KUALA LUMPUR, July 2 — Growing up in a Cantonese home, I learned to appreciate that the best way to prepare a dish is often the simplest too.
Take steaming seafood, for example. This back-to-basics cooking method is quite unforgiving of anything but the freshest ingredients.
Use fish that’s less than extremely fresh and the end result will leave you disappointed at the first bite. (Till today, I’m not a fan of deep-fried fish slathered with a thick, gelatinous sauce that is meant to mask its less-than-fresh state.)
So steamed fish was part of the menu during my childhood, though often only during weekends as good fish was dear.
Other seafood, however, made even rarer appearances: usually during festive periods such as the Chinese New Year. Not having it all the time made steamed seafood such as prawns all the more precious.
As a kid, I was of two minds about steamed prawns, if I’m to be honest. On one hand, who wouldn’t crave its sweet and succulent flesh, steamed to perfection? On the other hand, I was also a lazy kid and the thought of shelling the prawns — of course, prawns must be steamed with their shells intact to preserve the juices — seemed like a lot of labour.
(And don’t even get me started with crabs. All that cracking and extraction for what little crabmeat is hidden away in all those spindly legs provides one with a rather low return on investment of time and effort, if you ask me.)
But steamed prawns? They were — and are — worth the effort. My fingers and lips may be slathered with shrimpy juices, but that’s just part of the fun and the experience.
Time for another sojourn down memory lane, then. All I need is a wok, water, heat and the freshest prawns I can find...
STEAMED FRESH PRAWNS WITH GINGER AND WOLFBERRIES
One can steam prawns by themselves, nothing added, if the prawns are fresh enough. (Really, they should and must be). The delicate sweetness of freshly-caught prawns steamed not a second longer than necessary is quite sublime.
However, the Cantonese tradition, while advocating simplicity, does allow an extra ingredient or two. Ginger cancels out any residual briny flavours while giving the dish some light heat. This über-useful root is part of any classic Cantonese preparation of steamed seafood.
Wolfberries (also known as goji berries or geizi in Cantonese) have been long used in Chinese medicine to treat eye, liver and kidney disorders.
Today we know that these slightly sour and sweet red berries are also a good source of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and zinc.
When you use the freshest prawns, you really don’t have to season them much beyond these two ingredients. However, for those seeking a spicier version, you can also try the Thai take on steamed prawns called goong neung prik king which adds a fiery sauce made from sliced bird’s eye chillies, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and palm sugar.
But trust me, simplest is best.
10-12 fresh prawns, de-veined
1 medium piece of young ginger, julienned
1 tablespoon wolfberries, rehydrated in warm water and drained
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon premium light soy sauce (optional)
Prepare a steamer by using a wok with a domed lid (so that the steam has space to swirl and heat up the steamer properly). Fill the wok with water till about a quarter full. Place a rack in the wok, partially submerged in the water.
Heat the wok till the water comes to a boil. In the meantime, arrange the prawns in a single layer on a shallow heatproof dish. Add the julienned ginger, rehydrated wolfberries and Shaoxing rice wine to the dish, making sure to these are spread evenly over the prawns.
Place the dish on the rack and cover the wok. Steam for 4-5 minutes, and not longer, to prevent the prawns from becoming overcooked. Remove the dish from the steamer and douse lightly with premium light soy sauce, if desired. Serve immediately.
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