Weeknight CookingWhat to CookChinese CookingDinner, FasterSteamingFish & Seafood

Learn to Steam Fish, Never Overcook it Again

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I’m best known for my Italian cooking based on a childhood spent dreamily living in Italy and other exotic Mediterranean locales (Beirut, Cyprus, Spain), but my family also spent two years living in Hong Kong.

While I was too confused by the food to appreciate it then, I like to think I absorbed some of it through osmosis: As an adult I love Chinese food (and Asian food across the board). Cooking and experimenting with Asian food is one of my favorite home-cooking activities. Away from the hustle and bustle of my Italian restaurant kitchens, I can muddle my way through a cuisine I love but do not have the same easy familiarity with.

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Steamed Fish with Ginger & Scallions
Steamed Fish with Ginger & Scallions

A childhood friend of mine from Hong Kong who, as an adult, has spent a lot of time teaching architecture in China made this steamed fish for her annual Chinese New Year party. I fell in love with it for its beauty, ease in preparation, and ability to be easily modified.

It’s the kind of dish that doesn’t need precision: You can have more or less ginger, you could add cilantro or fresh, slivered chile, or not. If you don’t have Shaoxing wine, use sherry or white wine or neither. Adding aromatics such as star anise, Szechuan peppercorn, and scallions to the steaming water is optional but will perfume the fish with delicate but noticeable fragrance, acting as like a flavor builder—on it’s own, it might not add much, but with everything else going on, it combines to make really delicious dish.

Steaming fish is one of my favorite simple ways to cook fish at home: It’s a beautiful technique for a perfectly-cooked fish and so easy to execute without a lot of equipment. Steam cooks the fish delicately—it's always moist, even if you overcook it a little. It also doesn’t stink up your kitchen the way pan-frying does.

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How I Got Rid of the (Terrible, Horrible) Fish Smell in My Kitchen
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How I Got Rid of the (Terrible, Horrible) Fish Smell in My Kitchen

This is also a good general technique to master, as it’s very easy to steam any kind of small size whole fish, fish filet, or even scallops. It would work as well with a salmon or a striped bass filet as it would with whole Boston mackerel, porgies, or trout. I have to say, though, that I really believe that fish, much like meat, tastes better cooked on the bone than off, and the bonus of cooking a whole fish is that you get to eat the cheeks, the most delicate and tender part of the fish.

With a bowl of rice or some sautéed greens this steamed fish is a complete dinner for two or three or, with a larger fish, even four.

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Steamed Fish with Ginger & Scallions

71ac0add b9dd 45dd 87f6 3be6244a2f8b  unnamed Sara Jenkins
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Serves 2 to 4
  • One 1 1/2 to 2 pound fish (see note in step 1)
  • 5 to 6 scallions, divided
  • 1 1/2-inch knob ginger
  • Salt and pepper, for seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine or sherry
  • Juice and zest of 1 lime, divided
  • Optional aromatics for steaming water: star anise; knob of ginger, roughly sliced; Szechuan peppercorn; scallions; or green garlic
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fine mild red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 4 tablespoons sesame oil

Tags: fish, steaming, seafood, whole fish