There are times in the last three months that I would have crawled over broken glass for a taste of fish. If my right arm had been made of fish instead of meaty flesh (or should that be fleshy meat?) then I probably would have gnawed on that. That’s what a two-week diet of nothing but meat and potatoes does to a person.
At that moment, if somebody had produced a plate of steamed fish, I would have considered something close to a miracle. Hell, I might even have converted on the spot. But they didn’t, and I didn’t. Instead, that need just quietly grew.
And so, it was with what I felt was quite reasonable joy, that I stood in the fishmonger, staring with open-mouthed with mute happiness at all those scales gleaming in thin grey-tinged light of a Hackney morning. I sauntered out with a fresh-faced bright eyed beauty of a sea bass. It may be unfashionable, but it’s still a fabulous fish to cook with.
In my limited experience, no one steams fish as well as they do in the far east. The best steamed fish I have ever eaten was in some nondescript Thai riverside town.I was totally unprepared for the dish of softly steaming joy that arrived in front of me. It was full of aromatic flavours and yet surprisingly subtle. This is what I’m aiming for here.
It’s important to use a fish that stands up to the flavours of chilli and lemongrass, garlic and ginger. But you also want one that isn’t too oily so that the dish keeps it’s clean taste and feel. So sea bass or bream are perfect for this. Trout, mackerel and salmon are too rich, you ‘d want to fry them instead. Cod and haddock, as well as being unsustainable, tend to be overwhelmed by all those exciting additions.
Fish sauce, as ever, adds a certain umami-ish flavour to affairs, as well as being transmogrified by the fishy juice and splash of soy and rice wine into an unreasonably tasty sauce. Wrapping the fish in foil allows it to steam in its own juices without losing any flavour. And those aromatic additions infuse the flesh with hints of jungly river banks and ruined temples.
Serve with something simple and green, spinach, choi sum, tender stem broccoli, that sort of thing. Add rice if you want to make it more substantial. But nothing that will take over and dull the subtle flavours of steamed fish.
Steamed Thai style fish
Serves two with vegetables and fish
1 sea bass – gutted and cleaned
1 thumb ginger – peeled finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic – finely chopped
2 Thai chillies – de-seeded finely chopped
2 stalks of lemongrass – finely chopped
2 spring onions – peeled and shopped into long sections
A handful of mint roughly chopped
1 lime sliced
1 tblsp soysauce
1 tblsp shao xing rice wine
Half tblsp Chin Kiang rice vinegar
A little oil
Heat oven to 200oC.
Line an oven-proof dish with a large sheet of foil and brush with oil. Combine all the chopped and sliced ingredients and put half in the bottom of the dish. Put the fish on top and spread the rest of the chopped ingredients over the top.
Pour over the sauces, rice wine and vinegar. Fold the foil over the top and crunch in the ends to form a steam-proof packet. Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes. Remove, open the foil carefully and take a deep breath of the aromatic steam.
Serve with green vegetables and pour the thin sauce over the top.