Thai inspired steamed sea bream is so delicious, you’ll wonder how it is so healthy! Calling on traditional Thai ingredients, it is bursting with flavour for less than 300 calories a portion!
I made this Thai inspired steamed sea bream on a total whim. It’s not often I enter into a culinary creation with almost total abandon. My recipe development tends to teeter around improving current classics, adding twists to old favourites, and wild experiments with new techniques I’ve learnt.
So when I decided that our usual steamed fish recipe was boring us (great recipe though – check it out here), and instead to make something ‘Thai’ totally from scratch, I was a bit scared. I’ve made Thai dishes before, but previous pastes I’ve made have been mellowed out in a curry with plenty of coconut milk. But pants to it – what’s the worst that could happen? Other than a very disgruntled wife and violent illness… Nothing that bad, right?
So I basically got everything Thai related from my spice rack and cupboards, then nervously tip toed through my invention with whatever felt right. Tamarind paste… Kaffir lime leaves… Lemongrass… Chilli… The only thing that didn’t make the mix in this Thai inspired steamed sea bream was the shrimp paste (I couldn’t remember if I’d bought it within the use-within timeframe, and the stuff stinks at the best of times, so that went in the bin.)
I was so sure it wouldn’t work, I even had a backup dinner ready to go (smoked haddock frittata yummmm). But, gosh darn it, it was WELL good. So good that I was disappointed I didn’t make twice or three times the paste (which this recipe now has). It was fruity, a tiny bit sour from the tamarind, a fresh mouthfeel from the lemongrass, fragrant from the spices and herbs, and complimented the delicate fish without overpowering it. What a win! High fives all round!
I don’t know enough about Thai food to know if this kind of dish already exists, and it’s a bit flaky to call it ‘Thai’ straight off the bat just because I used some of their favourite ingredients. So ‘Thai inspired steamed sea bream’ it is. If you know of something similar in Thai cuisine, do let me know!
Tip: the lime that you serve it with is quite necessary to really polish off the flavours. Don’t miss this off!
Thai Inspired Steamed Sea Bream
- 1 tsp Coriander seed
- ½ tsp Cumin seeds
- 4 leaves Kaffir lime dried
- 1 Star Anise
- ½ tsp Onion granules
- 4 cloves Garlic very thinly sliced
- 3 tsp Lemongrass stalks or 2 lemongrass puree
- 2 Red chilli seeds removed and very thinly sliced
- piece Thumb sized of ginger minced
- 1 tsp Tamarind paste
- 2 tsp Fish sauce
- Dash Toasted sesame oil
- 2 Whole sea bream
- 2 Spring onions sliced or chopped how you prefer
- Lime to serve
- Jasmine rice to serve
- Toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry pan over a high heat until fragrant. ~30 seconds – 1 minute. Be careful not to burn them.
- Grind the toasted seeds together with the kaffir lime leaves, star anise, and onion granules either in a spice grinder or in a mortar and pestle. Grind as finely as possible.
- Transfer to a mortar and pestle and bash in the garlic, lemongrass, chilli, and ginger. Bash together until all the larger lumps have been pulverised.
- Add the tamarind paste, fish sauce, and a dash of toasted sesame oil. Mix to make a loose paste.
- Heat an inch or two of water in a pan with a steamer attachment until boiling.
- While the water is heating, remove the head and tails from the sea bream. Cut deep slices across the flesh on both sides right to the bone.
- Spread the paste across the fish, getting it deep into every cut on both sides. Transfer to the steaming pan and add the sliced spring onions with the fish.
- Steam for 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through. It should pull away from the bone cleanly and will be completely white throughout.
- Season generously with lime, and serve on the bone with jasmine rice.
If you're feeling extra skinny - fillet a single sea bream and have half per meal. Reduce steaming time to 8 minutes. This trims off around 125kcal.
Exploring the recipe…
Why do you make a spice paste? Would a dry rub work? You could use dry spiced ingredients, but you would be missing some of the best flavours – tamarind, lemongrass, fish sauce, toasted sesame oil – these all come wet, and they’re all pretty delicious. Each one brings its own character to the party, so would be sorely missed if we left them out. It also gives a slight sauciness which is delicious when mixed in with the rice.
Why do you slice the flesh? Simply to get the flavour right into the flesh and all over the fish. We’re not marinating at all, so the spices don’t have any time to absorb into the flesh. It also aids the cooking, allowing the steam to cook the fish a little more evenly, as it can sneak through the slices rather than having to travel through the thickest parts of the flesh.
Why is this served on the bone? Can I fillet it if I prefer? I find that serving it on the bone makes things much quicker, and once the fish is cooked it lifts off the bone very easily anyway. It also allows us to cut our deep slices into the fish – if we did this with a fillet, it would go right through. If you do prefer to fillet your fish, then adjust the cooking time accordingly (I’d wager about 8-10 minutes would be enough).
Can I make this with less chili if I prefer it mild? Sure, but let me warn you – this is already a very mild dish. Although it has 2 whole chilies running through it, the steaming process mellows that heat considerably so the zing is barely perceivable. On the flip of this, if you’re looking for some punch, feel free to either use hotter chilies or raise the count up to 3 or more.
Why steam rather than bake or fry? I steam as it’s a very healthy cooking method, is easier to check on the fish during cooking, and is quick and easy. I’m sure baking this in parcels would work just as well, but the chili might be hotter (see above). Frying may possibly work as well, but considering how delicious this is when you steam, why add unnecessary calories?
As this is a paste I’ve created from nothing, I’ve got a lot more to consider here which could change the cooking method. Would frying the spices into some onion and garlic be the base of a good coconut milk curry? The balance of the spices would need to be tweaked so they were more potent, otherwise the coconut milk would totally mellow them out and override our good work. Adding some stock could turn this into a fish stew. Maybe some chopped tomatoes would create a fruity sauce? The possibilities are mouth-watering.