I’m technically lagging behind with this Chinese New Year post, but I’d like to sheepishly point out that a couple of my January posts were (inadvertently) leading up to the big day. There were these jiaozi made for the non-lunar new year, the shapes of which resemble ingots and are most traditionally eaten in Northern China. The most recent marmalade could very well serve as a nod to the mandarin oranges that are widely given, received, and consumed for luck and prosperity during the New Year festivities.
One of the most fun and simultaneously most frustrating aspects of Chinese language is the amount of homophones that look different when written, but sound exactly the same when spoken—as if there weren’t enough tonal variations that are already tricky to distinguish when weaned on Western dialect. The symbolism behind homophonic relationships forms the basis for many Chinese traditional practices, including those associating the new year with abundance and fortune; “fish (魚)” and “surplus (餘)” are both pronounced “yú”; while “leek (蒜)” and “calculating [money] (算)” are both pronounced “suàn”.
For this linguistically nerdy reason, I decided to combine two classic new year ingredients into one dish (double prosperity!), which isn’t so much of a stretch after all. Leeks are usually stir-fried with some kind of meat for a new year dish, but I’ve just written over the most basic steamed fish recipe, replacing scallions with sliced leeks—which are of the same Allium genus anyhow.
Chinese are known for their purist preparation of fish, steaming it whole with just a handful of aromatics to keep the flesh tasting delicate and clean, flavours wholly intact and unmuddled. If you had the patience to read my game meat rant, you could probably guess that I relish an opportunity to acquire, prepare, and consume a fish in all of its fully formed, divinely designed goodness.
Four years ago I sat at the salt-blown, windy picnic table of a small eatery in Cape Sagres, Portugal, the “End of the World” in the age of Henry the Navigator—the southwesternmost tip of a European landmass on the eve of transatlantic exploration. As we ordered a grilled fish to share, the chef brought out their catches of the day (presumably snatched out of the ocean that was a stone’s-throw away) and we took our pick. I still remember the mortification on my then-vegetarian best friend’s face as our fish arrived a few moments later in all of its charred glory…and I immediately dove for the eyeball. Right, it was something like the look you have on your face right now.
Growing up in a home where being awarded an eyeball at the end of the meal was like fighting over the wishbone on Thanksgiving, it was perplexing for me when American friends recoiled at the mention, insisting that I “must be joking”. Now it seems peculiar that they responded so, only to turn around and munch on a mysterious frozen fish finger. Books like Nose to Tail, Bones, and Odd Bits convey something similar to my scattered thoughts in a comprehensive and paper-bound food philosophy with recipes to boot, which I recommend. To this day, I still can’t find the fingers on fish…but I can always spot the eyeballs.
Anyway, thanks to the same gentrified high street that houses the organic butcher, I was able to snag this pretty gilt-head sea bream (Sparus aurata) from a tiny little fishmonger that sources from Billingsgate Market in Canary Wharf. I’ll make it there one day, when I have the ambition to drag myself out there by the 4am opening time… Seafood can be tricky to source sustainably, but I’ve found that simply chatting with the fishmonger or checking out Good Fish Guide is a small effort to make in the vast ocean, as it were, of murky fishing practices.
In the absence of sea bream, most non-oily white fish will steam beautifully. Red snapper and sea bass are a common sight on my mum’s table. Freshness by far takes precedent over species and pricepoint. Non-oily is especially important when using the head and bones to make broth, which will otherwise be to pungent and fishy.
Chinese Steamed Fish (清蒸魚)
- ½ kg (1lb) fresh white fish, whole
- 1 leek, bottom sliced into discs
- 3cm ginger, sliced into discs
- salt & pepper
- 3 T soy sauce
- ¼ t white pepper
- ¼ t salt
- 1 leek, tops chopped into finger lengths
- 2cm ginger, julienned finely
- 2 T neutral oil with high smoke point
Clean the fish and pat dry. Rub all over with salt and pepper, then take half of the leek bottoms and ginger discs to stuff inside the fish.
Taking the other half, spreading them in a shallow dish as a bed for the fish to lay upon.
Add a few centimetres of water to a larger pot or wok. When the water comes to a boil, set the shallow fish dish inside it, raised atop a wok rack insert or small inverted bowl. Make sure that the water does not come in contact with this smaller dish.
While the fish steams over medium heat, combine soy sauce and seasonings in a small cup to set aside.
For a 500g whole fish over medium, check for doneness at 12 minutes, adding an additional 2 minutes per additional 250g and being careful to top up the steaming water if it runs dry. Check by poking the thickest bit of flesh with a chopstick or utensil—if this flakes easily, then it’s done.
Pour the soy sauce over the freshly steamed fish.
Now in a separate pan or wok, heat up a vegetable oil with high smoke point. When it becomes piping hot, add finely julienned ginger and scallion segments, frying for just a few seconds to draw out all the flavours and pour over the fish before serving. Ensure a good sizzle.
Milky White Fish Head Soup (魚頭湯)
- 2 T oil with high smoke-point
- 1 fish head
- 1 fish skeleton
- 1 knob ginger, sliced thickly
- 1 leek / scallion, diagonally sliced
- white pepper & sea salt, to taste
Heat up oil until very hot, then sear the fish head and bones until browned and golden. This step is key in achieving the characteristic, white “milkiness” of the fish broth.
Top up with enough water to cover the head and bring to a boil. Add in ginger, leek, carrot, and potatoes.
Lower to a simmer and cook gently for 15-20 minutes and the broth has turned a milky white. If foam or oil rises to the top, skim this off with a spoon and discard.
This soup can be enjoyed with some mung bean noodles, soft tofu, or just on its own.