A quick and easy recipe for a uniquely Chinese Teochew dish, delicious steamed pomfret, with salted plums, tomatoes, salted mustard greens, shiitake mushrooms and tofu.
When our family feels like having fish, Chinese steamed pomfret is almost always first to come to mind. This is truly one of my favourite ways to prepare steamed fish, done in typical Teochew fashion – silver pomfret steamed with salted plums, fresh juicy tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, salted mustard greens, and silky-soft tofu, typically with a little lard (I use shallot oil to good effect). And if all that isn’t goodness enough, you’ll be absolutely amazed and dead-hooked on this dish’s tasty, lightly saltish-sourish, tangy, soupy broth – I guarantee you’ll be slurping away!
The Teochews are people who originated from the Chaozhou (Chinese: 潮州) region in the eastern Guangdong province of China. As with many immigrant Chinese at the time – the Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, and Hainanese – the Teochews settled predominantly in South-East Asia, especially in Singapore, Hong Kong, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Teochew cuisine is widely regarded as a delicate cuisine, and is well-known for its seafood and vegetarian dishes. Unlike other Chinese cuisines, Teochew cooking is less heavy-handed, and relies predominantly on the freshness and quality of ingredients, for taste and flavour. As a lighter cuisine, it’s no surprise that food preparation revolves around poaching, steaming, braising, and stir-frying. If you want your family to go healthy, without sacrificing taste or flavour, try incorporating more Teochew dishes in your family meals. And why not start with this Singaporean favourite, Teochew steamed pomfret!
Steamed pomfret represents quintessential Teochew cooking. The unique, distinct flavour of the broth arising from the cooked juices of the fish, which retains the full-bodied taste and freshness of the fish, and the complementary addition of salted plums, brings out the soul of Teochew cuisine. There’s no other flavour quite like it.
While white or silver pomfret is always the fish of choice, you can substitute with other white-fleshed fish which have mildly sweet or neutral flavours. Red or white snapper would be an excellent option, as are sea bass or grouper. Do not use grey pomfret, though, which is more suited for fried dishes.
As a force of habit, I always try to reduce sodium content in the food I cook. Particularly with Teochew-style steamed pomfret, the salted plums and salted mustard greens are essential to the unique flavours of this dish, but are loaded with high-sodium content. You can try what I often do – soak the salted plums in water for a few minutes to allow the excess salt to leech out. You can do the same with the salted mustard greens, or place it in a small saucepan of water, bring to a gentle boil, and let boil for about 5 minutes to remove excess salt.
Try not to go overboard, though, as some saltiness is essential and is the only other seasoning, apart from the lard or shallot oil, that is used to flavour the juices from the cooked fish and tomatoes – use your sweeter, riper tomatoes, for a more balanced flavour.
Teochew steamed pomfret is best enjoyed when eaten with plain, cooked rice – every spoonful of this fish’s smooth, flaky, creamy flesh should be dunked in some of the delicious broth, and drizzled over with some light soy sauce, spiced up with sliced bird’s eye chilli. But you probably know that already, don’t you? Enjoy!
- 1 white or silver pomfret (about 750 g)
- 2 salted plums
- 1 leaf salted mustard greens (kiam chye)
- 1 tomato
- 2 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 6 slices young ginger
- 1/4 cup silken tofu, cubed
- 3 to 4 tbsp water, for extra broth (optional)
- 1/4 tsp salt (optional)
- 1/2 tbsp lard or shallot oil (see Recipe Notes below)
- 1 stalk coriander
- 1 stalk spring onion
- 1 red chilli
To prepare the fish, remove fish scales and entrails (or have your local fishmonger do it for you). Rinse thoroughly to rid of all visible traces of blood. Slice 2 to 3 slits, diagonally, on each side of the fish. Pat dry and set aside.
De-seed salted plums, and set the flesh aside. Slice the salted mustard greens. Cut the tomato into 4 or 6 wedges. Soak dried mushrooms in warm water until soft and plump (about 15 minutes), drain, squeeze out the excess water, remove stems, and slice thinly. Cut the ginger, spring onion, and chilli, into shreds. Roughly chop the coriander. Drain the tofu, cut into cubes, and set aside.
Smear salt onto the body of the fish, inside the slits, and stuff the flesh of one salted plum into the stomach cavity.
In a heatproof plate, place some ginger shreds and sliced salted mustard greens, spreading them out over the plate. Place the fish on top. Spread the remaining ginger, salted mustard greens, and mushroom slices, on top of the fish. Spread the flesh of the remaining salted plum, tomato wedges, tofu cubes, and water (optional), around the sides of the fish.
Fill a wok one-quarter full with water. Place a steaming rack over the water, above the water level. Cover with wok lid, bring water to a boil over high heat. Once water is boiling, place the heatproof plate on the rack, cover with wok lid, and steam for 12 to 14 minutes, or until fish is cooked through.
Remove fish from the wok, drizzle lard or shallot oil on top, and into the broth. Garnish with coriander, chopped spring onion, and red chilli. Serve immediately, with some light soy sauce and sliced bird's eye chilli, on the side.
To reduce sodium content of this dish:
#1. Place salted plums in a small bowl with some water, and set aside for 10 minutes, to rid of excess salt. Then use as described above.
#2. Fill a saucepan with some water, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Put in the salted mustard greens, and let boil gently for about 5 minutes. Turn off heat, discard the water, and squeeze the salted mustard greens to remove excess water. Then, prepare and use as described above. Alternatively, simply soak the salted mustard greens in some water, set aside for 10 minutes, drain and set aside.
To make shallot oil (makes slightly less than 1/4 cup):
Peel 8 to 10 shallots (or quantity of your choice), and slice thinly. Using your fingers, rub the slices to separate the rings or layers, into individual slices - this will allow for much more even frying. Heat up 1/4 cup of vegetable oil in a small saucepan, over medium fire. Once the oil is hot, add the shallot slices (fry in batches, if necessary), and fry till they turn golden brown. Remove the fried shallots with a slotted spoon, and let drain on paper towels. The oil is now flavoured by shallots, hence, shallot oil. The fried shallots, once cooled, should be kept in an air-tight container to retain its crispy texture. It can be used as a garnish over fried rice or fried noodles, in soups, or over your favourite vegetable stir-fries. Use the shallot oil as desired.