Steamed Dishes in Chinese Home Cooking
When the Chinese stir-fry became a naturalised Australian culinary citizen, so did the wok. However, the wok's other great use in Chinese cookery—as a steamer—remains relatively unexplored.
The only accouterments required to go from wok to steamer are a high-domed lid, available at Asian stores, and a raised support on which to place the dish of ingredients. The support can be as simple as a pair of wooden chopsticks laid parallel to each other and set as far apart as possible inside the wok\ or an upturned rice bowl. Add water and the wok becomes a steamer.
Steaming is employed extensively in Chinese cuisine for both simple and luxurious dishes. There are two forms of steaming: dun (indirect steaming) and zheng (direct steaming).
Dun (Indirect Steaming)
For indirect steaming, ingredients are put in a tightly covered vessel, placed on the support in the wok or large pot, with water about halfway up the sides of the vessel. The exception is where the Yunnan pot is used. The latter, a squat ceramic pot with a narrow central vent that allows steam to gently bathes the ingredients within, is set above the water level.
The dun method is used primarily for making tonic soups of medicinal herbs or luxurious soups of expensive ingredients such as a bird's nest. Dun soups are exquisite clear concentrates of flavour. Cooking time is usually several hours, with water in the wok or pot is replenished along the way. This is also the method used for making kaya, the popular Malaysian coconut and egg jam.
Zheng (Direct Steaming)
With the zheng method, ingredients are not covered and thus exposed directly to steam. Cooking times are shorter, about 10 minutes to an hour depending on ingredients. The dish of ingredients must be set well clear of the water (usually about 2.5 cm above) to avoid flooding it. There should also be not less than 2.5cm clearance between the rim of the dish and the sides of the wok (or steamer) to ensure good steam circulation.
Using the Direct Steam method
There are two types of direct steaming: qin zheng (or clear steaming) and fen zheng where the primary ingredient lightly coated with tapioca or rice flour before steaming. The latter method is used with pork and chicken: the flour coating "protects" the meat during cooking so that it remains velvety.
Qin zheng or "clear steamed" fish is one of the jewels of classical Cantonese cuisine. This dish is all about showcasing the natural sweetness and smoothness of flesh of the fish. The fish has to be absolutely spanking fresh. Cooked only with a smatter of shredded ginger and finished with a light soy sauce and oil dressing, there is nowhere for any imperfections to hide. The slightest hint of 'fishiness' or deterioration in flesh quality will come screaming through in the final dish. This uncompromising requirement for freshness is the reason for Chinese restaurants having tanks of live fish.
Qin zheng isn't the only way that steamed fish is enjoyed. The fish may be topped with other ingredients such as shredded Yunnan ham and finely sliced shitake mushrooms. In the Chiu Chow (another southern Chinese dialect group) style steamed fish, the fish is also topped with preserved sour plums or shredded salted mustard greens ("ham choi " in Cantonese).
Chinese Home-style Steamed Dishes
Zheng dishes of egg, fish, chicken, as well as sliced or minced pork, feature strongly in Cantonese home fare. (Note: vegetables are blanched - not steamed - in Chinese cookery.) With the exception of steamed fish, these homely dishes are never served in restaurants. You may find them in cheap and cheerful Chinese cafes that cater primarily to a Chinese family audience.
In traditional Chinese home meals, steamed rice is the main feature with meat and vegetable dishes as support acts, serving as flavourings to rice. Home-style steamed dishes are designed to be eaten in this way and as such usually incorporate strongly flavoured ingredients such as preserved vegetables, dried salted fish or Chinese sausage. These ingredients ramp up the flavour stakes and make a little protein go a long way. They are perfect for a recession household budget!
Here are a few examples of Cantonese home-style steamed dishes. (Note: in all instances, the ingredients should be spread out on a shallow-sided heat-proof dish and should not be more than 2 cm thick. The aim is fast even cooking.)
Steamed Pork Slices With Sichuan Preserved Vegetable (Zhacai)
Zhacai is made from the knobbly stem of mustard greens (Brassica juncea ) mustard greens. The stems are dried, then pickled in brine. They are then pressed to get rid of the excess liquid and generously coated with chilli powder and spices. They are usually sold in tins. Rinse before use to get rid of excess salt, chilli and spices and slice them finely. You don't need more than 1 knob for an average-sized dish (400 - 500g pork). The rest can be stored indefinitely in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.
