrate the holiday (my favorite Chinese restaurant, if not my favorite restaurant period). But let's be honest, I can't wait around for Chinese New Year all year to eat this so I cook it at least once a month at home. I have been waiting very patiently until this week to finally share this recipe with you.
Buying and cooking whole fish is intimidating, especially if you've never done it before. Let's start with the buying part. For this dish, bass, snapper, and branzino work best. My favorite is the non-traditional branzino because it's meaty, steams well, and cheap. If you're lucky enough to have a trusty fishmonger nearby who can point you in the right direction and tell you which fish is fresh and clean it well, half your job is done. But if you're on your own, you're not out of luck. The first thing you'll notice is the shine. Fresh fish will always sparkle and will stand out amongst all the other fish. Next, check that the scales are tightly on and that the eyes are clear (depending on the fish, cloudy doesn't necessarily mean stale) and smell the fish for any off scents. Lastly, I always check the gills to make sure that they are blood red. If it's brown, it's been sitting around for too long and the blood has oxidized. If the fish passes all these tests, you've got yourself dinner! If your fish market gets upset at you for doing any of these things, walk away. I do my fish check at every store I go to and have never had a problem. Actually my favorite store knows to leave me alone as I check every fish I'm interested in.
Have the fishmonger scale the fish, snip the fins, and clean the belly and gills for you so that you don't have to deal with this back home. If you like cleaning fish like me, at the very least ask for scaling so you don't have scales all over your kitchen. I made this mistake recently and regretted it deeply. Now that you're home with a beautiful clean fish, just rinse it under a cold tap and check for any remaining scales. If there are any left, take the back of a knife and scrape against the scale and they should fly off. Reserve in the fridge until all of your other prep is done.
Because there are so few ingredients in this dish, the freshness of each ingredient is extremely important. You want beautiful ginger, scallion, and cilantro to go with your newly acquired fish. Peel and julienne the ginger into 2 inch strips, julienne the scallion and roughly chop the cilantro. I make sure to prep a lot of aromatics because the scallions and cilantro mixed with the sauce over rice is one of my favorite parts of the dish.
Take the fish out of the fridge and lightly season both sides and inside the cavity with salt and pepper. Traditionally, white pepper is used but I prefer black. Then take half of the pile of ginger and lay below and on top of the fish in a heat proof plate. Then, take another quarter of ginger and stuff the cavity of the fish. Now, it's time to steam the fish. I use my trusty bamboo steamer and wok combination as seen in last week's post and just place the plate inside the steamer. You could also flip a bowl upside down inside a wok to raise the plate and fill the wok with water just below the height of the bowl and cover with a wok lid. You want to set the heat to medium as the fish is delicate and heavy steam will start to tear apart the fish. For a 1.5 pound fish, it should take about 10-15 minutes of steaming. I usually start checking at the 8 minute mark and use a chopstick to peer inside the cavity to check that the flesh is opaque and white. You definitely don't want to overcook the fish, so the second the flesh is white all the way up to the bone you're done!
While the steamer is going, combine the sauce ingredients and start to heat up the canola oil. I usually nuke the sauce in the microwave to warm up but you could also use a small pot and heat until simmering. Be careful when heating up the canola oil. I usually go slow and steady because I don't want to crank the heat up high and forget about it only to have a grease fire.
Once the fish is done steaming, I transfer the fish to my serving plate. This way all of the scum that leaks out during the steaming process is left behind in the old plate. Top up the fish with the left over ginger and scallions and pour the sauce evenly over the fish.
Once the oil is just smoking, take the pan off the heat and carefully pour it over the scallions both on the fish and the plate. You should hear the scallions sizzle under the heat of the hot oil. Again, be very careful with the hot smoking oil.
Lastly, top the fish with the cilantro and serve to your friends and family and wait for them to be overjoyed by the feast that's in front of them.