Hot and steamy, extra healthy: steaming toward better food & health
Cooking with steam is of quintessential importance in Chinese cuisine. In fact, an entire meal can be created in a steamer – from starters to entrees to desserts.
A steamer is must-have cookware in a Chinese kitchen, on equal footing with an oven in a Western kitchen. Vegetables, fish, meat and grains can all be conveniently steamed with minimum labor. You don't have to stand in front of the steamer to avoid burning the pans and pots or add seasonings and condiments. Simply pour in enough water and wait it out, or set a timer if a reminder is needed.
Compared to stir-frying, stewing and braising, steaming is a much gentler cooking technique. It's one of the best ways to seal in the original flavors of the ingredients, and maintain the delicate textures by locking in all the moisture and nutrients.
There are two styles of steaming in Chinese cooking. The first is called zheng, where food is steamed directly without using a lid so it's exposed to the steam. The second is dun, where a sealed container is steamed – commonly used in soup making.
With zheng, there are different variations like qingzheng, clear steaming that directly cooks the ingredients, and fenzheng, where ingredients are pre-coated with some type of flour or starch. Qingzheng is more suitable for fresh vegetables and food with delicate textures like fish and shrimp, while fenzheng is perfect for chicken and meat that's most delicious when all the juices are sealed during cooking.
Steaming is a much healthier approach that requires no fat in the process, so there's no sticking or burning. Ingredients retain their shape and flavor, resulting in lower calories and cholesterol, especially when cooking fattier meat like pork.
In addition to making fresh dishes, steaming can be used to easily heat up food, especially when it's necessary to retain the food's moisture. Keeping the kitchen clean is also simpler with steaming, as it leaves no oil splashes and creates no smoke.
A meal cooked with steam
Vegetables are healthy and full of fiber, and steaming is a quick way to cook them without using much oil.
Chinese cabbage is a perfect vegetable to steam: crunchy, tender, less fibrous and mildly sweet. The tender cabbage can be steamed directly with a simple sauce consisting of garlic paste, soy sauce and sugar.
Root vegetables like taro and yam are also great for steaming and more fulfilling. They can be cut into thick sticks or slices and then steamed until the center becomes meltingly soft. The starchier varieties are better suited for steaming.
Thin shreds of carrots or white radishes, fresh sophora flowers and celery leaves can be coated with dry flour and then steamed. This quick dish is usually served with a garlic paste and vinegar sauce.
Steaming fish, clams, shrimp and crabs is all about preserving the original taste and texture, so fresh is the absolute No.1 rule when shopping for seafood to be steamed.
For delicacies from a river, lake or sea, they must be freshly caught the day you buy them. Frozen fish is seldom steamed directly, because the thawing process can affect the texture and there can be a stronger fishy smell and taste.
Steamed river bass is an all-time favorite dish that can be prepared in minutes. With all the offal and scales removed and blood rinsed clean, the bass is stuffed with slices of ginger and scallions that can neutralize the fishiness. It's then placed in a steamer that has been preheated to boil, and cooked for eight to 10 minutes depending on the size of the fish.
The final step is critical. Arrange thinly shredded scallions on top of the steamed fish. Then, in a small saucepan, heat up some oil and splash it across the body of the fish to help the flavor release. Next, drizzle a couple tablespoons of seasoned soy sauce for seafood around the plate and serve. When eating the fish, it's best to dip it in the sauce for the umami flavor.
Steaming shrimp and crabs is simpler, requiring only a few slices of ginger to eliminate the fishy taste. They can be served with a vinegar or light soy dipping sauce on the side. The only thing to bear in mind is the freshness of the ingredients, especially with river crabs.
Steaming poultry and red meat can be more complicated, because they require more time and have the same freshness standard as seafood.
Steamed pork belly with preserved vegetables is a centerpiece entree cooked in steam. The pre-boiled pork belly is coated with dark soy sauce and lightly fried until the skin turns golden. It's then sliced and arranged in a bowl with the skin side down. Add the preserved vegetables on top and begin steaming. To serve the dish, first filter out the excess juice, then cover the bowl with a plate and flip it so the pork belly is on the outside.
Pork belly can also be steamed with taro and made like a multi-layer sandwich, with thick slices of both arranged alternatively. Both recipes are great for family reunions and more formal dinners.
Steamed chicken is known for preserving the original flavor of the meat as well as all the juice and moisture. Premium quality chicken is steamed with salt, ginger and soy sauce. You can then either wrap the entire chicken in foil or a lotus leaf, or cut the chicken into chunks and steam them with seasonings on a plate. Steamed chicken is extra tender and juicy, and can be served with chili powder seasoning on the side to boost the flavor. Mushrooms like shitakes can be layered underneath the chicken for more umami flavor.
One way to cook coconut chicken soup is by combining chicken, goji berries, ginger and coconut water in a coconut shell and steaming it. It can also be prepared in a porcelain soup bowl with a lid.
Pork ribs are often steamed as well, which can be coated in rice flour to make fenzheng or directly over a bed of taro chunks. Because pork has a strong meaty taste, marinating it in cooking wine and other condiments is a necessary step to make it more flavorful.
Leftover deep-fried meatballs and pork tenderloin strips can be steamed to create new dishes that are extra soft and perfect for accompanying with rice. Add a few Sichuan peppercorns for a little heat.
Steamers are also used to make cakes using a batter of eggs, sugar, cake flour, oil and milk. Compared to oven-baked cakes, steamed cake is extra soft, moist and delicate, and it's especially popular with children.