Thursday, March 20, 2008

Guo Nian Kuai Le - Part 3 (The Final 2008 Installment)

Chinese cooks in the know may feel somewhat inclined to mock me for posting a recipe for steamed fish. This method of preparing fish is so common in China that any Chinese cook with even a modicum of culinary ability can pull it off. However, given the fact that I have only recently begun to develop/increase my Chinese cooking skills, it seemed prudent to go to someone who has already mastered this technique. Enter Edi. Edi is my good friend and former roommate in Boston. She grew up in Hong Kong. She makes lots of yummy Chinese food... one reason among many to love living with her. I loved it when she would go to Chinatown and buy fresh fish and vegetables because it usually meant that I could enjoy a little of whatever simple, tasty, meal she whipped up. She made this kind of fish often, and although its been a favorite of mine since I lived in Taiwan, I'm a little ashamed to admit that I have never even attempted to prepare fish this way myself.

However, I recognize that it is silly to pay someone else to make something for you when it's ridiculously easy to make yourself. As an added bonus where this fish is concerned, it's the kind of dish that elicits "ohhs" and "ahhs" when presented to your fellow diners. I should be honest and note that it's also the kind of dish that might elicit a few "ughs" from the slightly squeamish or from those less enamored of seafood. Those types don't particularly relish seeing a whole fish plopped down on the table in front of them, but in my opinion, that just makes for more entertaining dining.

Because fish is a quintessential New Year's dish I wanted to be able to share this method with all of you, which left me little choice but to finally tackle it myself (many thanks to Edi for furthering my education by sharing her tricks of the trade). I've always understood that fish is served at Chinese New Year because the character for fish in Chinese sounds the same as the character for "surplus". I'll spare you a lengthy explanation on how characters work and why tones are important, etc etc... just know that my above explanation simplifies things somewhat. Anyway, because the two characters sound the same, eating fish during the New Year's celebrations is believed to mean that the coming year will bring surplus into one's life. I like fish, so I don't really need a reason to eat it. But if eating it means I might have a more prosperous year, I'm certainly willing to oblige.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I didn't like any seafood until I lived in Taiwan. Since living in Taiwan, I am a full-blown, died in the wool convert/believer/advocate. There is something about the way Chinese cooks prepare fish that helped me to see the light. Mostly I think they flavor the fish so adeptly that you can't help but love it. I'm hoping that over the coming year I'll be able to convince other seafood skeptics to give it one more try. In the meantime, for those of you who have already been converted, I hope you enjoy this super simple, yet amazingly delicious preparation as much as I do.

Whole Steamed Fish with Ginger and Green Onions
As noted above, some people don't exactly relish the idea of digging into a whole fish. If you are preparing this dish for people who might fall into that group, you can certainly use something less alarming, like fish fillets.

Whole Fresh Fish:
This one, admittedly major, ingredient is the key to this dish. I can't stress this enough. As Edi said, "The most important thing is to get/catch a died-not-long-ago fish." If you have a Chinese supermarket near you, I suggest going there. The fishmonger can tell you which of their fish is the freshest. The fish I prepared was a black tilapia, but you can use any fish. Just make sure it is A) fresh, and B) one you like. Also, have the market clean/degut the fish and remove the scales.

Fresh ginger - good size chunk, maybe about 2" long
3 green onions
Cooking oil
Soy sauce
Salt and Pepper (preferably Chinese white pepper, if you can find it)

Peel the ginger and julienne into small, short strips. Cut green onions into 1" chunks and then slice (I quartered the green onion chunks so that I had long, thin strips.)

Put the fish on a glass plate. Sprinkle salt and pepper in the cavity and on the outside of the fish. Place about 1/3 of the green onions and ginger on the inside of the fish and another 1/3 on top.

Boil water in a large pan. Place a rack of some kind in the pan (see photo above... I used a wok stand). You don't want the water to touch your plate, so make sure your plate is elevated high enough. Once the water is boiling, place the plate on the rack and cover.

Steam fish for 15-20 minutes. The fish is ready when the meat at the thickest section of the fish flakes easily and a fork or chopstick goes straight through.

Take the plate out and drain off any water that has accumulated on the plate. Heat 2 T. oil in a pan. Once hot add the remaining ginger and green onions and fry briefly until fragrant.

Pour oil mixture on top of the cooked fish. Pour some soy sauce on top of the fish as well. I didn't measure the soy sauce... just gave it a couple good shakes. Serve, with great applause, to your amazed guests.

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