Five years ago, I gave my in-laws a really hard time.
They were going to the US—as they often do to meet their son—and asked what they should get me.
“A bamboo steamer,” I said, prompted no doubt by some dumplings I’d had (I don’t really remember) recently. A steamer, if you don’t know, is that exotic wooden thing they produce with a flourish at Chinese restaurants, usually to serve fragrant dumplings, spare ribs, steamed squid and other delightfully delicious (and ultra healthy) delicacies.
This was not a kind thing to do. The vexing bamboo steamer was not available at those faceless, sprawling American malls. Many days, awkward inquiries and false leads later, they found a bamboo steamer in Seattle’s Chinatown. It was carefully packed and taken on a transcontinental flight to India.
My in-laws, obviously, have not forgotten the bamboo steamer.
Step by step: (clockwise from top left) Line the steamer with banana leaf; place it atop boiling water; voila, mackerel with fresh basil. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
I am ashamed to say, I forgot about the contraption after the initial rapture of receiving it. Until last week.
I was idly watching the water for tea boil one steamy, summer morning—this is just so you know I make tea for my wife, come rain or storm—when I realized I was being a fool.
My excuse for not using the steamer all these years was that I couldn’t find the right vessel. You see, a steamer is powered by, well, very hot steam, which floats through its slatted bottom. The heat from the steam cooks the food. You can do this with almost no oil.
The other excuse was just that, an excuse: What do I know about steaming? But for someone who has freely experimented in the kitchen, this was a wimpy excuse.
So, as the water boiled, I quickly rummaged through the kitchen shelves and there it was, forgotten and forlorn all these years. The steamer.
The lid was a little ill-fitting—warped, no doubt, by years of storage, the wood expanding and contracting through winters and summers.
That night, I put it to use, steaming five pieces of king fish (surmai) with a light marination of sesame oil, soy sauce, lime juice and pepper.
I am happy to report it was delicious. Nothing could be easier. It took all of 10 minutes after the water started boiling.
As I write this, I have just had my second go at steaming. It really works! My wife is out of town, so I haven’t steamed any veggies yet. Next week, I will try those too (for those results, you’ll have to visit my blog—for which, of course, this is a shameless plug).
The great thing about steaming is that you can do something different each time. You can use a variety of spices, fresh herbs, sauces, anything really.
Just remember that heavy Indian spices—such as garam masala—are not a good idea because these need to be fried.
Of course, you will need to get a steamer, which I hear you can now buy in Mumbai, Gurgaon and, maybe, Bangalore.
If you don’t have a steamer, you can simply place a wire mesh over a boiling pot of water, cover it with a lid and, hey presto, a steamer. It’s just that bamboo steamers impart a delicate, woody fragrance to the food.
What I will share with you now is the fish I just made. Here goes:
Steamed king fish/mackerel
2 medium-sized mackerel (or 2 large steaks of surmai, or 1 small pomfret, or 4 fillets of any firm fish) with slits on the sides
2 tbsp ginger (or galangal, Thai ginger) julienne
2 tbsp spring onion stalks (from just above the bulb), sliced diagonally
6-7 kafir lime leaves
1 tbsp basil leaves
Salt to taste
For the marinade
1 tsp sesame (or olive) oil
1-2 tbsp of soy sauce
Juice of 1 large lime
Add fresh ground pepper to the marinade and mix well. Apply the marinade to the fish, rub into the slits. Clean and cut a banana leaf (or butter paper) to line the bottom of the steamer. Place the fish pieces next to one another. Sprinkle the fish with ginger, spring onion, kafir lime leaves and basil. If you want a little spice, it’s a good idea to add some paprika or red chilli powder to the marinade.
Heat lots of water (fill to just below the brim) in a vessel that is largely the same size as the steamer. Make sure the steamer bottom and the vessel rim are a good fit. When the water is boiling briskly, place the steamer on top and close the lid. Watch the clock. Your fish will be ready in 10 minutes. Serve hot.
If the ingredients I used sound complicated, do it Indian style: Marinate the fish in a little oil, red chilli powder, tamarind water (or lime juice) and a little turmeric.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is the managing editor of the Hindustan Times. Write to Samar at email@example.com