It’s evening in Hanoi, and as it begins getting dark, vendors start setting up on the streets, preparing snacks. Among them is a woman selling meat-filled buns from a makeshift steamer, the size and shape of a large metal container.
She works under a single bare bulb, and when she opens the lid, the air fills with a cloud of steam, evaporating into the cool night.
In the West, the steaming process has unfortunately got the reputation of being the ideal cooking technique for dieters, with vegetables the most common victims: steamed into submission and then served plain. Because of that, it is often an under-utilised way of preparing food.
But throughout Asia, many things are steamed, from egg custard to pork ribs, fish, duck, shellfishes, snails, clams, chicken, and dumplings to bread. The steamer takes the place of an oven, the moist, delicate heat completely enveloping the food. Ironically, the only thing that isn’t widely steamed in Việt Nam is vegetables.
Steaming is one of the simplest ways of preparing food, requiring only a heat source, something to elevate the food above the water and a tight-fitting lid. In general, it is fast, doesn’t require too many ingredients and is healthy, since you don’t have to add much or any oil. You can purchase bamboo and metal steamers at any good kitchenware store, but the bamboo ones are recommended: the lid absorb moisture (so it doesn’t drip back down onto your food) and they don’t get too hot to handle. They’re usually sold individually and do get at least two baskets and a lid to start with, so you can steam quite a number of things at once. The larger steamers (at least 30cm in diameter) are considered the best, as they can accommodate everything from a whole fish to a dozen dumplings.
Bamboo steamers are ideal for dumplings and buns, fish, crabs or lotus-leaf-wrapped parcels of seasoned sticky rice. They can be set over any pot of boiling water. A wok will work, but if you steam more than you stir-fry, you’ll have to be careful not to rob your wok of its non-stick patina. Any ordinary stockpot or good-sized saucepan is an option. Just make sure the steamer basket fits tightly on the pot rim so no steam escapes. Finally, you can buy two- or three-arm plate grabbers at most kitchenware stores. While not essential, they are inexpensive and make transferring a hot plate from steamer to table much easier.
Steaming may be the most delicate cooking technique in the Asian repertoire, but it is also among the most versatile. There is almost nothing that can’t be cooked – healthily and quickly – with steam.
There are two methods of steaming:
- Low pressure
- High pressure
In low pressure steaming, food may be cooked by direct or indirect contact with the steam. Direct – food is placed in a steamer or in a pan of boiling water and indirect – food is placed in between two plates over a pan of boiling water. High-pressure steaming is performed in purpose-built equipment, which does not allow the steam to escape, hence reducing the cooking time.
In a nutshell, the following are the benefits of steam-cooking:
- Retains valuable nutrients, vitamins & minerals in food
- Maintains food moisture & freshness
- Soften food fibers making it tender & easily digestible
- Does not require cooking oil or fat – making dishes light & healthy
- Cooks food faster & healthy
- Is applicable to all kinds of food – poultry, seafood, vegetables, fruits, desserts etc.
- Keeps the vibrant colours & natural flavours of food
- Cooks over a single heat source by stacking trays, which is economical & saves time
- Keeps your kitchen clean – no oil, no smoke, no mess – cleaning up is easy