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Steamed fish 清蒸鱼


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I tend to forget about fish because I’m living in the interior (Kunming) instead of on the seacoast. But yesterday I saw some nice “fresh caught” ones on ice and bought a single 银鲳鱼 (yinchang yu) of about 450 grams. In English these are called silver pomfret. They live in the coastal waters of southern China, SE Asia and India. Cost 15.80, about $2.25 US. The seller cleaned and gutted it 清理 (qingli)。Please click the photos to enlarge them.


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Steaming 清蒸 is a very popular way to prepare fish in China and that’s what I did last night. Washed the fish out 洗净 and rubbed it with a wet paper towel to remove the few remaining tiny scales. Cut off the pectoral fins and enough of the tail so that it would fit into my steamer.


Deeply cross hatched the flesh on both sides and rubbed it down with cooking wine 料酒 (liaojiu) followed with salt 食用盐 (shiyong yan) and white pepper 白胡椒粉 (bai hujiaofen)。Put slivers of ginger 生姜 (shengjiang) and spring onion 大葱 (dacong) into the cuts and some into the cavity as well. Let it marinate 腌制 (yanzhi) like that 10 or 15 minutes. Then transferred it onto a bed of halved spring onions plus more ginger and set it into the preheated steamer 蒸锅 (zheng guo)。 (Water already boiling.)


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These relatively flat-bodied fish only take 5 or 6 minutes to cook, depending on size. At 5 minutes I open the steamer and check the flesh with a fork. It should be white and flaky. If you cook these small fish too long, they become sort of rubbery and tough 肉老了 (rou laole)。


Lift it out and pour off any excess steam condensation water 多余汤水 (duoyu tangshui)。Some usually pools in the bottom of the steaming dish. Discard the onion and ginger slivers that have cooked with the fish. 


















Spread on a tablespoon or two of light soy sauce 生抽 (shengchou) or better yet use the same amount of special fish steaming sauce that is readily available in Chinese markets. It is called 蒸鱼豉油 (zhengyu chiyou) -- photo below. It’s a seasoned soy sauce that has some taste similarities with oyster sauce 蚝油 (haoyou)Cover the fish with slivers of spring onion 葱花 (conghua -- the white part) and finely sliced carrot 或萝卜丝 (huoluobo si)。


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Heat a couple tablespoons of high-grade peanut oil in a small pan until it just begins to smoke 威冒烟 (wei maoyan)。Pour that over the fish in its serving dish. It should be hot enough to pop and sizzle as it instantly cooks the scallion and carrot, carrying their flavors into the fish below. (My photo does not do the process justice.)


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The flesh of this fish is buttery and tender. Furthermore, it doesn’t have a lot of tiny bones 鱼刺 (yuci)。 


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One fish feeds two light eaters if served with vegetables, soup and rice. If the fish are small, 400 to 500 grams, it wouldn't hurt to make two. It's OK if they overlap a bit in the cooking dish. If you’ve been thinking about making a Chinese fish at home, this 清蒸鲳鱼 (qingzheng changyu) is a good one to try. Widely available, tasty, inexpensive. Healthier than frying. 


Footnote about the steamer: If you don’t have a dedicated steamer pot, you can set a shallow dish on a wire rack in your wok, add some water, put on the lid. Available in any small neighborhood supermarket 超市 (chaoshi) for 10 or 15 Yuan. Called 蒸菜架子 (zhengcai jiazi)。




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What fish do you usually choose? I remember that you have access to some supermarkets with excellent selection of fresh ingredients. A better selection than I have here. Most of what I can get alive here is river fish and lake fish; and these don't have as much flavor as sea fish 大海鱼。


I've never tried making frozen fish fillets. Thought about it; would be interested in giving it a try because of its convenience. Have you explored those as an alternative to when the fresh fish doesn't look great? 

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That looks like a great recipe thanks!


I agree lake fish is really bland, you can try lightly battering in flour it and deep frying it. Serve it with a slice of lemon - not very healthy but definitely tasty!

Otherwise dried lake fish can be quite nice and easy to make, it goes well with white rice!



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Sorry I have no experience of cooking fish in China!

I rarely use frozen fish here in NZ as it is less tasty than the fresh one, and I find it a bit tougher and more chewy. 

When I do i usually make sure to defrost it well in advance and dry it (otherwise it lets out a lot of water in the pan). 

I then cook it basically as I would cook fresh fish but try to choose strong sauces and flavors to go with it as it just does't taste as good as the fresh one. 


I can probably suggest a few easy recipes but they'd all be western style!

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My partner likes to make a Chinese fish soup (just fish soup to Chinese people I guess?). Think this way of cooking / eating is very forgiving as all the flavour is in the soup broth anyway. I think some westerners are put off by seeing chunks of fish in a soup. It doesn’t always look appealing and often it’s just loosely chopped and thrown in, head n all. 


Just a thought after I saw y’all mention lake/river fish having less flavour generally. 

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I like fish soup too. Around here we typically use 小鲫鱼 for this (Crucian Carp.) Three or four of them. (They are about as long as my outstretched hand.) The broth develops a milky color. Sometimes add tofu.


16 hours ago, ChTTay said:

I think some westerners are put off by seeing chunks of fish in a soup. It doesn’t always look appealing and often it’s just loosely chopped and thrown in, head n all. 


I sent this steamed fish recipe to some American friends who were appalled to see the fish head used. How strange! 

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22 hours ago, Shelley said:

I can't eat anything that is looking at me


I think this is a true cultural difference, Shelley. The fish head is prized here for its tender and flavorful meat. The head of a large fish is often purchased alone, split with a knife, and cooked by itself. (And you can guess what happens to the eyes.)


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Even chicken and ducks are often served with the head attached, sliced down the middle. I found that surprising at first, then I was even more surprised to see the friends with whom I was dining crunch down on them with gusto. These parts of the bird weren't just ornamental. 


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Authentic Chinese cooking does have its share of unexpected features. People here often ask me 中餐你习惯了没有?(Are you used to Chinese food?")  I usually reply in the affirmative, though there are lots of popular things I still don't like.


Last weekend had dinner with friends who served an entire pig foot. As the guest I was offered big pieces of pure white fat and later a piece of glistening gelatinous tendon. Both are considered treats. I set them aside with deepest apologies, but now I'm sure they think of me as a picky eater who only pretends to like "real Chinese food." 


Another time recently friends served shrimp since it was a special occasion (MId-Autumn Festival.) Everybody ate the entire shrimp in the shell, only leaving the head and the tail. Legs and scales were not removed. They saw I was having trouble with that method and kindly explained that the shell adds a lot to improve the texture. Eating just the flesh of the shrimp was perceived as boring. 



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It is a definitely a cultural difference. It may be stereotypical and possibly wrong, but I always thought one reason for the consumption of "anything that flies as long as it isn't a plane, anything with with four legs as long as it isn't a table" is because you don't waste anything. Waste not, want not.

Also if you grow up with it, its normal.

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I think you are probably right, @Shelley -- Traditions that grew out of necessity during times of poverty are now still prevalent.   


When I'm eating hot-pot meals with local friends at their house, one question I've learned to leave unasked is "what is it?" So many unidentifiable ingredients are in the pot. I just take a bite and see whether or not I like it. 


Thank goodness I don't have allergies. That "trial and error" system would be dangerous for you! 

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