KitchenTigress: Teochew Steamed Fish Head

Teochew Steamed Fish Head

What do char kway tiao, or luak, bak chor mee, and Teochew style steamed fish have in common, apart from being Teochew?

Don't know? What if I remove steamed fish from the list, and add or nee, chai tow kway and yam mooncakes? Is it obvious now?

Ladies and gentlemen, all these Teochew dishes have lard – lots and lots of glorious lard!

Wait a second . . .

There's LARD in Teochew steamed fish?

But of course! It's not rendered liquid lard or fried bits of golden lardon, but strips of raw, white pork fat steamed together with the fish. Sadly, it's usually omitted nowadays because of the phobia of animal fats.

The lard for steamed fish should be the firm fat found just underneath the pigskin rather than the floppy, shapeless fat in the belly. That, along with pickled plums and kiam chye (pickled mustard greens), makes Teochew steamed fish Teochew . . . . Oh hang on, there's something else if you want uncompromised authenticity: dipping the fish in taucheo.

Ah yes, don't forget the taucheo, which should be the light rather than dark type. For cooking, either would do but you'd want the less salty, light-coloured one for a dip.

Good taucheo is very fragrant and umami, and it brings out the sweetness of the fish. Clean tasting fish like threadfin or red snapper is dipped in taucheo neat, but fishier fish like big head carp or rabbitfish goes well with a squeeze of lime, some cili padi and julienned young ginger.

Besides piling a heap of stuff on steamed fish, Teochews also love steaming fish as it is, with nothing added at all. Sometimes, I kid you not, the fish isn't even gutted or scaled. It goes from the sea into the pot – no detours. Now that's a handy recipe if I'm ever stranded on a desert island.

(Recipe for 6 persons)

3 medium size Chinese dried mushrooms
20 g kiam chye (pickled mustard greens)
4 bird's eye chillies
1 piece ginger, thumb size, peeled
30 g lard
2 pickled plums, seeded and roughly chopped
large pinch of sugar
1 song yu (松鱼, big head carp) fish head, halved lengthwise
1 tbsp light soya sauce
4 tbsp light taucheo (fermented soya beans)
juice of 4 calamansi limes
6 bird's eye chillies, roughly chopped
1 tbsp julienned young ginger

1. Rinse mushrooms and soak till soft in just enough water to almost cover, about 30 minutes. Squeeze dry, reserving the water. Trim and discard stalks. Slice thinly. Place mushrooms back in the reserved water.

2. Rinse kiam chye, chillies, ginger and lard. Slice thinly. Mix with pickled plums, sugar and mushrooms.

3. Remove gills, liver, bile sac, scales, etc from fish head. Rinse thoroughly and drain. Drizzle with light soya sauce. Place mushroom mixture on fish.

4. Steam fish head over rapidly boiling water till just cooked, about 12 minutes. If steaming one piece at a time, thinner side without backbone needs only 10 minutes or so. Serve immediately with dip, made by mixing together all ingredients.