Ask Chef Andy Wai what the Chinese value about Cantonese cuisine, and he'll tell you it's how the taste of fresh ingredients always shines through. "Original flavor," he says. "You can see it in the color and presentation, smell and taste it." Steaming is one technique that helps preserve that flavor.
Wai knows what he's talking about. Trained in classic Chinese and Western cuisines in Hong Kong, he came to the United States in 1988 to work for San Francisco's Harbor Village restaurant, where he was the executive chef from 1992 to 2005. Now he has his own spacious, light-filled restaurant, Chef Wai, in downtown San Mateo, 20 miles south of San Francisco.
Tucked into one end of the kitchen is a stainless steel cabinet constantly filled with clouds of steam. He pulls open the door and slides in a plate with fish and tofu. Nearby, a stack of giant round metal baskets sits atop billowing jets of steam. He uses both constantly. "In the last few years, organic ingredients, healthy foods, and less grease are very popular," Wai explains. "Steaming works well with this healthful style. It's easy and uses little oil."
Although Westerners rarely venture past plain steamed vegetables, the Chinese steam a wide range of foods. Wai composes complete main dishes on single plates; Chinese home cooks often use heat-resistant glass pie pans or shallow heatproof bowls. When the dishes emerge from their steam bath, they're plump with natural juices It's an easy technique with the right equipment.
In a matter of minutes, Wai creates a pretty dish of kabocha squash and scallops, and then fish on tender tofu. Eat these homestyle favorites as the Chinese do, with a bowl of hot rice and stir-fried greens. It's a simple, good-for-you meal.
INFO: Chef Wai ( $$; 111 E. Fourth Ave., San Mateo, CA; 650/342-8388)
Steamed Fish on Soft Tofu with Black-bean Sauce
Pieces of fish coated with pungent black-bean garlic sauce steam atop melt-in-your-mouth tofu pedestals.
Steamed Kabocha Squash with Scallops
Bright orange kabocha squash forms a sweet base for tender scallops, spiked with ginger and chile. The dish is also very good as a vegetarian version, without the scallops.
HOW TO STEAM BOK CHOY
If you have stackable bamboo or metal steamer baskets, try cooking some sweet green bok choy along with your main course. Here's how: Cut baby bok choy lengthwise in half (if using regular bok choy, cut into 1-in.-wide pieces), then put in a heat-resistant glass pie pan and set pan in steamer basket over boiling water. Steam 6 to 8 minutes or until tender when pierced with a knife. Turn off heat and lift pie pan from steamer. Drizzle bok choy with 2 tbsp. oyster sauce mixed with 1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil if you like, and serve immediately.