Chinese Steamed Fish with Black Bean and Ginger Sauce

As much as I'd like to remain objective on Chinese food, it's hard to hide my favoritism towards Cantonese fish. In Beijing, Shanghai, or Sichuan province, fish is most likely pan-fried, heavily sauced, or buried in a broth of chilies. That's all nice, but nothing beats the clear flavor of steamed fish, with nothing to disguise the freshness. Guangdong province is spoiled in its coastal proximity. No wonder steamed fish became so entrenched in the diet.

When I taught Chinese cooking classes, I often had students who were intimidated by steaming fish in a wok. And once they tried, they were surprised by how easy it is. So, here are a few simple steps to steaming a fish, Cantonese style.

1. Pick a live one. Or at least a fresh one. - Cantonese restaurants take pride in their enormous fish tanks. And my family almost never orders fish without picking one out themselves. To get the most out of this recipe, find a fish market or head to Chinatown. If you must use fish on ice, pick one that is properly store (well-covered with ice, not sitting in a puddle of cold water). And make sure the eyes are clear, not cloudy.

2. Invest in a wire steamer rack, also called a steamer insert. - They're cheap, a few bucks at the most. In a pinch, you can also turn a bowl upside-down; just make sure it's wide enough to balance your fish plate.

3. Less is more - No need for soy sauce, cooking wine, or lots of oil. You need only a few seasonings for the fish, and the steaming will create a natural sauce.


Other Chinese seafood recipes:

Dragon Well Tea Shrimp (Longjing Xiaren)

Tilapia with Tangerine Salsa

Wonton Noodle Soup, Hong Kong-Style


Chinese Steamed Fish with Black Bean and Ginger Sauce

Serves 3 to 4

  • 1 pound whole white fish
  • 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 1-inch knob ginger, julienned or shredded with a microplane
  • 2 stalks scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 lemon

Special equipment - wire steamer rack or similar, wok with lid

  1. Clean your fish and pat dry with a kitchen towel. With a sharp knife, make a slit in the belly almost to the tail. Mix together the black beans, garlic, ginger, and half the scallions; stuff the mixture into the slit. Place the fish in a medium-sized plate and pour over with vegetable and sesame oil. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice over the fish.
  2. Fill your wok with 2 to 3 inches of water and bring to boil. Carefully set your plate on the rack, then cover with the lid. Steam for 10 to 12 minutes, depending on how thick your fish is in the middle. Check for doneness by poking the flesh with a spoon or chopstick at the thickest point; if the flesh flakes off easily, your fish is done.
  3. Garnish with the other half of your scallions and serve immediately.



Tangerine Salsa, Two Ways

Wherever I am these days - whether it's Beijing, San Francisco, or Tampa - I am surrounded by tangerines and clementines. (The latter is possibly better known in California as Cuties®.) These in-season cousins of the orange make excellent snacks, especially when you're trying to fight off the seasonal cold. And they're CHEAP. At a Tampa-area supermarket I found a 10-tangerines-for-$1 deal, rivaling Chinese prices.

After eating about 200 tangerines this season, I decided to make tangerine salsa for Christmas Eve hors d'oeuvres. This salsa requires few ingredients and is equally tangy, salty, sweet, and hot. I made a lot yesterday, and can serve it straight out of the fridge tomorrow with a few chips, a precious time-saver considering I have other appetizer, sides, and a big ol' turkey to contend with. 

Another way to use this salsa is to bake fish with it. I bought some tilapia fillets, rubbed them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and covered them with tangerine salsa. If you have the salsa already prepared, dinner is merely 10 minutes away.


Tangerine Salsa

Makes about 4 cups of salsa; feel free to halve recipe

1 tablespoon olive oil 1/2 large red onion, or 1 small red onion, finely chopped 6 ripe roma tomatoes, chopped 4 to 5 tangerines, peeled, segmented, and chopped 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice 1/2 tablespoon hot sauce, plus more to taste 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Heat oil in a medium-sized pan over medium heat. Cook onions until just caramelized, then add tomatoes and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a large bowl, mix together cooked tomatoes and onions with tangerines. Stir in lime juice, 1/2 tablespoon hot sauce, and 1 teaspoon salt. Adjust flavorings to suit your taste. Serve immediately with chips, or refrigerate for up to 3 days.


Tilapia with Tangerine Salsa

Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds tilapia fillets 2 tablespoons olive oil Salt and pepper 1 1/2 cups tangerine salsa (see above)

Cilantro sprigs for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°. Place tilapia fillets in a glass baking dish and rub with olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover fillets with salsa. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and serve immediately with rice or vegetables.

Dragon Well Shrimp - Longjing Xiaren

Since my trip to Hangzhou's Dragon Well tea fields, I have made use of the famous leaves less often than I should have. See, I went on a tea-buying binge after coming back to Beijing. In my cabinet right now there is an ample supply of not only Dragon Well (longjing), but also sheng and shou Pu'er, rose buds, chrysanthemum, barley, hibiscus, a fruit tea mix, and regular green and black tea. I'm sure some native Chinese would scoff at my puny tea collection (just like I would scoff at their wine collections of Great Wall and Dynasty bottles from Carrefour), but for me that is quite a lot of tea for the months ahead.

