Chinese-Style Steamed Sea Bass
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
I wrote in a post not so long ago that I had asked a friend from Hong Kong what his favourite seafood dishes were from back home. His two propositions were stir-fried scallops and fish steamed with ginger and spring onions. We've dealt with the first, we deal here with the second.
What he brought new to the table was the inclusion of dried mandarin peel. Now, this was not an ingredient totally unfamiliar to me, I had encountered it in a recipe of Rick Stein's for wild boar (see reference), a recipe I have employed more than once with the high degree of success always to be expected of recipes by Rick Stein. But its mention came as the pleasant surprise that can present itself when you engage in foodie-chat. It's not the easiest ingredient to get hold of, and it's not essential, but I have included a link below for where to get hold of it.
My first encounter with this dish was about 30-35 years ago in what was my family's local and favourite Chinese restaurant where a whole steamed sea bass graced the table. I have put the family memory to the test. What we all (except my uncle) recall is that my uncle was with us and that the bill was suprisingly and horrendously expensive. I remember the debrief in the car on the way home: the focus immediately directed itself toward he/she who ordered the steamed sea bass. My recollection is that it had been my uncle, but there are compelling reasons to believe that that recollection is flawed. Two to offer are that, first, my father thinks it was he himself and, second, my uncle doesn't like fish with bones in.
Sea bass is expensive, and that's nothing new. I have heard mention, when in the queue at the market stall, that if both bream and bass are on offer, it is harder to shift the bass. I'm not sure that's such a bad thing if sustainability is of any importance. Sea bass is tasty and versatile, it's quite easy to de-scale, and cut into bone-free fillets. It is therefore eminently saleable to a wide audience. Simple economics tell you where the price-point will be. Although the aromatics in this recipe are quite assertive I find them complimentary enough to put forward an enthusiastic recommendation.
Typically this dish is prepared with whole sea bass but I am here putting forward a version that uses fillets in a manner that I feel does not detract from the essence of the dish whilst retaining the potential of appealing to those (like my uncle) who are deterred by the challenge of dealing with bones.
What amuses me often, when researching recipes such as this, is encountering YouTube videos (like the one linked below), in which the recipe might be called "How to make Steamed Sea Bass" but nowhere in the video is a recognisable sea bass to be found. Yes, OK, there is a fish but so was there one, on occasion, in a Tom & Jerry cartoon. That said, and credit where it is due, I did take inspiration from the video I have linked.
On that note, I don't see why this recipe needs to single out sea bass. I have forever made dishes of a similar vein using other fish varieties. And if I may, please let me suggest that pollack, black bream, grey mullet, dover sole, plaice and gurnard would all be ready recipients of this treatment.
For me the perfect accompaniment to this dish is steamed white rice and some greens (tenderstem broccoli, pak choi or kale) dressed with oyster sauce.
Chinese-Style Steamed Sea Bass
Ingredients (serves 2)
2 sea bass fillets, scaled
2 spring onions, one halved lengthways and cut into 1" pieces, the other finely shredded
1 tbsp peeled fresh ginger, half sliced into rounds, the other half cut into fine shreds
1 red chilli, de-seeded and finely shredded (optional, to taste)
Dried mandarin peel, a few strips (not essential, see link and recipe introduction)
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp hot water
A couple of pinches of caster sugar
A handful of coarsely chopped fresh coriander leaves
2 tsp groundnut oil (or other vegetable oil)
Prepare a steamer (see Steamed Garlic Scallops with Glass Noodles for tip).
On a plate spread the sliced ginger, dried mandarin peel and pieces of spring onion underneath and over the sea bass fillets, skin-side down. Place in the steamer, put the lid on, and cook for 3 minutes or until the fish is just done.
Meanwhile, to make the sauce mix the light soy sauce, sesame oil, caster sugar and hot water. Leave aside.
Remove the plate of fish from the steamer and discard the liquid that will have formed and also the flavouring ingredients. Put the fish onto serving plates and garnish with the shredded ginger, the shredded spring onion, the coriander leaves and the shredded red chilli (if using). Pour the sauce over and around the fish.
Heat the 2 tsp groundnut oil in a small saucepan until very hot. Drizzle this over the fish (be careful, it will splutter). Serve immediately.
"Rick Stein's Food Heroes", Rick Stein (2002), pp. 127: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-Food-Heroes-Stein/dp/0563521759