This has got to be one of the quickest dishes there is, and it is also one that can be put together ahead of time and cooked while you do other things. Our children love it, and it can be made extremely healthy (or less so, according to your wishes!) It can be made with whole fish, which makes a stunning presentation (and is lots of fun for the kids, since their father can sometimes be dared to eat the eyeballs!) or more simply from boneless fillets, which are quicker and less messy to eat. Try to buy your fish from a fish monger at the farmers’ market – they are very knowledgeable about their product and often offer more sustainably fished/raised options.
- fish choices: you can use 1 whole fresh sea bass (about 1-1.5 lb), scaled and gutted, but with head and tail intact; 2 smaller whole trout, scaled and gutted, but with heads and tails intact; 1-1.5 lbs of most white fish fillets will work – we’ve used snapper, tilapia, John Dori….
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 T fresh ginger, shredded or cut into matchsticks
- 1 ea scallion, cut diagonally into thin slices
- 1 T chopped lard or bacon fat (I know, it’s not healthy, but it’s optional – add it for an intriguing smoky note or leave it out if you’re watching your fat intake)
- 1 T cooking oil (optional, but with lean fish, it’s a good idea to add a bit of fat for moisture and flavor)
- 1 T fermented black beans (available at Asian markets or in Asian section of some conventional stores – this is optional, so don’t despair if you can’t find them, you’ll save on the sodium content!)
- 2 T light soy sauce
- 1&1/2 T Shaoxing cooking wine (or dry sherry)
- 1 small red chili, cut into rounds or a pinch of dried chili flakes (optional)
- Rinse the fish inside and out, pat it dry, and sprinkle with the salt, placing it in a heatproof dish or shallow bowl.
- Sprinkle with the ginger and scallion.
- Combine the marinade ingredients, then pour them over the fish.
- Dot with the pork/bacon fat if you are using them (I hope you’ll try it at least once – everything in moderation!)
- Place in a steamer and steam over medium heat until the fish flakes easily. For whole fish, start checking after 15 m – this can take up to 20 m, for fillets, start checking them after approximately 8 m.
- Add 4 fresh shiitake mushroom caps, cut into thin strips, to the top of the fish.
- Soak 4 dried shiitake mushrooms, cut caps into quarters and add to the top of the fish. The soaking liquid (minus the grit on the bottom) makes a good addition to dishes that call for broth or water, and the stems can be saved for making soups.
- Add a few sprigs of cilantro before steaming, then add some fresh sprigs for garnish.
- If you’ve omitted the chilies for the kids, serve a bit of chopped salted chilies at the table so others can spice it up to taste.
The marinade can be mixed up to a day in advance. The entire dish can be assembled up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated (you may need to steam it longer).
When I was studying in Taiwan, I was taught that when you eat a whole fish, it is bad luck (not to mention a mess for the tablecloth) to flip it over. Instead, you should eat all the flesh from the top side, gently remove the entire skeleton to the side, and continue eating the bottom side.