This Classic Cantonese Dish Turns Whole Fish Into an Easy, Impressive Dinner

Fish is fresh and plentiful here in Seattle, and my family and I eat a lot of it at home. But the common complaints — it’s difficult to cook well (especially when distracted by an active household), it’s messy to handle, it can leave the house smelling for days — all ring true, even for someone who has cooked professionally for years. Steaming fish, as in the classic Cantonese dish 清蒸鱼, whole steamed fish, neatly solves these problems.

Recipe: Cantonese-Style Steamed Fish

When I was growing up, it would show up at celebratory meals at a Chinese friend’s house, or my grandfather would order it at one of the many Cantonese seafood restaurants in New York. It always reminded me of the sakana no nitsuke,Japanese simmered fish, my grandmother would eat. It’s an ideal dish for people who are still on the fence about fish (kids and grown-ups alike), and particularly whole fish. But it wasn’t until I started cooking for guests in my own home, and started a family with two children, that I’ve come to know its true value: The effort-to-reward ratio is off the charts. Its centerpiece-worthy appearance and subtle aroma and flavors belie the fact that it’s one of the fastest, easiest ways I know to cook fish.

I start by washing and lightly seasoning a whole fish (typically trout, sole or branzino) with salt, stuff it with ginger and scallions (and cilantro, if my cilantro-hating daughter is not around), then steam it gently on a bed of the same. This not only perfumes the fish, but it lifts it off the bottom of the plate and keeps its cavity open, ensuring that it will also cook rapidly and evenly. Rather than intensifying fishy aromas the way pan-frying or grilling can, steaming brings out a more delicate sweetness, a flavor complemented by the ginger and scallions. Properly steamed fish also gets an incredibly luxurious texture, unachievable by harsher methods.

Once the fish is steamed, you could transfer it to a fancy serving platter, but I typically serve it on the plate I steamed it on. I finish it gently with a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine and sugar diluted with warm water, and dramatically with a tableside splash of hot oil. It sputters and sizzles its way down a tangled bird’s nest of fresh aromatics on the fish, wafting their scent around the table.

A makeshift setup, like large plate set on a rack inside a roasting pan or wok, can work if you don’t have a steaming basket.Credit…Armando Rafael for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Cyd Raftus McDowell.

There are, of course, a few hurdles to clear: If a large bamboo steamer in a wok is not a typical cooking setup in your home, you’ll have to hack together a steaming rig. (A large plate set on a rack inside a roasting pan with an inch of water simmering on the stovetop and a foil lid works well.) Then, there’s the question of buying and serving whole, head-on, bone-in fish. Even though fish cheeks and collars are deliciously succulent, meals with eyes that stare back at you are not for everyone.

Fillets, especially those from flat fish like sole or flounder, can take very well to this preparation, though you will get different results. You know the phrase “tender at the bone”? It has a basis in reality. The meat of relatively lean white fish has a tendency to dry out if cooked too long or too hot. Heating connective tissue, on the other hand, has the opposite effect: It softens and adds a velvety, almost slippery texture to bites of meat. This connective tissue is mostly concentrated where muscle meets bone, as well as in and under the skin, the two bits that are removed when cutting fillets, which is why flat whole fish, with their high ratio of surface area to volume, come out especially velvety.

I love that slippery richness so prized in many East Asian cuisines, but you may prefer the firmer flakiness you can get from skinless fillets. There’s no right answer here, other than tradition and preference.

Skin and bones are also great insulators. While steaming whole fish, the brunt of the heat energy is absorbed and mitigated by the skin or the bones. This allows the more delicate meat underneath to cook gently with less danger of drying out. (This is the same reason highly insulative beer batters are so effective at keeping fish moist even in the harsh environment of a deep fryer.)

In the end, though the final dish may look and taste a little different, whether you choose fillets or whole fish, the results are the same: a happy family, a delicious meal and a pretty clean kitchen that smells sweet and gingery, not fishy.

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