Cantonese cuisine focuses on fresh ingredients with a particular appreciation for seafood, and delicacy is a hallmark of many classic Chinese dishes. Banquets and family feasts often include a whole flounder, steamed and seasoned with fresh ginger, green onions, and an aromatic dollop of Asian sesame oil. I love this weeknight version, using halibut, snapper, cod, or any other meaty fillets. Use a standard Asian steamer if you have one, or improvise a steaming setup (see Note below). My instructions here are lengthy because the process for steaming fish is unfamiliar to many cooks, but all the steps are simple and the resulting dish is delicious.
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons dry sherry or Shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
¾ pound halibut fillets or another meaty fish such as cod or snapper
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons shredded fresh ginger
3 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion
In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, sherry, and sesame oil, and stir well. Place it by the stove for preparing the sauce right after cooking. Put the vegetable oil in a small saucepan or small skillet and place it by the stove as well. Set a serving plate for the fish by the stove, along with a long-handled spatula or V-shaped metal tongs with which to transfer the fish from its cooking plate to its serving plate, where you will add the seasonings.
To use a standard steamer, fill the base of a steamer set or a wok with about 4 inches of water. Place the steamer basket over the water. Set out a plate that will fit inside the steamer basket on which to place the fish.
Arrange the fish skin side down on the plate. (If you have more than one piece, leave a little space between them.) Sprinkle the salt lightly over the fish. Scatter the ginger over the fish. Put the plate in position inside the basket or on the rack, and bring the steaming water to a rolling boil over high heat.
When the steam is flowing well, adjust the heat to maintain an even steam flow, and cover the steamer basket with its lid. Cook the fish for 10 minutes, or until it is done to your liking at the thickest part of the fish. Turn off the heat and leave the fish in the steamer while you heat the oil.
Place the small pan or skillet of oil over medium-high heat. Let it heat up until it is hot but not smoking, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and keep it handy.
Carefully transfer the fish to a serving plate, leaving any liquid behind. Quickly pour the soy sauce mixture over the ginger-covered fish, and scatter the green onion on top of the ginger. Slowly pour the hot oil over the top of the fish, expecting a big sizzle and gingery aroma. Serve hot.
Steaming is simple once you know how, but to have great results, set up your steaming equipment completely, with water and cooking plate in place, before you turn on the heat and put the fish in place for cooking. This way you won’t need to experiment or make adjustments while the steam is flowing. Long, V-shaped spring-loaded metal tongs are very useful in steaming, particularly for moving fish or a plate away from the steam. Ovenmitts are another way to protect your hands. If you don’t have steaming equipment, you can improvise in numerous ways. Here are several ideas.
Create a wide, thin ring by removing both lids (and contents) from a small container, for example, such as a tuna can. Place it in the bottom of a large pot, such as a Dutch oven, which is wide enough to hold a medium plate easily. Add 3 inches of water to a large pot that is wide enough to hold a medium plate, such as a Dutch oven. Place the metal ring in the center of the pan and balance the cooking plate for the fish on the ring.
To use a wok, place it on the stove and add 3 inches of water. Place 2 sturdy chopsticks in the wok at right angles, forming an X over the water. Place the cooking plate on top of the chopsticks and make sure it is firmly balanced there before adding the fish. If you don’t have a lid for the wok, simply let it cook uncovered.