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 Cutiesยฎ.) 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.ย 

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 350ยฐ. 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.