CORNSTARCH: Sally Ng's secret to golden-brown, perfectly sautéed tilapia.
If you asked me the secret to Chinese food a couple weeks ago, I might have guessed: MSG? No — baby corns? After cooking with Beijing-born Sally Ng at her house in the West End, I see there are many secrets to Chinese cooking, and these days MSG isn’t one of them. Together we cooked tilapia in soy-ginger sauce and a duo of sautéed Chinese greens with black sweet rice. The secrets therein are worth getting your own hands on.
First go pick up some authentic items from Hong Kong Market (941 Congress Street, near St. John Street). Fill up your basket with a couple things: BLACK SWEET RICE to mix with white jasmine, SHAOXING RICE COOKING WINE, OYSTER SAUCE (Sally prefers Kimlau vegetarian mushroom-oyster sauce), and SOY SAUCE (Sally prefers the Taiwanese brand). From Makot Pech Market (go South on St. John St, about 4 blocks), try to find some special greens. CHINESE MUSTARD GREENS look like romaine leaves, and CHINESE BROCCOLI GREENS are bluish-green broad leaves that might hold a buried floret or two. Get your hands on some TILAPIA, FRESH GARLIC, FRESH GINGER, and GREEN ONION, and you’ve got yourself the makings of an all-out taste bud vacation.
First, get a mixture of a quarter-cup black sweet rice and three-quarters of a cup of white rice with 1.5 cups of water going in a rice cooker (if using a pot, try 2.5 cups of water). Chop a tablespoon of garlic and one and a half tablespoons of ginger, peel four more garlic cloves, and slice three scallions (whites and greens) on the bias. Wash your mustard and broccoli greens and cut the thick stems off, slicing them in half and crosswise so they’re bite size and will cook in the same amount of time as the leaves.
Lay six tilapia fillets on a toaster-oven tray or rimmed dish. Drizzle and pat into the filets enough of the cooking wine to wet the fish with no excess. Then sprinkle cornstarch generously onto the fish, patting it with your fingers so that each filet looks a little milky. (Sally used about four teaspoons cornstarch on six fillets.) Heat a sauté pan with canola oil coating the bottom. Sauté the fish, trying to only flip each once so they stay whole and nicely browned.
While the fish is cooking, add about a quarter-cup soy sauce to the empty fish-prep tray, “washing off” the cornstarch residue into the soy sauce. Add the chopped garlic, ginger, and scallions to the tray, and a couple tablespoons of water. When the fish is done, transfer the fillets onto a serving platter. Pour the ginger-soy sauce into the sauté pan, and heat until thick, adding water to loosen it up to your liking. Pour the sauce over the fish.
Sauté the mustard greens in a hot wok with a little canola oil and two cloves of garlic. Add a pinch of sugar to help tone down the mustard’s bite. When the greens turn an even brighter shade green and slightly limp, add a couple shakes of oyster sauce and stir. Pour the greens onto half of a serving plate. Do the same with the broccoli greens (no need for the sugar though) and fill the other side of the serving plate.