Saturday, January 28, 2006

Stop staring at me!

At the end of one tasty nine course meal with J’s parents in Singapore, J’s dad commented on how little our friend K ate. (He also commented on how heartily E attacked the dishes, but that’s a hilarious story only E is privileged to recount.) K politely responded that he wasn’t too hungry, but enjoyed tasting everything. When the parents drove off, K blunted out “did you see how that ugly catfish was staring right at me?” I, who is incapable of understanding how any food could appear weird to anyone, had no idea. Apparently, the whole steamed fresh fish, the fifth course presented at the table, was positioned with its head pointed right at K, a showing of respect to the Chinese. That message, however, did not translate well across cultures it seems. K spent the rest of the meal trying to avoid direct eye contact with the offending fish, let alone trying it.

What a shame to miss such an excellent dish, I thought. The fish was arguably one of the best offerings of the night with snowy white flesh that melt in the mouth almost like warm savory custard, spiced with just a hint of ginger and scented with fresh spring onions. On the flight back, I couldn’t stop wondering if there is a less scary way to entice my friends from this half of the world to give steamed fish a shot. An opportunity for experimenting came to me last weekend at the farmer’s market, where a fresh fillet of cod caught my eye. The fillet was just about the length and thickness of a smallish whole fish and perfectly shaped to fit in my makeshift steamer at home.

Once home, I lightly marinated the fillet as I would a whole fish and tucked half of the ginger that was supposed to go inside the cavity of the fish under the fillet. The sauce was poured over and the fillet was sent into the steamer atop double layers of foil. I decided to cut the cooking time by about 20% to account for the time that it would otherwise take for the heat to penetrate the skin of the fish. In about ten minutes, I turned off the heat and promptly removed the fish from the hot steam. At first glance, the fillet looked great with a nice bright white sheen (I am always wary of the dull gray hue that a piece of not so fresh fish takes on after cooking). The smell imparted by the mixture of fresh ginger and homemade black bean sauce was definitely appealing.

The disappointment only came when I attempted to transfer the fish from the foil to the platter, which normally involves simply sliding the whole fish from one into the other. In this case, since there is no head or skin to hold the delicate flesh together, the fillet rolled off the foil in chunks. While I was able to prettify the overall look by covering some of the chunks with the spring onions in my finishing sauce, there is no masking the fact that the fish is in pieces.

Tasting revealed yet another deficiency. I had failed to take into account how much flavor the thin layer of fat underneath the skin of a whole fish imbues into the flesh during steaming, which is an especially important consideration for a fish steamed in the Asian style. This is because a relatively small amount of oil is added during the cooking process, so there is much reliance on the fish’s natural fat deposits to moisten the finished product.

With all that said, the dish still had its merits. Most notably, the exposed flesh absorbed the sauce very well, which is a problem with steaming thick skinned whole fish sometimes. Overall, for one who has never tried a steamed whole fish before, this is a great introductory dish.

1 comment:

Champurrado said...

OK, I'm in. I'll check in for reports froom time to time.