'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Steamed salmon with black beans 豆豉蒸三文魚

The power of steam

It is well-known that the invention of the steam engine was pivotal in Great Britain's Industrial Revolution (and therefore all the wonderful technological gadgets that you and I are enjoying right now). I'm of the opinion that steam had already contributed to to a revolution no less important for human happiness in ages past. It took place in China more than 3000 years ago when, in a stroke of genius, someone got inspired by the steam that emerged out of boiling water and came up with the idea that one could actually cook in the steam. Even though boiling and steaming both employ hydrogen, it was a hugely significant step in the development of gastronomy:

1. Steam has a higher temperature than boiling water and can cook food in a very short span of time. It takes about 25 minutes to steam a chicken that weighs 1.5 kg. The same bird would need about an hour in the oven.

2. Most of the preparation is done before the actual steaming - you only need to add a few final touches afterwards, if at all, It's much simpler than frying or braising, for instance.

3. It preserves the flavours and nutrients of your food in a way that few other cooking methods can. Your food would literally be cooking in its own juice and, unlike blanching, there's no loss of flavour and nutrients.  Phenolic compounds with antioxidant properties have been found to retain significantly better through steaming than through boiling or microwaving.

4. Since steam is the vehicle for heat, you can use less oil than say, frying or stir-frying. That also means that no oil would splatter and your countertop would be scrupulously clean.

5. Most importantly, you only have to wash the dish you steam in (okay, the knife and chopping board as well...). No need to wash grease-ridden pans and utensils!

Like stir-frying, steaming is a cooking method indigenous to China - think of it as the sous vide of ancient times. It was employed in Chinese cookery at least three thousand years ago, and it's still one of the most common cooking methods in Chinese cuisine. Since the West discovered the health benefits of steaming, many Western people have started steaming their vegetables. Interestingly, in Chinese cooking vegetables are usually blanched or stir-fried, but rarely steamed. However, there's no end to the variety of ingredients that can be given the steaming treatment in Chinese cooking, especially food that has a fragile texture like poultry or seafood.

Since with steaming you are essentially cooking food in its own juice, you have to start with good ingredients - there's nothing to mask low-quality produce. For this reason in Cantonese cooking only fresh fish (i.e. it's still alive when you purchased it) are deemed worthy of steaming. If the fish were dead, or even frozen, they would usually be pan-fried so that you could 'do something to it'. It's difficult to be so puritan when one's living abroad, and a favourite 'cheat dish' of mine is to steam salmon with black beans. Even though salmon is not a traditional ingredient in Chinese cooking (can you imagine the poor thing swimming against the tide in the Yellow River??), its almost meaty flavour works brilliantly with pungent black beans. The following isn't really a recipe as such, but rather a method of preparation that you could personalise. I like to add lots of spring onions (I love the stuff!) on top of the black beans to offset the richness of the whole thing. Similarly you can sprinkle some chilli flakes or chopped red chillis on top to give the dish an extra kick.

Steamed salmon with black beans 豆豉蒸三文魚

You can use salmon fillet or steak - remember that steaks would take slightly longer to cook because of the bones. It's difficult to give precise timing here because each piece of salmon comes in a different size and shape. With my 300g piece of fillet it took only 6 minutes to cook - there is no greater crime one could commit against seafood by overcooking it! Unless you are steaming a gargantuan portion, you're looking at 6-8 minutes. Remember that the residual heat will continue to cook the fish, so you don't want to fully cook it - at least that's the Cantonese way. In fact, Cantonese cooks pride themselves on their ability to gauge how long they need to steam their fish so that it's 'just cooked' (僅熟). And in any case, it's particularly nice to have a slightly underdone centre with salmon - especially if you are a sashimi-lover.

1. Wash your salmon and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Season very lightly with salt and place it on a dish with at least a depth of 1-2 cm.

2. Smear a thin layer of black bean sauce on top of the salmon - don't use too much or it'd be too salty. Use a black bean sauce that has garlic, if you can. You can use fresh black beans and garlic too of course, but it would involve some prior preparation. Maybe we'll cover it in another post...

3. Top the fish with chopped spring onions and/or red chillies. The addition of spring onions before steaming isn't entirely orthodox, but I don't like eating raw spring onions so I add it now in order to 'break its rawness' (脫生). If you don't mind the spiciness of raw spring onions, slice them finely (and vertically) and add them to the fish after it's steamed.

4. Steam the prepared fish - in a wok with a steaming rack, or an electric steamer - on high heat for 6-8 minutes depending on the size of your fish. Remember to add the plate after the water has reached a boil so that it's easier to judge how long it takes.

After 6 minutes.

5. Remove the plate when it's done. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a pan until is very hot - it's got to be smoky - and splash onto the fish. It will sizzle - this releases the aromas of the spring onions on top. Add about two tablespoons of light soya sauce onto the dish to mingle with the lovely fish juices. Spoon some of the sauce over the fish and serve.

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