The first time I had to test a recipe for steamed fish was back in the ‘80s, when I was working in the test kitchen at Gourmet magazine. The very idea seemed preposterous.
Steaming anything over water struck me as boring, and the idea that you could count on a good result by applying such an intense method to a protein as delicate as fish seemed unlikely.
But the recipe in question relied on the Chinese method of steaming fish, and I became a believer the very first time I tried it. As is typical in Chinese cuisine, the secret is in the seasoning. Given their blandness, fish are a wonderful canvases for intense ingredients such as ginger, chilies and toasted sesame oil. Steaming them concentrates and amplifies their flavors, and a bonus is that steaming requires little fat.
This recipe works wonderfully using any thin fillet of fish, including char, catfish, trout and striped bass. If you increase the cooking time, you can swap in any number of thicker fillets, including cod, sablefish and halibut. How do you know when the fish is cooked? Stick a knife through it. If it goes through easily, it’s done.
For this recipe, I chose tilapia because it is a sustainably raised farmed fish. I prefer American-raised, as the quality is much higher than imported.
Ideally, you would cook this fish in a Chinese bamboo steamer. But if you don’t have one of those, you can use a collapsible metal steamer lined with foil. I love those steamer baskets. They are great for steaming vegetables as well as meat, fit into most saucepans, store easily and are virtually indestructible. I’m still using one I bought during my college days.
This recipe is quick, healthy and delicious. You might want to think of it as a jumping-off point for other steamed fish dishes. In fact, if — like most of us — you are recovering from a month or two of holiday overindulgence, this little gem could enter your regular rotation as a lighter dish for the new year.
CHINESE-STYLE STEAMED TILAPIA
Start to finish: 40 minutes (10 minutes active)
5 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce, divided
2 tablespoons sake or dry sherry
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
3 teaspoons toasted sesame oil, divided
1 teaspoon cornstarch