Poetic licence for one of life's simple pleasures
During the Tang dynasty (618-907), there was a man named Cao Ye, who is said to have failed the imperial examinations nine times. When he did eventually pass his exams, he was hired as a scholar, but his straightforward, candid writing style got him fired, and he was sent back to his hometown of Yangshuo, a town south of Guilin in present-day Guangxi.
He spent his days writing poems and fishing in the Li River, the main waterway in the area. One day, he caught a fish and decided to cook it for the guests who were staying with him. Rather than create something fancy, such as combining the fish with expensive ingredients (as was common in a dish intended for guests), to everyone's surprise, all Cao did was steam it. He provided the frills to his dish in the form of a poem that painted an idyllic picture of his lifestyle. One of the lines is dedicated to the fact that he can catch fresh fish.
Cao's simple, steamed fish became something of a legend. At the time, his guests are said to have spread the word of its deliciousness, and to this day, the Li River is well known for fishing. Cao's poem, with a title that translates loosely as About living in the hills, can be found on a plaque on the banks of the river.
The love of steamed fish is a common trait among southern Chinese, so it is popular in Guangxi and throughout the region. The south has a geographical advantage when it comes to seafood. In Guangdong, for example, fresh fish can be caught in the Pearl River and sea fish in the South China Sea, into which the river empties. Guangdong is also renowned for its fertile land, which is flush with fresh produce. The abundance of flavours explains the preference for simple cooking methods and the limited use of seasoning.
The most common method is to have a whole, cleaned fish placed on a dish, with some ginger and spring onion, steamed until it's cooked, then finished off by pouring hot oil and soy sauce over the top.
'Steaming preserves the fresh flavours of the fish', says Tsoi Wai-ping, assistant head chef of Maxim's Chinese Cuisine. Tsoi reflects a common Cantonese sentiment that if the fish is fresh and from clean waters, there is no need for the additional flavours that come from caramelisation in pan- or wok-frying, or herbs, spices or sauces.
How do you tell if a fish is fresh? 'Choose a fish with eyes that are still glistening, and not dull,' says Tsoi.
Lau Yiu-fai, executive chef at Yan Toh Heen in the InterContinental Hong Kong hotel, adds: 'When you press the fish, the flesh should have a bit of bounce.'
Better yet, both agree that the best fish should still be alive and swimming. Not just any type of swimming, though: 'It shouldn't be jumpy when it swims and neither should it be swimming on its back, Lau says. 'If it swims calmly and in straight lines, it's in good health'.
Colour matters, too. 'If it looks dull, even if it's still alive, it's been out of the sea for too long and is not as good,' says Lau.
When cooking, timing is the key. 'The flesh should just stick to the bones, but only very slightly,' says Lau. 'People have their own preferences. Europeans tend to like it to come completely off the bone, meaning it's well done, but Japanese and Chinese would consider that overcooked.'
Both Tsoi and Lau insist there is no rule relative to weight that determines how long one should steam a fish. Clearly, it depends how powerful the steamer is, but it also depends on the thickness of the fish and how dense the flesh is. With these two factors, you should gain experience by experimenting with your own tools and different fish.
The chefs do offer some tips on this score. For thicker fish in particular, there are a couple of ways to ensure the flesh steams evenly. Tsoi recommends that an extra slit be cut at the belly, as it's thicker than the rest of the body.
In the preparation process, Lau says a few slices of ginger and stalks of spring onion should be placed between the fish and the plate, so that the steam can pass through these ingredients and then through the flesh. Usually, the type of fish that is steamed with the most basic ginger, spring onion and finished off with oil and soy sauce, is one that has little fat of its own. Other than that, everyone seems to have their favourite species.