Slice the zhacai thinly and spread in a single layer over the pork slices which have been marinated with a touch of light soy sauce and lightly coated with tapioca or cornflour. Go easy on the soy sauce as the zhacai is salty.
Steamed Minced Pork With Tianjin Preserved Cabbage (Dongcai)
As the name suggests, this preserved vegetable is a specialty of Tianjin in the northern Chinese province of Hebei. The chopped cabbage is preserved with salt and garlic and packed in distinctive dark brown earthenware jars. Rinse before use to get rid of excess salt. Again, a little goes a long way and it keeps almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.
For the steamed minced pork dish, mix a few heaped tablespoons with the minced pork along with a teaspoon or so of tapioca or cornflour. Spread on a shallow dish and steam.
Dongcai is also excellent as a 'seasoning' lift for pork balls in soup or added directly into noodle soups.
- Steamed minced pork with chopped dried salted fish: Mix in coarsely chopped dried salted fish with minced pork. This is one of my favourites!
- Steamed chicken pieces with Chinese sausage: The chicken pieces can be on or off the bone but it must be in small pieces. Marinate the chicken with a bit of light soy sauce, a touch of sesame oil, and a teaspoon of tapioca or cornflour. Spread on a shallow dish and top with finely sliced Chinese sausage. You can also add thinly sliced shitake mushroom if you wish.
Temperature Control in Steam Cookery
Steaming isn't simply cooking over boiling water. There are different temperatures of steaming, from a gentle simmer to rapid boil. Textural excellence, an important part of Chinese cuisine, requires the use of a temperature appropriate to the main ingredient.
- Fish, breads and most cakes must be steamed over water at a rapid boil.
- Meats, often tossed with a protective coating of tapioca flour, require water to be at a medium boil.
- The delicate egg is cosseted by wafts of steam from gently simmering water.
Zheng Soey Tarn (Steamed Egg "Custard") Recipe
Literally translated as "steamed water-egg", the prized delicate, smooth silky texture of this savoury custard is achieved through eliminating air bubbles. Boiled water is the secret ingredient: boiling "deflates" the water.
- 3 x 60 g eggs
- 300 ml cooled, boiled water
- Pinch salt
- 2 tbsp peanut oil
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- Beat eggs well with a fork.
- Add water and salt and beat to blend thoroughly.
- Strain the mixture carefully through a fine sieve into a shallow dish, about 20 cm in diameter and 2.5 cm deep. The custard should be about 2 cm deep.
- Steam over gently simmering water for about 20 minutes or until the custard is set. It should be perfectly smooth and shiny.
- Mix the oil and soy sauce in a little bowl and gently pour over 'custard'. Serve hot with steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables.
Variation: Cut up a block of silky tofu into large cubes and add them to the egg mixture. The result is like silk on silk.
Chee Yoke Zheng Tarn (Steamed Minced Pork & Egg "Custard") Recipe
- 400 g minced pork
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- Pinch salt and shake of ground white pepper
- 3 x 60 g eggs
- 150 ml water
- 2 salted duck-egg yolks, halved (optional, see note below)
- Season pork with soy sauce, salt and white pepper.
- Beat eggs well. Beat in water and pork, breaking up any lumps.
- Pour mixture into a round, shallow sided dish about 23 cm in diameter and 2.5 cm deep.
- Place salted duck egg yolks (if using) at different points in the mixture. Press them down lightly with a fork if necessary so that they are covered by the mixture.
- Steam over moderately boiling water for about 30 minutes or until pork is cooked.
- Remove dish from the steamer. If desired, decorate with a little drizzle of light soy sauce and a sprinkle of ground white pepper.
- Serve hot with steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables.
Note on Salted Duck Egg Yolks
Salted duck eggs are popular accompaniments to congee (watery rice porridge). The salted yolks are a real treat and used in moon cakes (the more yolks, the higher the price!) as well as in glutinous rice dumplings called 'chung '.
Salted duck yolks are a wonderful optional extra in this steamed minced pork and egg custard. Buy uncooked salted duck eggs from an Asian food store. Use only the yolk which will be a firm golden-red ball as a result of the salting process. Sometimes, you can find packs of frozen salted duck egg yolks in Asian supermarkets. These are excellent and very convenient to have on hand in the freezer.
Pre-cooked salted duck eggs—from China and Taiwan—are now common in Asian stores. However, I've found the quality totally unsatisfactory. I bought a half-dozen pack recently and threw every single one out when I cut them in half to examine the yolk quality. I won't be buying them again, that's for sure!