“First kill your fish” the title of the third chapter of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper caught my imagination because of the casual attitudes to animals and fish I encountered along the way in China. Shane and Shan explained to me that the root of what seems like cruelty to western eyes lies in the very word they use to describe living creatures. Our word “animal” immediately conjures up living, breathing things (who might just have feelings). In China the word is dong wu which simply means “moving thing”.
In any event a trip to a market or a stop at the roadside to collect a live sheep for lunch was a bit of a culture shock to put it mildly but in line with my conscious decision to dive in and experience China in a non-judgemental way I made a mental decision to be un-shockable and for the most part I achieved that.
Fish is a hugely important part of the chinese diet, but none of your fish fillets for them – the whole fish with the head and eyes intact is the central part of any celebration. I mentioned in an earlier post on our first Sichuan meal in Yuxiang Kitchen the importance of the head of the fish as a delicacy – the Chinese are particularly partial to the cheeks – and the row that ensued when a local man didn’t get a fish head in his dish of whirlpool fish in boiling oil.
At a Chinese banquet, the centre piece fish dish is usually served with the head facing the honoured guests (always us on this trip) who get the first call at picking at it with chopsticks. As the lazy susan revolves there is a tradition, reminiscent of spin the bottle, where a toast must be proposed with bai jiu,that lethal white spirit which they call “white wine”, between the two people at the head and the tail of the fish every time it drifts to a stop – a recipe for a very sore head that.
Anyway I’ve been trying to come to terms with my natural reluctance to confront a whole fish, even though I was a keen fisherwoman growing up in the coastal town of Wexford and a dab hand at threading bait onto hooks in my youth, and so today I had a go at steaming a fish in the style I encountered in China. This recipe is based on the Lemon and Ginger Sole recipe in Gok Cooks Chinese.
At least I didn’t have to kill my fish. I was able to wander down by arrangement on a Sunday morning to Fish Ahoy in Arthurstown and pick up a fine specimen of a whole haddock which had arrived into Dunmore East on a boat called the “Northern Celt” on Friday evening – how’s that for knowing provenance!
Steamed lemon and ginger fish, Duncannon style
- 1 whole fish gutted that will fit on a dinner plate
- Salt and ground white pepper
- 2 tsps light soy sauce
- 2 tsps fish sauce
- A chunk of fresh ginger peeled and sliced into matchsticks
- 1/2 a lemon thinly sliced
- Chopped chives or coriander for garnish
- Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper
- Drizzled over the soy sauce and fish sauce
- Scatter over half the ginger, lay the lemon slices over the fish then scatter over the remaining ginger.
- Place the plate in a bamboo steamer (about €9.50 from any Asian market including lid)
- Cover with the lid and place in a wok with sufficient boiling water to simmer under the steamer but not overflow on to the plate.
- Steam for about 10 to 15 minutes until the flesh is opaque.
- Serve with plain boiled rice.
I used haddock today as that’s what was available but a flatter fish like lemon sole or plaice would work better as it would be easier to get the seasonings to absorb into the fish. I had to prop the lemons slices and ginger against the sides of the fish which wasn’t ideal.
If your whole flat fish is too big to fit on a plate that fists in a bamboo steamer or you have no steamer, you can do what Gok Wan suggests and put the serving plate on two upturned ramekins in a hob proof roasting tray, covering the roasting tray with a tent of foil after you have carefully poured in the hot water.
The haddock is quite a meaty fish and the 10 to 12 minutes I gave it wasn’t quite long enough to make the flesh as flaky as I would have liked. Still it was a tasty, simple and healthy way of cooking the fish and I will try it again.
Finally I’m still squeamish about fish eyes and the way he looks up at me in a baleful way. So out of decency and respect to the fish I covered them with lemon slices when serving. Let’s call this recipe work in progress shall we