I’ve been confused about fish broth and steamed fish. When is a broth really steamed fish, and when is steamed fish really a broth? This might not seem like a difficult question, but I’ve discovered that it all depends on which Caribbean country you are from.
This all started because I wanted to eat a dish comprised of a couple of fish heads gently cooked with lots of onions and herbs with a generous amount of broth to eat with my boiled ground provisions.
This dish was a memory from back when I was still in the single digits. I remember my dad making a fish dish made exclusively of fresh red snapper, herbs, onions and tomatoes. Up until that time I had only had fish three ways – curried, fried, or fried and served in a tomato-onion sauce.
When I tasted the dish my dad cooked I marvelled at the way in which both the fish and the translucent liquid it sat in tasted so flavourful. I heard my parents refer to it as steamed fish. But then as I got older, and travelled the Caribbean I started to hear about fish broth.
I wondered: “Isn’t that the same thing as steamed fish?”
I think in some way, I convinced myself it was and continued merrily with that interpretation until a few years ago.
I decided to try and recreate my version of my dad’s cooking. So I bought some grey-snapper fish heads which I cleaned and placed into a pot of lightly saut√ed onions, garlic, tomatoes and fresh herbs; I added water, brought the pot to a gentle boil and then reduced to simmer for about half an hour to ensure that the bones would be tender and cooked through.
I finished off the dish with a sprinkling of chopped green onions, a splash of lemon juice and a couple pats of butter that melted as soon as it touched the simmering liquid. Separately, I had boiled some ground provisions and okras to eat with my fish broth-steamed fish.
When I described what I had made to a Barbadian friend (I’m mentioning her nationality because it is important to the interpretation of the dish I made), she said it sounded like steamed fish. I was a little disappointed as I was hoping that she’d say fish broth because that’s what I had in mind when I set out to make the dish – a delicious flavourful broth with bones I could suck on and tender morsels of meat found around the fish fins and the cheeks of the fish head along with the gently cooked onions, tomatoes and herbs.
My friend explained that when someone says to her that they have made fish broth, she is thinking of a soup void of actual pieces of fish, onions, herbs etc. All that she’s expecting is the flavourful broth-liquid. On the other hand, if she’s offered steamed fish, my friend expects to get fish and all the other seasonings that were cooked with it but no broth.
Clearly I had not made proper steamed fish by her standards as mine had a lot of broth. It seemed that, at least as far as my Bajan friend was concerned, I had not made a fish broth. This required further investigation.
So I turned to my trusted Food Lover’s Companion to find out what a broth is. The Companion defines it as a liquid resulting from cooking vegetables, meat or fish in water. It goes on to further state that the word broth is used synonymously with bouillon. A bouillon is the liquid strained off after the cooking of the vegetables, meat or fish in water.
On the other hand, Food Lover’s Companion describes steaming as a cooking method whereby the food is placed on a rack or special steamer basket over boiling or simmering water in a covered pan.
So what was it then that I had made? I decided to consult experts close to home.
I turned to some Caribbean cookbooks for answers, according to What’s Cooking in Guyana, fish broth is similar in nature to mine but in this case, the root vegetables are cut into bite-sized pieces and cooked in with the fish, herbs and water. Steamed fish is seasoned, placed in a deep dish, covered and steamed in a large pan of boiling water.
The Multicultural Cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean makes its fish broth similar to What’s Cooking in Guyana and offers the option of putting dried macaroni. Their steamed fish is done Chinese-style, whereby the fish is steamed whole, sprinkled with ginger matchsticks and soy sauce and then hot oil is poured over the fish just before serving.
Adding a new twist to this entire thing An Adventure in Caribbean Cuisine describes Dominica’s Fish Coubouillon as fish first marinated in lime juice, water, salt and hot peppers for at least 2 hours them simmered in water with fresh herbs and thickened with a flour paste.
Jamaica and other countries also have a fish-in-broth dish called Escoveitched fish – fried fish is steeped overnight in a vinegar-herb-spice cooked-marinade. Think ceviche, only in this case that the main ingredient is already cooked. Jamaica is also very famous for its fish tea soup which is very similar to the kind of fish broth my Barbadian friend referred to; that’s why it is called a tea-soup because it can be sipped and drunk as you would tea.
It seems that throughout the region we each have our own versions of a dish of fish-cooked-in-water turned broth.
Still the question remains, given that I did not have my ground provisions (root vegetables) cooked in with my fish and seasonings, and I did not use the steaming method to cook, what do I call my dish?
May be I should be like those pretentious restaurants who reach for a French label whenever they name something – it could be Poisson a la Cynthia – hmmm may be not. How about, rather than borrowing from the French I misquote good old Shakespeare:
What’s in a name? that which we call fish broth
By any other name would taste as delicious;
So Steamed Fish would, were it not Steamed Fish call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which it owes
Without that title.
I can hear my high school English Literature teacher groaning even as she’s reading this.
* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
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