Victor Liong’s earliest memories of food are sensory. As a young boy visiting family in Kuala Lumpur, he spent time at his grandfather’s restaurant, watching the chefs at work in the kitchen.
“Everything was in massive steamers: dim sum, bao, fish, seafood,” says the chef who runs Melbourne's Lee Ho Fook and collaborates with Chase Kojima at Sydney's Chuuka. “The baskets were a metre-and-a-half wide sitting over these enormous wok burners that were constantly steaming. You’d open the lid and there were maybe 24 char siu bao inside. I remember the distinctive smell of steamed buns and wet bamboo.”
Although Liong lived in Brunei, Malaysia was a short flight away and his family visited Kuala Lumpur regularly.
“We’d go visit for two weeks at a time. It always was a celebratory time. We’d eat big meals together, and my grandfather’s restaurant was a big part of it. I’d cruise around as the boss’ grandson telling people what to do and eating what I liked. If I wanted a coffee, they would have made me one,” he says, laughing.
During that time Liong learned about steaming as a cooking technique. A staple method in Chinese cuisine, steaming in Western cooking is often relegated to the cooking of vegetables.
“I remember my grandfather waxing lyrical about the skill needed to master steaming as a cookery method and it has always stuck with me,” he says. “To have control over water and fire in early civilisations was a show of technological advancement and culinary prowess.”
At home, steaming was chosen by Liong’s mum, Stevia, for its efficiency. The chef is one of four children, and preparing a variety of dishes could be overwhelming if Stevia wasn’t clever with resources.
“Cooking in Chinese households is based around the wok and steaming is really typical,” he says.
“You heat water in the wok, put the basket on, steam a protein and while the water is hot, you can blanch a vegetable. That way you hit two things straight away and all you have to think of after that is a stir-fry.
“The cooking style gives a lot of consideration to workflow and how much time you want to slave in the kitchen.”
“I remember my grandfather waxing lyrical about the skill needed to master steaming as a cookery method and it has always stuck with me.”
When Liong was six, his family moved to Burwood in Sydney’s inner west and they discovered a world of food beyond the diversity of cuisines they were accustomed to eating in Brunei and Malaysia.
“Malaysia has amazing food culture. You can eat anything: Sri Lankan, Malay, Chinese. But one of my favourite food memories of moving to Australia was the diversity and how delicious things were. I think that’s what turned me to a career in food.”
He points to his Lebanese landlady giving him falafel for the first time as a turning point. “When we moved here, it was the middle of winter, I couldn’t speak the language, it was freezing, my stuff hadn’t arrived yet and there was this nice old lady who would come and give us these snacks.”
If moving to Australia helped inspire Liong as an adult to pursue cooking, it influenced his mum straight away. “The early nineties were such a nice, diverse time for a young, multicultural family. My mum’s cooking repertoire expanded. She met different mothers at school and went through phases of cooking things like Korean or Sri Lankan food.”
When asked how she feels about her son’s cooking, he says with a smile, “She’s obsessively a perfectionist. I’m sure she means well, but she thinks she can do better!”
It’s perhaps a sign of great respect then that Liong, a lauded chef with two successful restaurants, would choose to reimagine a dish that his mum used to cook: steamed fish.
“I wanted to reference my mother, and also address the fact that it’s 2020 and people still have apprehensions about cooking fish at home,” he says.
“I wanted to reference my mother, and also address the fact that it’s 2020 and people still have apprehensions about cooking fish at home.”
Liong has chosen trout, a fish that’s easy to source, and the resulting dish is a good balance of approachable and impressive, with a delicately sweet and salty sauce that brings out the flavours of the fish and aromatics of the ginger and spring onions. But the dish isn’t just about flavour and technique, it’s about memory.
“Steaming is considered the purest cooking expression in Chinese cuisine, and this is a recipe that reminds me of many family dinners growing up,” he says.
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Steamed ocean trout with shiitake mushrooms, ginger and spring onions
I use ocean trout fillets in this recipe as it’s a readily available fish, and it’s forgiving to the first–time steamer. A nice substitute for this fish is barramundi or a whole fish if you are feeding many.
Serves 2 – 4
- 10 g sugar
- 10 g water
- 30 g light soy sauce
- 10 g dark soy sauce (optional)
Steamed ocean trout
- 20 g dried sliced shiitake mushrooms, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes until softened (alternatively you can use any sliced fresh mushrooms)
- 400 g fillet of ocean trout, skin off
- 20 g ginger, peeled and finely julienned
- 50 g spring onions, white part and green parts finely julienned and kept separate
- 25 ml vegetable oil
- 20 g coriander leaves (optional)
1. To make the sauce, combine the ingredients in a bowl. You can make a larger batch of this and keep it in the refrigerator for drizzling over any steamed or lightly poached dishes.
2. Drain the mushrooms and spread in an even layer on a plate that has a bit of a lip. Place the fish fillet on top of the mushrooms, sprinkle the ginger and the whites of the spring onion onto the fish fillet. Allow the fish to come up to room temperature. The closer the fish is to room temperature, the more evenly and quickly it will cook.
3. Place the plate in the steamer, and steam for 8–12 minutes over medium heat depending on the size of the fillet, and the temperature of your steamer. There should be a steady flow of steam and the water should be on a gentle but constant boil.
4. At the 6-minute mark, check the fish: insert a thin knife into the thickest part and test the temperature on your bottom lip or wrist, it should feel warm like the shower, not hot like the hot tap (55˚C if you have a meat thermometer). Once that temperature has been achieved, pour over the sauce to saturate the plate and turn the heat off and allow the fish to sit in the steamer for 1 minute while you get the hot oil ready.
5. In a small saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat until it just starts to smoke. Once smoking, pour the oil over the fish fillet, this will sizzle and make the ginger and spring onion become more fragrant.
6. Garnish with the remaining green spring onion and coriander leaves.
Note: If you are using a wok to steam, fill the wok with water and bring the wok to the boil (covered), with a trivet or a bamboo steamer basket as a steaming device. Alternatively, you can generate steam in a shallow pan with a lid propping up the plate with some chopsticks.
If none of these options are available, you can follow the recipe, cover the plate with plastic wrap and microwave it in 1-minute increments until the fish is cooked and finish the dish as per the recipe.
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