When you’re my age, your mom is probably at that age when, nine chances out of ten, her doctor has told her to stay on a low-fat diet. When Mother’s Day comes around and you want to treat her to a good meal, it’s not easy because most of us think of special meals in terms of elaborateness which, very often, translates to a lot of fat. The trick, of course, is to re-wire our brains and re-think what “special” means. Special can mean a special favorite. This steamed whole fish dish, for instance, is a favorite with my mother-in-law. She often requested me to prepare this when we had parties here at the house. It is low-fat and it is special to her.
Originally published on November 10, 2007, I am reposting the recipe for you cooks out there who choose to go the low-fat route for Mother’s Day.
Can any dish be simpler to cook than steamed whole fish? The only real work involved is the preparation. After that, just place the fish in the steamer and leave it to cook for 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size of the fish. No stirring, no nothing. Very few utensils to wash. And, unlike fried whole fish, no oil splatters to clean up afterwards.
I love steamed whole fish. But not all kinds of fish are good for steaming. My top preferences are tilapia and pompano and both are available all-year round in wet markets. Tilapia can either be saltwater or freshwater; pompano is either dark gray or silver. The dark dray pompano is the common variety. The silver pompano, or mestiza, is something I don’t see too often. In fact, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I became aware that there is pompano other than the dark gray variety.
Why is pompano great for steaming? Because the flesh contains enough oil to make it moist and soft.
Many of my friends who cook think that commercial broth cubes are an essential ingredient of steamed whole fish. I beg to disagree. Using broth cubes takes the control out of the cook because you’re stuck with the flavors in the broth cubes. Worse, the MSG content of broth cubes kills the natural flavors of the fish and who the heck wants that? Might as well eat canned fish.
What’s new here is the use of bottled ginger sauce from Shuin. The ginger sauce was recommended for siomai. When mixed with soy sauce and sesame seed oil, you have a wonderful dipping sauce that makes you feel like you’re eating in an authentic Chinese restaurant even when you’re enjoying the siomai at home.
If you have fresh ginger available, I recommend that you use grated ginger instead of bottled ginger sauce. I used sliced or julienned ginger in the past but after this experiment with the bottled ginger sauce, I am convinced that grating fresh ginger and mixing it with soy sauce and sesame seed oil will yield a more flavorful steamed fish than one that has sliced ginger in it. Grating squeezes out the juices from the ginger and the ginger juice will permeate the fish flesh better.
Clean the fish by gutting and removing the gills. Pompano has very small fine scales and you can remove them easily by scraping the fish’s skin with a small knife. Some cooks don’t find it necessary to do this; you decide if you wish to. Cut off the fins and tail. Make a diagonal incision along the entire length of the fish, from half an inch below the head to half an inch above the tail about one-fourth inch deep. Place the fish in heat proof plates.
Mix together the ginger sauce or grated ginger, soy sauce and sesame seed oil. Pour over the fish, reserving about two tablespoonfuls for later use.
Steam the fish over briskly boiling water for about 30 minutes.
When the fish is done, remove the plate from the steamer and pour the reserved sauce over the fish. Sprinkle with toasted garlic and chopped cilantro (coriander leaves, locally known as wansuy).
If you’re thinking of asking whether the toasted garlic and chopped cilantro are necessary, I will answer before you ask. Yes. YES. They may just be garnish but there is ornamental garnish and garnish that elevates the experience of enjoying your food. The crisp garlic adds color and texture; the cilantro adds contrast and depth. I don’t know how to describe it but if you decide to cook this steamed pompano with ginger sauce, remember to include a few bits of garlic and cilantro with every mouthful so you’ll understand what I can’t describe exactly with words.