My right-brain demeanor also leaves me unfulfilled when I just drink the tea. (Purists, you may not want to read ahead.) I also must do something with it. Things like making rice pudding with rose tea and alcoholic granita with hibiscus. But before getting too experimental with my longjing, I thought I should whip up the classic Hangzhou shrimp dish that uses the tea.

I first tried a recipe from a popular food blog that I have long admired. The recipe called for marinating the shrimp in a mixture of egg white and cornstarch. I must have missed a step on avoiding egg mixture in your stir-fry, because once the shrimp hit the wok it looked the the beginnings of a seafood egg white omelet. The food blog's photos show no sign of egg, so I am still perplexed at my mishap.

I then turned to Kylie Kwong's My China and Ken Hom's A Taste of China for help. Kylie calls for marinating in Shaoxing and cornstarch, whereas Ken doesn't mention marinating at all. Ken also goes for the minimalist approach of no other aromatics, while Kylie adds garlic and ginger (though the amount seems like it would overwhelm the subtlety of longjing. What to do, what to do, I pondered as my stomach grumblings grew louder. What I finally made follows bits of the cookbook authors' advice and my recollections of restaurant versions.

And if you don't happen to have Dragon Well tea, making this dish with regular Chinese green tea would also work if you're craving tea-infused shrimp.


Dragon Well Shrimp - Longjing Xiaren

Serves 2 to 4

1 pound fresh shrimp (peeled, deveined, and rinsed) or frozen shrimp (rinsed) 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine for marinating, + extra splash for cooking

1 tablespoon cornstarch for marinating, + 1 teaspoon cornstartch dissolved in 1 teaspoon of water 2 cup Longjing tea, leaves strained out 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 clove garlic, minced 2 teaspoons minced ginger Salt to taste (optional) Longjing leaves for garnish (optional)

In a medium sized bowl, combine the shrimp, Shaoxing, and cornstarch. Marinate in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes.

(Now is a good time to steep the tea, if you haven't already done so. You can always brew extra tea to drink with dinner.)

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or large skillet. Quickly stir-fry the shrimp until half-done, about 1 to 2 minutes, then remove and set aside.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Stir-fry the garlic and ginger until just fragrant. Return shrimp to the wok, give a quick toss, and then a light splash of Shaoxing. Pour in tea and cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Stir in the cornflour mixture to thicken the sauce. (I personally don't think this dish needs any salt, but you can add a pinch if you deem necessary.) Transfer to a plate, garnish with optional dry leaves, and serve immediately.



Curry Laksa, and Cooking without Water

Yesterday I cooked without water. Well, not completely without water, but with trickles from the faucet. When the trickles eventually stopped, I used purified stuff from the water cooler in our living room. To rinse food, boil noodles, wash dishes, everything. Trickles.

See, Jacob and I live in a brand new apartment, so new that construction hasn't even stopped. Anyone who has visited Beijing (or China) in the past 10 years will know that the entire city (and country) is over-dosing on construction. In order to clean up the air for the Olympics, the government had mandated that all construction projects stop by June 1. Well, that deadlines has now been pushed back to July 1. And I'm annoyed not only because the air is still dusty, but also because we get periodic electricity and water outages, both announced an unannounced.

According to a notice in the "lobby", the water outage was supposed to occur between 10pm and 6am. Fine, I thought. We go out to a bar at night, come back late, and try not to use the bathroom 'til morning. Then the water stops in the middle of the afternoon. Not very convenient when you're making curry laksa. Laksa paste, bird's eye chilli seeds, and raw shrimp juice are not things you want to leave unwashed from your hands.

Thank goodness for the purified water, though I did feel a small amount of guilt.

There are many kinds of laksas, a noodle dish of Chinese-Malay origin, though the two most commonly known are curry laksa and assam laksa.  Today I was in the mood for a curry laksa, mostly because I had coconut milk on hand and not tamarind juice. (My dish was made with shrimp, but prawns are more common.) I was so happy slurping the noodles that I barely noticed the water coming back on, sputtering spurts, but who am I to complain? It meant that my laksa-infused dishes wouldn't be sitting in the sink until morning.


Curry Laksa

Serves 2

1 small bunch bean sprouts

2 tablespoons peanut oil

5 or 6 tofu puffs, sliced into thirds

1/4 lb of shrimp, cleaned (peeling optional)

1/2 pack rice vermicelli noodles

3/4 cup curry laksa paste

1 1/2 cups coconut milk

Salt to taste

2 bird's eye chillis, thinly sliced

2 lime wedges

In a small pot, blanch bean spouts and set aside. (Save water for cooking vermicelli.)

In a hot wok or large skillet, stir-fry tofu puffs in oil for 1 to 2 minutes. Add shrimp and lightly sauté until cooked, about 5 minutes. Remove tofu puffs and shrimp and set aside.

Add laksa paste and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add coconut milk, stir to combine, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 7 to 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring the pot of water to boil again. Cook rice vermicelli according to package instructions.

Salt laksa curry to taste. Return tofu and shrimp to the wok/pan, cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Divide vermicelli into individual bowls and top with laksa mixture. Garnish with bean sprouts and sliced chillis on top and lime wedge on the side.