Ever since my husband and I took a cruise trip to Alaska fifteen years ago, we became salmon lovers. The meat is fatty, refreshing, not too fishy, but still tastes like ocean. My oldest son had his first taste of salmon when he was 7 months old and salmon has been his favorite fish ever since. Their favorite way of eating salmon is actually salmon sashimi, which is quite expensive here in the DC metro area. Also these days eating out in a cozy Japanese restaurant is not very practical for our family of four, one of which is an infant and another a preschooler. Not to mention it will break the bank. Fortunately, salmon is a versatile fish that can be prepared in many different ways at home and still taste delicious.
I came across this recipe from one of my favorite Chinese food bloggers and I simplified it just a tiny bit. Traditionally, Chinese apply fermented black bean sauce on a whole fish and steam it up. So I was quite surprised by how well and easy it turned out on salmon fillets. The resulting steamed salmon, infused with wonderful flavors from fermented black bean, ginger, and scallion, retains so much juice that the final texture is soft and almost melts in your mouth.
A fillet of salmon that is around 1 pound (450 g) usually steams in 8 to 10 minutes. It is important not to oversteam the fish as the meat will become hard and dry. Therefore, it’s better to steam for shorter time and check for the doneness. For this recipe, since the salmon fillet is cut into a few pieces, it only takes around 6 minutes to steam.
The key ingredient in this recipe is fermented black beans, also called “douchi 豆豉.” These little fermented beans are by no means what I would call attractive or appetizing. In fact, they are the opposite. They look like black beans that have gone seriously bad. To make matters worse, they are often put on non-prime shelf locations in somewhat dodgy looking transparent vacuumed plastic bags. Even for a seasoned Asian grocery shopper like me, I had my doubts when I first saw them.
But don’t be fooled by their ugly appearance. These fermented black beans are actually an ancient creation that dates back 2000 years in China. Nowadays, its presence is ubiquitous in all types of Chinese cuisines. They are made with either soy beans or black beans. The final product is semi-soft brownish or blackish colored beans that have a unique strong salty yet slightly sweet taste, and a sharp, pungent, and powerful smell. Yes, their look, taste, and smell can be off-putting at first, but these little gems add delightful and unexpected umami flavors to so many seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes. On top of that, they are full of proteins, amino acids, and small amounts of beneficial minerals and vitamins.
These days, to make life easier, many sauce manufacturers such as Laoganma (老干妈), Lee Kum Kee (李錦記) combine the fermented black beans with other ingredients such as chili, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and sell the combined products in fancy bottled jars. They are widely available in most Asian grocery stores and many of them are well made. Nonetheless, I still prefer to have some pure fermented black beans in stock so I can add ingredients and mix my own sauce at will.
Active Time: 20 min
Total Time: 30 min
- 1 pound of fresh salmon fillet (preferably with skin intact) 1
- 1 scallion; separate the white and green parts; cut into long thin slices (julienned)
- 1 small ginger, about 1-2 inch long; skinned and cut into long thin slices (julienned)
- ¼ to half teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil (preferably oil with mild flavor and high smoke point such as grapeseed, canola, avocado oil, etc.)
- 1 teaspoon fermented black beans2, chopped into small pieces
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce3
- ¼ teaspoon Chinese black vinegar3
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- Remove the scales from the salmon fillet by scraping the dull side of a knife or a kitchen scissor in the opposite direction of the scales. Then cut the fillet into 3 to 5 slices (each about 1 inch wide) and lay them separately with the skin on the side on a plate.
- Prepare the scallion and the ginger. Make sure they are julienned nicely.
- Combine all the sauce ingredients and mix them well.
- Boil water over high heat in a steamer or a large pot (I use a large cast iron wok with a steamer rack because my steamer is too small). If using a steamer rack, make sure the water level is below the rack. Otherwise water can easily get into the plate and dilute sauce flavor. While waiting for water to boil, sprinkle kosher salt over the sliced salmon fillets. Do not sprinkle salt too early. Within 5 minutes of putting it in the steamer is good enough.
- Evenly spread ginger and the white-colored scallion slices on top of each salmon slice. Then drizzle the sauce on top.
- When the water boils, carefully transfer the plate to the steamer. Cover and let it cook on high for 6 minutes. If your salmon slices are particularly thick, increase by 1 to 2 minutes. DO NOT over steam otherwise the meat will lose its soft texture.
- After the fish is done steaming, turn off the heat immediately and carefully remove the lid. Make sure not to drip water into the plate.
- In a small pan, heat the 2 tablespoons of oil until very hot but not smoking. Then lay the julienned green parts of the scallion evenly on top of each salmon slice. Next pour the hot oil over the scallions. You are doing it right if you hear a sizzling sound while pouring the hot oil.
- This dish can be enjoyed family style or if you throw a western dinner party, transfer each individual sliced fillet into separate plate and serve them as main course.
- I usually get my salmon fillets from grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or Aldi. They sometimes come descaled but always come with the skin intact. The skin, in my opinion, helps to trap more fatty juice and fragrance when cooking salmon. But I understand the texture or the look of the skin might not be appealing to everyone so if you do not like it, feel free to remove it.
- Like I mentioned earlier, the fermented black beans usually come in vacuumed plastic bags. They are either called Fermented Black Beans or Fermented Soy Beans. When buying them from Asian grocery stores, make sure there is an expiration date. Once open, seal and refrigerate the bag. The brand I bought is called Youngchuan (永川), which is actually a place in China’s Szechuan province that is known for its fermented black beans. Alternatively, you can use the packaged fermented black bean sauce like this Lee Kum Kee brand below. Because the bottled fermented black bean sauce usually has light soy sauce mixed in, reduce the soy sauce amount to 2/3 teaspoon when mixing the sauce.
- Here I used San-J gluten free soy sauce. But any light soy sauce (not the dark kind for coloring purpose) can do the job. Kikkoman, Pearl River Bridge （珠江橋牌）, Lee Kum Kee （李錦記）are some of the common Asian soy sauce brands. You can find them in most grocery stores and super markets. I used Chinkiang Vinegar (镇江香醋) here. It’s a type of Chinese black vinegar. You can substitute it with balsamic vinegar. If using balsamic vinegar, skip the sugar.