Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning culinary historian, cookbook author and journalist who specializes in the food and foodways of the African diaspora. With this column, "My Culinary Compass," she is taking people all over the world — via their taste buds — with recipes inspired by her extensive travels.
Compass points: 22.32 degrees north, 114.17 degrees east. Hong Kong.
I am not sure where I tasted this classic dish for the first time. It might have been on my early trips to Asia in the 1970s. I have often wondered whether I first savored the perfect pairing of steamed fish with thin shavings of ginger and scallion in Singapore back in the day when Raffles was a hotel and not a city, or in Taiwan at the oh-so-very-grand Grand Hotel that is featured in the classic film "Eat Drink Man Woman," or perhaps when I spent a day wandering around in Hong Kong dining with the legendary bon vivant, Willie Mark. In truth, culinary memories aside, I may have first had the dish in one of my favorite downstairs restaurants in New York's Chinatown, back in the day.
No matter what the genesis of my love for the dish, it has for decades been one of my go-to orders at Chinese restaurants around the world. The dish is one that is equally at home on a weekday dinner table and at a multi-course feast, and I delight in checking out the subtle ways that chefs take on the classic and transform it into their own.
Some add a few delicate shavings of carrot for color, others a hint of garlic or a drizzle of sesame oil, and still others top it with a poufy chiffonade of cilantro leaves. There are also regional versions from Vietnam, the classic from Canton, China, and variations that seem endless, but are almost always tasty.
Along with the toppings, the other variable in the dish is the fish. Usually, it is a firm, white-fleshed whole fish served complete with the head that is often anathema to American diners. I’ve had the dish prepared with seabass and flounder and even snapper. I haven’t managed to gulp down the eyes yet, but I have learned to use my chopsticks to extract the tender fish cheeks. While I have seen the dish served with fillets of cod or halibut, I do prefer the whole fish, but on occasion have taken the head off in deference to friends’ sensibilities.
I usually stay in my lane and keep it super simple when it comes to Chinese cooking, basically sticking to stir-frying vegetables in my well-seasoned wok. However, after discovering a recipe for steamed fish with ginger and scallions from Chinese American chef and friend, Ken Hom, in a book one summer on Martha’s Vineyard, I cobbled together a steamer system and decided to give the dish a try. I was amazed at its simplicity and gradually became emboldened to vary the fish and play a bit with the recipe.
I settled on porgies that are members of the bream family and called "scup" in Massachusetts. They are not only sustainable but readily available from fishermen friends, and their small size made one perfect for a light meal for two or a heavier one for me on a hungry night. I was so successful that a proper steamer set-up was the next summer’s must-have purchase, and now I am a nuisance with friends who fish, begging them for porgies.
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I serve my fish with white rice and find that the sauce and aromatics are so delicious that, sometimes, I may chop and add a bit more. Then, it’s time to sit down, sip a bit of the pinot noir that is a given at my table, think of past trips to China and dream of future ones that are hopefully not too far away.