K cooks a perfect steamed fish. It’s a simple process: start by going to the fish counter at the nearest Asian grocery store. Pick a white fish, of a size that fits comfortably in your steamer. Make sure the eyes are clear. (Cloudy eyes = old fish.) Ask the guy behind the counter to clean it for you. Take it home, scrape off more scales if you need to, snip off the fins if they’re still there. (I love eating fin, but only when deep-fried.) Season lightly, inside and out, with soy sauce, sliced garlic, matchsticks of ginger, cut scallions. Place in steamer, cover, and steam until the flesh is flaky and opaque. Serve whole, in the middle of the table, where everyone can reach it.
K’s mother goes one step further by drizzling hot oil over the fish when it comes out of the steamer, crisping the skin. It’s delicious either way. Eat it over rice. The fish will come out swimming in a thin savory sauce, and you’ll want to drip that sauce over each bite of fish and rice.
Our older kid loves fish. He’s gotten to be a pretty good eater; he will eat (or at least try) most foods, though he does complain when he sees a vegetable reappear that he hadn’t liked the first time around. The little one tends to flat-out refuse foods that she doesn’t want, but hopefully she’ll come around. Anyway, we must not have had whole fish in a while – maybe a couple of months, which is a long time for a three-year-old – because she was dramatically shocked to see us disassemble it, splaying it apart to reach the meat, pulling away the spine with the ribs attached, digging into the head for the tender cheek. We’ll have to have whole fish more often, I think; it’s good to be reminded of where meat comes from.
One of the things I love most about eating whole fish is that you get to enjoy all of your favorite bits in the same meal: the melt-in-your-mouth cheek, the fatty collar, the soft belly, the generous meaty flesh around the ribs. There are also the bits that are harder to eat, where the meat is interwoven with thin translucent bones that sneak into your mouth and poke your tongue and cheeks like tiny needles. You have to eat small, cautious bites, find the bones with your tongue, and spit them out. It’s a slow and messy process, not graceful at all, and utterly worth it.
Looking back, there must have been quite a lot of steamed fish in both of our childhoods, because whenever we eat it, we can hardly stop telling stories to one another. K remembers walking in on his grandmother blending white fish meat into rice, hiding it so that some of the more fish-averse kids wouldn’t know what they were eating. (We tried this technique on our daughter. It didn’t work; she complained that her rice tasted of fish and refused it. Oh well. At least her palate is good?)
For me, whenever I pick the fish meat oh-so-carefully out of the smaller bones, I find myself thinking of my mother and grandmother. My mother loves cooking salmon heads, then picking out all the lovely meat from the tiny crevices. “Can you believe it,” she would say, “fish heads for such a low price! People just don’t know how good they are!” (Her salmon heads really are delicious; I’ll have to get the recipe.) And when we ate fish with my grandmother, she would remain at the table, still eating, long after everyone else was done. We kids would have drifted off, having eaten our fill of the easy meat, but my grandmother would sit patiently and delicately nibbling at the smallest bones, extracting and savoring every last morsel. I can see her clearly in my mind’s eye, alone at the table, chopsticks hovering by her mouth as she worked the fish through her teeth, straining meat from bone.
During dinner, I felt a bone scrape briefly as it slid down my throat and I was suddenly reminded of being a little kid in a restaurant, a thin fish bone lodged in my airway, gulping water to wash it the rest of the way down. My grandfather had been very patient and encouraging, soothing me and talking me through my panic, until at last I was able to breathe and swallow comfortably – at which point I went back to eating, albeit more carefully. I related this story to K, laughing: “If you go through something like that as a kid and you still go back to eating fish, there’s no hope for you.”
I love to cook and eat a whole lot of different things (oh so many different things!), but for me, simple steamed fish and white rice is the dish that tastes like home.
(As a bonus, it’s below freezing outside, so hopefully the raccoons won’t smell the leftover fish bones in our compost bin.)