Steamed fish is the first dish I learned how to cook. My mother showed me how to season the fish, determine how long to steam it and how to sizzle the aromatics with hot oil.
Steamed fish is a delicious, easy recipe to have in your repertoire, and once you know the basic technique, you can vary the seasonings. Try steaming the fish with kaffir lime leaves, sliced chillies, garlic and lemongrass for a Thai-style dish; with fermented black beans, fine slivers of dried tangerine peel and thin slices of salted pork fat for a heartier Cantonese version; or fermented black beans, dried chillies and toasted Sichuan peppercorns for a Sichuan flavour.
Buy the freshest fish you can find in the market, preferably one that’s still swimming in the tank. Have the fish vendor kill, scale and gut it. Make sure the fish is small enough that it fits into your steamer, and that you have a heatproof dish large enough to cook the fish on.
Check the fish for scales by running your fingers along the skin, starting at the tail and going toward the head; if you feel any scales, remove them. Rinse the fish inside and out, checking the cavity to make sure all the guts have been removed. Dry the fish inside and out with paper towels. Lay it flat on a cutting board. Hold a ruler standing upright against the cutting board and measure the fish at its thickest point.
Rub the rice wine or brandy into the cavity of the fish and place it on the steaming dish. Sprinkle some salt into the cavity. Cut the ginger into fine julienne strips and place about half into the cavity and the rest over the fish.
Pour water to a depth of about 3cm (1¼in) into a wok and place it over a high flame. When the water boils, put a metal rack with low feet in the wok, and place the dish holding the fish on the rack. Put the lid on the wok and as soon as you can see a lot of steam coming out from under the lid, lower the heat and start timing: cook the fish over medium steam for 10 minutes for every 2.5cm (1in) of thickness.
While the fish is steaming, prepare the aromatics, soy sauce and oil. Slice the spring onions lengthwise into fine shreds, then cut the shreds into 6cm (2⅓in) lengths. Mix the soy sauce with the sugar and stir until dissolved. Heat the oil in a small pan until it’s very hot.
As soon as the fish is cooked, remove it from the steamer and carefully tip the dish to pour off most of the steaming liquid. Pour the soy sauce/sugar mixture over the fish, then pile the spring onion and coriander leaves on top. Pour the hot oil over the fish: it will sizzle and wilt the aromatics. Serve immediately.