Ramblings about food, cooking, recipes, travels, history and walking around Manila.
When kids in my neighborhood were playing chinese garter or text cards after school, I was an odd ball kid sitting in the kitchen watching Tai-ma and Ah-ma own the kitchen. I was 6 years old, contented to watch her chop, diced, slice and julienne ingredients for dinner. When there are family gatherings, I was the happiest. Imagine me, securing front row seats as I watch my Tai-ma and Ah-ma do a tag team show with meat cleavers. They have this skill of talking and chopping/slicing ingredients in record breaking speed without looking at the what they’re doing.
I have always been their number one fan. And I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to learn the ways of the meat cleaver.
On a Sunday morning, when Ah-ma was teaching me how to prepare and cook steamed fish for a birthday (it’s a watch and learn kind of lesson- she doesn’t slow down and you HAVE to keep up with her), I asked why there’s a whole steamed fish on the table on special occassions (If you have had a 10-course Chinese lauriat, you’d know what I mean). She said the fish course unquestionably is a must. This tradition was based on 年年有餘 (Nian Nian You Yu), a Chinese proverb celebrating abundance of surplus every year. The character for surplus is pronounced “yu” (excuse my Pin Yin, I’m used to Zhu Yin) which happens to be a homophone for fish.
Ah-ma added another superstition as my eyes stayed glued to her fingers, afraid it may accidentally be sliced with the ingredients. When you eat a whole fish, steamed or boiled, on a plate, do not turn over the fish after you are done with the top side. It’s bad luck.
It’s a popular superstition in our household ( I don’t know about yours), even though not everyone follows it. Some families use chopsticks or serving forks to pull the flesh from beneath the fish after we are done with the front part. I’m skeptic as I grew older. However, I just don’t flip the fish. After all it symbolizes bad luck, and why not avoid it? Also, not turning over the fish became a habit. In fact, I almost never am reminded of the superstition when I eat fish.
It’s also believed that it’s important to not finish the fish completely, and to have leftovers. My elders always bought more than one fish, I thought it was because they just wanted to cook everything right then and there. It turns out, they have to reserve another fish for the next day- a surplus.
Below, I’m sharing my Tai-ma and Ah-ma’s Cantonese-style recipe for steamed fish. Since it was mama’s birthday, we had to make sure we have it on the table. You can use this recipe for all other large white-fleshed fish like Grouper, Seabass, or Pomfret.
1 live fish (800g)
2 inches ginger (peeled and cut into thin strips)
1 stalk scallion (cut into 2-inch length, and then cut into thin silken threads)
Some cilantro leaves
1 red chili (seeded, cut into strips)
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 tablespoon shaoxing wine or rice wine
Steamed Fish Soy Sauce Mixture:
4 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons shaoxing wine or rice wine
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
3 dashes white pepper powder
2 tablespoons rock sugar (grind into powder form) or to taste
1. Clean the fish properly (remove scales, guts, gills, etc.) and pat dry. Blend the soy sauce mixture in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Lay the fish on a plate and drizzle 1 tablespoon shaoxing (or rice) wine on top of the fish. Top the fish with 1/2 of the cut ginger strips.
3. Heat up a wok with enough water for steaming. Wait for the water to boil. As soon as it boils, place your fish inside the wok, propped up with a small inverted bowl or a couple of wooden blocks (meant for steaming). Cover your wok tightly and set your kitchen alarm for 8 minutes.
4. As soon as the fish is done steaming, transfer it out from the wok. Discard the fish water and ginger strips. Lay the remaining ginger strips on top of the fish.
5. Heat up a pan over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of cooking oil, swirl around until it’s hot and add the soy sauce mixture and stir well. As soon as the sauce bubbles up and boils, pour the sauce over the fish.
6. Topped with scallions, red chili and cilantro leaves and serve the steamed fish immediately with white rice.