The delicate nature of fish makes it tricky—it’s too easy to overcook. A few moments too long in the pan or a touch too high on the heat, and you’re left with a tough, dried-out dinner.
In southern China, cooks have a worry-free method for perfectly moist, succulent fish: steaming. Fish is prepared whole at home, doused in rice wine, elevated on blocks and steamed in a covered wok. Aromatics such as ginger, scallions and cilantro simmer in the steaming water, imparting subtle flavor.
The key to steaming's success is the temperature. While frying and sautéeing fish exposes its delicate muscle fibers to high temperatures—causing the fibers to shrink and lose moisture—steam creates a gentle, consistent heat. That mild
heat slowly firms the protein, allowing it to retain most of its moisture, resulting in tender, juicy fish.
To adapt this method in a recipe that would work in American kitchens, we had to make some modifications. In China, cooks can buy live fish (sometimes still swimming) at the market. In the U.S., such selection is rare. So we opted for cod fillets, which had a flaky texture and mild flavor that paired well with the traditional Cantonese aromatics. For the steaming itself, we used a steamer basket and a Dutch oven instead of a wok and wooden blocks.
To bolster the aromatics' flavors, we used them to marinate the cod rather than to infuse the steaming liquid. A 10-minute bath in soy sauce, cilantro, scallions and fresh ginger added bright, bold flavor to the fish.
One element of whole-fish preparation we missed was the skin, which acts as a barrier between the flesh and the steam, insulating the fish but allowing moisture to permeate without waterlogging it. To mimic that effect for our fillets, we lined our steamer basket with cabbage leaves and placed the fillets on them. After the fish was steamed and flaky, the same leaves acted as a handy sling to transfer the fillets to a serving platter.
We drew on another classic Cantonese technique to add a flavorful finish to the cod. We topped the fillets with raw chopped scallions and serrano chilies, then drizzled sizzling-hot oil on the finished fish to bring out the flavor of raw aromatics. The oil lightly cooked the scallions and chilies, releasing their fragrance.
Serving the fish on a bed of sliced cabbage with a vinegar-soy dressing added crunch and balanced the heat from the serranos. A final drizzle of sesame oil added a nuanced, nutty layer that contrasted with the ginger and drew out the cod’s inherent sweetness.
What was left was a clean, healthy dish packed with flavor and contrasting textures.