A steamed whole fish is something special, especially when it’s laden with garlic and ginger. A delicate-textured fish like branzino, snapper, or red perch (shown here) works best. Image source: Flickr CC user Tim Sackton
I’ve loved seafood all my life. Growing up on Vietnam's Mekong Delta,we fished every day catching fish, shrimp, crab, shellfish, you name it.
One lesson I learned as a boy was to use as much of the fish as possible, which yielded delicious morsels of food that would have otherwise been tossed away had we cooked only with fillets or steaks.
Steamed whole fish with garlic and ginger is one of my favorite dishes. The recipe brings back vivid memories of my childhood in Vietnam. It’s a festive dish that’s great for a crowd, family gathering, or dinner party. In my house, the sight of a whole fish redolent with ginger and garlic heaped on a platter always brought everyone to the table in a hurry. Part of the hurry was to get the good parts.
The gentle steaming of the fish and the aromatic seasonings combined to create a delicious sauce that made every bit of the fish delicious, but my favorite—and everyone else’s—were the cheeks and collar, the ring of flesh just below the fish’s gills. These are muscles that get a lot of use and steaming them renders them deliciously tender and sweet.
There are only a few bites of these delicacies, even in bigger fish, so you had to be on your best behavior in hopes of being served some. If I happened to catch the fish, this was my reward. I also learned to love the flesh close to the bigger bones along the spine where bits of fat made the meat especially rich and flavorful.
A Taste of Home
After immigrating to the United States, I learned to love many American foods, but I never forgot steamed fish and other classic Vietnamese foods of my youth. Since I’m fortunate enough to work in the seafood business and I love to cook, I’ve can recreate the dishes I remember from home.
Fresh whole branzini is the perfect fish for this dish. It wasn’t what we ate when I was young, but the sweet, flavorful flesh is a great alternative. It’s a delicate fish that’s better suited to steaming than firmer textured fish like halibut or swordfish, which tend to toughen slightly when steamed.
This particular version of the recipe comes from Andrea Nguyen’s excellent book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. Her recipe calls for salmon fillets, which are great, but I like it with whole branzini, head and all. Note that you’ll need a fish steamer for this recipe.
1 ¼ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2-inch piece of peeled ginger, minced
3 scallions, green part only, chopped
1 whole branzini, about 2 pounds
Cilantro, as a garnish
1. In a bowl, mix the sugar, pepper, oyster sauce, and soy sauce and stir to dissolve the sugar.
In a skillet, heat the oil on medium heat and add the garlic and sauté for 15 seconds and then add the ginger and cook for about 60 seconds. Add the oyster sauce mixture and bring to a boil. Add the chopped scallions, stir and remove from the heat.
2. Rinse and dry the fish with paper towels. Score the sides of the fish with a knife, about two inches apart.
3. Select a heatproof plate or pie pan about 1-inch smaller than your fish steamer tray. The plate will catch the delicious sauce and fish juices. Place the plate or pan in the steamer tray and lay the fish on top and pour on the sauce.
4. Fill the steamer pan halfway with water and bring to a boil. Place the steamer tray in the steamer, cover and steam for about 18 minutes or until a knife easily pierces the thickest part of the fish.
5. To serve, remove the fish with two spatulas and place on a serving platter. Pour the sauce and juices from the plate on top. Garnish with cilantro and the white part of the scallions.
Enjoy this taste of my homeland and definitely don’t forget to try the cheeks and collar. To really replicate the taste of Vietnam, it’s imperative to start with the freshest fish you can find. Ordering it online from a sustainable, trustworthy retailer will make sure it gets to your table as quickly as possible, without sitting in a supermarket seafood case first.