One of the simplest Chinese recipes but a perfect one for the Chinese new year according to cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the brllliant Every Grain of Rice
Fuchsia writes: This is one of the easiest dishes to prepare and yet is greeted with more delight at the dinner table than almost any other. The cooking method is typically Cantonese, which is to say that it relies on superbly fresh produce and minimal intervention: the seasonings are there just to enhance the flavour of the fish. The only thing you need to be careful with is the timing, making sure the fish is not overcooked.
Don’t worry too much about quantities, just use those I’ve given as a guide. This recipe will make a farmed sea bass taste splendid, a wild one sublime. You need to steam the fish in a dish that fits into your steamer or wok, with a little room around the edges for steam to circulate. If you can’t quite fit the fish, lying flat, in your steamer, you can curl it around, or, in a worst-case scenario, cut it neatly in half then reassemble on the serving plate.
In China, the fish is presented whole. At more informal meals, guests will pluck pieces of fish with their chopsticks, dip them into the soy sauce, and then eat. In more formal settings, a waitress may lift the top fillet from the fish and lay it on the dish, then remove the backbone with attached head and tail. If you do this, don’t forget to offer the fish cheeks to your most honoured guest before you remove the head!
5 spring onions
50g piece of ginger
1 sea bass, about 700g, scaled and cleaned, but with head and tail intact
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
3 tbsp light soy sauce or tamari
4 tbsp cooking oil
Trim the spring onions and cut three of them into 6cm lengths, then into fine slivers. Wash and peel the ginger, keeping the thick peel and any knobbly bits for the marinade. Cut the peeled part into long, thin slivers.
Rinse the fish in cold water and pat it dry. Starting at the head, make three or four parallel, diagonal cuts on each side of the fish, cuttinginto the thickest part of the flesh near the backbone. Rub it inside and out with a little salt and the Shaoxing wine. Smack the ginger remnants and one of the remaining spring onions with the side of a cleaver or a rolling pin to release their fragrances and place them in the belly cavity of the fish. Leave to marinate for 10–15 minutes.
Pour off any liquid that has emerged from the fish and pat it dry. Tear the last spring onion into two or three pieces and lay it in the centre of the steaming plate. Lay the fish over the spring onion (the onion will raise the fish slightly so steam can move around it).
Steam the fish over high heat for 10–12 minutes, until just cooked. Test it by poking a chopstick into the thickest part of the flesh, just behind the head; the flesh should flake away easily from the backbone. When the fish is nearly done, dilute the soy sauce with 2 tbsp hot water.
Remove the fish from the steamer and transfer carefully to a serving dish. Remove and discard the ginger and spring onion from its belly and the cooking juices. Scatter the fish with the slivered ginger and spring onion.
Heat the oil in a wok or small pan over a high flame. When it starts to smoke slightly, drizzle it over the ginger and spring onion slivers, which should sizzle dramatically (make sure the oil is hot enough by dripping over a tiny amount and listening for the sizzle before you pour the rest over the fish). Pour the diluted soy sauce all around the fish and serve immediately.
Steamed fish fillets with ginger and spring onion
Fillets of fish can be cooked in exactly the same way, adjusting cooking times and quantities accordingly.
What to drink:
It really depends how many additional dishes you serve at the same time as the fish. Served on its own with a simple stir fry of green vegetables you could serve a crisp white like a Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé or a dry German riesling. With other dishes you might want a white with a touch more body - an Alsace riesling or Austrian riesling or Grüner Veltliner for example. Fuchsia suggests red braised pork and twice cooked chard, both from the book, as possible accompaniments.
This recipe comes from Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop published by Bloomsbury at £25. Photograph © Chris Terry.