Cantonese Steamed Bass (Fish)

Steamed fish is a classic dish in Southern Chinese cuisine, especially in the Canton region where fish is fresh and plentiful. Fresh fish naturally has a very clean and flavourful taste, and the Cantonese style of steaming aims to bring out as much of that natural taste as possible without adulterating it using excessive spices or committing the sacrilegious act of frying. The ingredients are simple yet create an astoundingly rich and unique experience. This recipe uses largemouth bass, but it’s ok to replace with other fish to suit your liking or budget, such as tilapia and cod. Let’s begin.

Ingredients

  • Fresh fish (with bone and skin)
  • Fresh ginger
  • Fresh green onion
  • ~1 tsp salt
  • ~1 tbsp sugar
  • Soy sauce
  • Neutral cooking oil
  • Sesame oil

Directions

  1. Slice green onion into moderately sized strips and ginger into fine strips. These ingredients won’t be cooked later, so make sure to cut with a clean cutting board and knife. Set aside for later use.
  2. Clean the fish. Supermarkets will usually gut and clean the fish to some extent, but not to the extent that you’d want to cook directly with it. So, it’s advised that you clean again. But, BE VERY CAREFUL! Most fish have sharp fins and bones that can hurt you. This, in addition to the slipperiness of the fish’s body, makes this step a little hazardous if you don’t take proper precautions. So, you may decide to wear a thick rubber glove on the hand holding the fish to make it easier.
  3. With a knife scrape the inside of the fish to clear out any residual guts and blood clots. When you look inside the belly, you should be able to see the backbone. If not, then take a knife and slice open the flesh towards the backbone until it’s visible. This part is important, because the area around the backbone contains a lot of blood that makes the fish have that “fishy” taste many people find repulsive. Rinse out this area with water.
  4. Scaling the fish is also something that the store will usually do only to 80-90%, because the remainder is more troublesome. However, if this remainder of the scales is not removed, it’ll ruin the experience of eating the fish when cooked. Focus on the areas that are harder to get to, such as the tail, around the fins, and the belly. Then, just rinse off the scales, drain any remaining water, and set aside on a plate.
  5. Sprinkle a small amount of salt on the inside and outside areas of the fish. We will be adding soy sauce later, but the saltiness of the soy sauce is not a replacement for this step. The salt will also help draw out more of the fishiness of the meat and get rid of the slime on the body of certain fishes.
  6. Drain any water from the plate and place inside your steamer once the water has reached a rolling boil. Cover completely, and then turn down the flame to medium high once you see steam emerge. Leave it to steam for 14-17 minutes depending on the size of your fish. The one in our video was ~2lbs before gutting and we steamed it for 16 minutes.
  7. While the fish is steaming, prepare the sauce. Our sauce is simple – soy sauce sweetened with a bit of white sugar. The amount of each can be tuned to your liking, but make sure the sugar is fully dissolved by checking the bottom of the bowl for grains. We like it where the soy sauce is sweetened to the point where it’s not really sweet, but there’s enough sugar to offset most of the saltiness. Some of you may have seen or used the dedicated “steamed fish” soy sauce from Lee Kum Kee. Our opinion on that is that it’s mostly unnecessary if the fish is fresh, and so we never use it.
  8. Once the fish is done steaming, carefully take it out of the steamer and pour away all of the water that has pooled in the plate.
  9. Place the fish back in the steamer with the water still boiling and pour on the sweetened soy sauce. Put the cover back on to keep it warm.
  10. In another pan, heat up a few tbsp oil to the point where you see a very small amount of smoke come off. To this hot oil, add in a few drops of roasted sesame oil. This step is our secret to getting the aroma and flavour that you get in the steamed fish from restaurants. Most of them will use oil that has been used to fry meats because it’s much more aromatic than plain oil. However, this oil is very unhealthy. Adding in roasted sesame oil gives the oil the aroma that mimics the restaurant oil but is much healthier.
  11. Scatter the green onion and ginger strips onto the fish and pour the hot oil onto the green onion and ginger. You should see a sizzle, which helps bring out the flavor of the garnish.
  12. Optional: cover for another 10-15s on high heat to cook the green onion and ginger slightly. You can adjust the timing of this step or do away with it altogether if you prefer the garnish to taste more raw.

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