Not Whole Steamed Fish

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After a summer with a lot of travel – and the poor eating that accompanies vacation, despite good intentions – I was looking to kick off September with some healthy, low-cholesterol dinner options.  It seemed a good omen that David Tanis’ interesting New York Times article, “The Whole Fish And Nothing But” was published on my birthday and the accompanying recipe looked great, so I decided to give it a try.

And the recipe was great – pretty easy and very tasty – but with one big issue. The illustration of Steamed Whole Fish With Ginger and Sesame was my goal, but it was just plain unachievable with the very-regular-sized bamboo steamer I dug out of my ‘magic closet’ of kitchen tools I don’t use very often.

Fred R. Conrad, NYT

Fred R. Conrad, NYT

Doesn’t this picture look tantalizing? Who wouldn’t want to put a nice whole fish on the serving plate, steam it for 15 minutes, and serve right on the plate? No muss, no fuss and best of all, no extra clean up.  OK, my sister Kathy wouldn’t want to because even the idea of fish makes her gag (sad, no?) but for those of us who like fish, this seems, well, perfect.

After unearthing my 10 inch bamboo steamer, I headed to the fish market and was stumped.  Every piece of whole red snapper and black bass were markedly larger than 7 inch plate that fits inside my steamer.

There was no way I could replicate that photo — no way I could fit a whole fish on a dish inside MY bamboo steamer. What was up with that? Did David Tanis have some industrial sized bamboo steamer?

I tweeted him – and the NYT – to no avail.  They did not answer.  Yet.

I remain hopeful that I will receive an answering tweet AND at the prospect of shopping for more kitchen gadgets. Even though there is no more room in my magic closet.

With fitting a whole fish inside a bamboo steamer still a mystery I soldiered on, fortified by Mr. Tanis’ direction to simply shorten the cooking time for a boneless fillet.

I chose a half-pound fillet of red snapper, whipped up the easy marinade and was rewarded with a very healthy, very flavorful dinner (the chile paste makes it spicy so use less if you don’t like some heat.)  My husband and son were dining on steak – but they tasted the fish and both proclaimed it delicious.

A few modifications I made:

  • As I’m not a huge ginger fan, I used less ginger than called for, and cheated with jarred, crushed ginger.
  • I am sure the stir-fried scallions would be delicious, but I left them off to reduce the oil (oh, who am I kidding, I was too lazy and forgot scallions to boot).
  • Though I adore cilantro, the potted cilantro on my deck had been reduced to dry stalks, so I had to leave them off too.  No matter, it was still wonderful.

Here’s to hoping David Tanis tweets me back with an answer to the bamboo steamer mystery so I can whip this up again, this time with a whole fish. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, try this at home by rigging up your own large steamer (Mr. Tanis’ article explains how) OR using a fillet. It’s a great entree: simple, elegant, healthy and delicious.

Steamed Whole Fish With Ginger and Sesame
By David Tanis

  • 2 whole fish, like black sea bass or red snapper, about 1 1/2 pounds each, gutted and scaled by a fishmonger
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese sweet wine or dry sherry
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons grated ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chile bean paste, available in a Chinese grocery
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil, more for dressing
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 2 bunches scallions, cut in 3-inch lengths
  • 1 bunch cilantro


Rinse fish with cold water, pat dry and season inside and out with salt and pepper. Place both fish on a heatproof platter or shallow baking dish. (Dish must be slightly smaller than inside dimensions of steamer.)
Whisk together sweet wine, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, chile bean paste and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Pour over fish and let marinate, turning once, for 30 minutes.
Set up steamer with 3 inches of water in the bottom, then set rack 1 inch over water. Bring water to a rapid boil. Place fish, still on platter with marinade, on rack and cover with lid. (If using a bamboo steamer, cover top with a dish towel to retain steam.) Steam fish for 10 to 12 minutes, until just done. Flesh should look opaque, and there should be no pink at the bone when probed gently with a paring knife. Carefully remove platter from steamer.
Meanwhile, place a skillet or wok over high heat and add vegetable oil. When oil looks hazy, add scallions and toss to coat. Sprinkle lightly with salt and stir-fry until slightly charred, about 2 minutes.
To serve, scatter scallions over fish and top liberally with cilantro sprigs. (To make a tastier cilantro garnish, dress sprigs lightly with sesame oil and salt.) Using 2 forks, serve top fillet from carcass. Remove and discard skeleton to reveal lower fillet. Give each diner some fish, scallions and cilantro. Spoon pan juices over each serving.
2 to 4 servings

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