Grocery shopping in Chinatown for the week’s groceries with Mama Yee was always a chore when I was young. I had no interest in any of the products that filled the shelves except for the one that stored sweets and even that wasn’t worth an hour of cart pushing and dodging. An obligatory stop at the fresh fish section were always made where I’d be pinching my nose to ward off the fishy stench and guarding our shopping cart while my mother and sister had staring contests with the fish that would become our dinner that very night.
Mama Yee only has two ways of cooking fish: fried or steamed. They were always dished up whole, head to tale with its luminous skin intact. Fried fish was served with nuoc cham, a vietnamese fish sauce; when enjoyed with a steaming bowl of rice it would no doubt incite my appetite to take in another serving. It’s my mom’s steamed fish, however, that always guaranteed a most satisfying meal. Gently steamed the fish, usually a sea bream, is meaty and tender. Drenched with an oyster and soy sauce mixture the mild fish is perfectly balanced with salty and sweet.
I was recently inspired by How to be a Gourmand‘s Chinese New Year post: Whole Baked Sea Bream with Chili and Ginger Broccoli. It reminded me of my weekly family meals in Boston, grocery shopping trips that I once dreaded but ultimately became fond memories and, more importantly, the warmth that was always in my belly. Instead of baking the sea bream I opted to pay homage to Mama Yee’s steamed concoction. In Leemei’s recipe for steamed fish en papillote, I found it most resembled the style of what was my weekly dinner. I still marvel at how something edible and so simple can take me back 15+ years.
In my excitement to bring a piece of my family’s weekly ritual to London I forgot how messy cooking fish can be. I neglected to remember how my mother hunched over the sink and scraped the scales with force, some of the offenders landed on our kitchen counter at best and into mom’s hair at worst. Nor did I realize that gutting the fish is unavoidable as it affects taste. After slicing open the belly of the fish and scraping its innards out, I’m amazed that my resolve to make this dish remained intact. After all, no guts no glory.
I served the steamed sea bream with jasmine rice and a lip-smacking dish of chinese broccoli with Jacqueline’s ginger & garlic dressing. The lime juice works deliciously well to liven up the dish while the red chili intensifies the rest of the dressing and counters the slight bitterness of the greens. It is, in other words, a must try.
If you are up for cooking a whole fish I recommend watching this short BBC technique video on how to scale, gut and clean a fish. Of course you can always ask your fishmonger to do the dirty work for you if that service is available. Regardless, remember to save the bones and head to make your own fish stock. I have mine stowed away in the freezer waiting for yet another adventure.