Easy Chinese steamed fish dinner

Chinese steamed fish and riceNeed a quick, no-fuss, healthy dinner? Steamed fish, rice, and green vegetables is my go-to meal that cooks in one versatile pan—a Chinese multi-layer steamer. With relatively little effort, I am rewarded with a complete meal highlighted by moist succulent fish.

The origin is Chinese. In a Hakka restaurant in Meizhou, China, we ate a steamed whole fish, very simply seasoned with a bit of ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, and green onions (page 39 in The Hakka Cookbook). Throughout China, we ate different variations of steamed fish, sometimes with fermented black beans, chiles, red peppers, and pickled mustard greens. In Meizhou, we also ate rice steamed in small clay bowls (page 270 in The Hakka Cookbook). I merge these two in this easy, quick meal. Chinese stacked steamer

With a big Chinese steamer this meal cooks efficiently in about 30 minutes.  I use a  self-contained multi-layer metal steamer. You could also use two stacked bamboo steamer racks over a 14-inch wok. Cook bowls of rice on one layer and fish on the top layer. When both are done, plunge vegetables into the boiling water in the base pan and cook briefly, then drain. Look for the steamers at the Wok Shop, Asian cookware stores and Asian supermarkets, and online. Choose steamers or bamboo steamer racks at least 11- to 12-inches wide to accommodate wide plates.

Steamed Fish and Rice for 2

In this easy version, I often use a piece of fish fillet. You can also use a small whole fish and increase the seasonings. Season fish as you like: choose from shiitake mushrooms slivers, sliced chiles, dried hot chile flakes, pickled mustard green slivers, lemon slices, fresh herbs. If desired, lightly mix the cooked green vegetables with Chinese oyster sauce and sesame oil to taste.

2/3 cup white long grain rice

12 to 16 ounces fish fillet such as rock fish, salmon, or halibut

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (shaoxing)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon thinly slivered fresh ginger

1 tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed (optional)

Salt to taste

1 green onion, thinly sliced or slivered, included tops

6 to 8 ounces Chinese green vegetable such as Chinese broccoli (gai lan) or yau choy (ends, trimmed and cut in 3-inch lengths), or baby bok choy (cut in halves or quarters lengthwise)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil or sesame oil

Cilantro leaves (optional)

 

1.  Fill the base of a Chinese metal steamer half to two-thirds full of water or a 14-inch wok (if using bamboo steamer racks). Set wok over a ring if it has a round bottom to stablize.  Bring water to a boil over high heat.

2.  Rinse 1/3 cup rice in fine wire strainer; drain. Place rice in a small Chinese rice bowl (about 1 cup size). Fill bowl with 1/3 cup water. Repeat for second bowl. Repeat if you want additional bowls of rice. Place rice bowls in one steamer rack. When water boils, set filled steamer rack over water, cover and steam about 15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile rinse fish and pat dry. Place fish (skin-side down, if attached) on shallow heatproof dish (such as a 9-inch Pyrex pie pan) that will fit inside a steamer. Drizzle fish evenly with wine and soy sauce. Sprinkle evenly with ginger, black beans, and salt. Sprinkle white part of onion over fish. Set fish in second steamer rack.

4. After rice has steamed 15 minutes, set steamer rack with fish on top of rack with rice. Cover fish. (In a wok, you may need to add more boiling water as it evaporates.) Continue steaming until fish looks almost opaque in thickest part, 8 to 10 minutes for about 1 inch thick piece and rice is tender. In a wok, you may need to add more boiling water as it evaporates. When fish is done, lift off both steamer racks and set the stacked racks on a towel-covered counter. (Be careful, steam is very hot.) Keep steamer racks covered and allow fish to rest.

5.  Add more water to pan if pan is less than half full and return to boil over high heat. Add vegetable and cook until bright green and barely tender, about 2 minutes. Drain, place vegetable in a serving bowl.

6.  Sprinkle remaining green onions over fish. In a small pan over high heat, cook the vegetable oil until very hot and pour over green onions and fish. If using sesame oil, do not heat. Sprinkle fish with cilantro. Serve fish with rice and vegetables.

Luodai: ancient Hakka town

luodai lionJust outside of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, lies the ancient Hakka town of Luodai. More than 90% of the 23,000 residents are Hakka. Sichuan, a province in southwest China, is home to more than 3 million Hakkas.

ground red chilesAlthough, the government remodeled the town with picturesque Qing-style features to attract tourists, you can find the old village hidden in the back streets. Basins of crushed dried red chiles, mountain mushrooms, and vegetables fill the marketplace. Along the dirt pathways and lanes, small shops carry out their business. A woman delivers disks of coal for cooking.

Guangdong GuildThroughout the newer renovated section, tea houses, gardens, and small shops line stone-paved streets. Several large guild complexes built by Hakkas from different provinces serve as social halls. In my research tour in 2005, we ate at two of these Hakka guilds, the Jiangxi and Guangdong.

The Guangdong Guild was built in 1747 by the Hakkas. The host’s ancestors are from Meizhou, the same area as my own family.

Although the Hakka maintained much of their traditional cuisine, in migration they often adapted to their new homes, adding different ingredients, adjusting to local tastes, and creating new dishes.  In this province, known for it spicy chile-fired cuisine, the Sichuan influences assert themselves immediately in our meals.

steamed fish with green onionsCompare steamed fish served in two different provinces. In Meizhou, in the center of the Hakka heartland in Guangdong province, the fish is steamed with just a bit of soy sauce and green onions (recipe on page 39 in The Hakka Cookbook). The natural flavor of the fish predominates.

steamed fish with chilesIn Luodai in Sichuan province, the fish is steamed under a avalanche of fresh green peppercorns and sliced green chiles. The taste is definitely hot and spicy as many dishes are in Sichuan.

Our Hakka host explains that although the traditional Hakka flavor profile is not spicy, they added the chile pepper to their cooking to match the climate. Not all the dishes on our table were fiery hot; some emphasized natural flavors and balanced the chile-laden dishes. However, the meals in Sichuan were far more spicy than those we ate in Guangdong.

Even in China, we see the effects of migration in a simple steamed fish. As I travel more, I see the effect of migration and environment on the food we eat.