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Steamed Mackerel

As I sit here in front of my computer on a rainy late afternoon (alas too late for tea, too early for dinner) in Paris, it feels like self torture to be looking through photos of delicious foods. The very slightest of pangs enough to provoke a grumble from the stomach, my salivary glands activated by the mere memory and photo of something I ate weeks ago. Such is the power of the brain. Well, admittedly my brain works faster when it comes to my salivary glands, not so much for my heart and legs when I’m hiking.

Driving towards Spain, surrounded by the lofty mountains of the Pyrénées, you realise you are in the Basque region of France when every house you see is painted white and Basque red (not to be confused with Bordeaux red).

In the seaside Basque village of Guéthary, famous for its whale hunting in the 13th century, the coast is rocky, the waves are gnarly, rivalling the more famous Biarritz, Europe’s historic surfing capital. As the sea beckoned, the wind whistled in my ear and made my hair dance. How could I resist the wild call of the waves and not grab my board, take off to meet the set and ride those exhilarating waves? All I needed was my surfboard and some audacity. Wishful thinking. I had neither. I’ll leave those XXL swells to the pros. Realistically, another - no less enticing - prospect was within my reach: lunch. The ‘lineup’ (surf lingo for the zone where surfers wait to best take off) for me in this case, was just a waiting line to show my QR vaccination code to get a table at the restaurant.

Basque cuisine is distinctly different from the rest of France and the use of bell peppers and sweet Espelette chillis is typical. There was certainly no whale on the menu but the humble mackerel was the dish of the day. More than 30 different species belong to this family, and despite it being a highly commercial species, the global catch of the mackerel has remained very sustainable.

No set waves for me today, a set lunch will do just nicely. The mackerel, low in mercury and high in omega-3 oils, is one of my favourite fish. It’s strong flavour does not appeal to everyone, although my mum who didn’t particularly enjoy strong-flavoured fish, used to love it too, cooking it in various ways: steamed, fried, grilled, curried. But the proposition today was poached mackerel in verveine. Yes, verveine - also known as lemon verbena - the superstar of relaxing infusion teas. I was intrigued. The strong flavour of the mackerel seems to have been lightly tempered resulting in a more subtle flavour, the hint of citrusy verveine only barely discernible. Served on some grilled bell peppers and fennel, it was excellent. I was stoked, quite possibly the only adjective in common that a surfer and I may both actually use and in both contexts, to mean happy.

Back in Paris, neither mountains nor ocean in sight, the fishmonger at the market provides a little consolation. I get two mackerels and head home to make this steamed version that my mum used to make.

The only ingredient you may not be familiar with is the preserved soya bean. It can be found in most Asian supermarkets, and lasts forever. If you buy a jar, I promise to include more recipes using it in the future.

This steamed mackerel doesn’t taste anything like the version I ate at Le Poinçon restaurant in Guéthary, but you know what, it’s just as delicious. I am just as stoked.

Preserved soya bean , or sometimes called soya bean paste, can be found in most Asian supermarkets. Fermented in salt, and sometimes with wheat flour and ginger, it is used a lot in Asian cuisine.

You can use mackerel filets if you like, but reduce cooking time which may also vary according to the size of the fish.

Steamed Mackerel with Ginger and Preserved Soya Beans


Serves 2 to 4

Prep Time 10 mins/Cook Time 20 mins/Total Time 30 mins

  • 2 whole mackerel fish, gutted

  • 10 g ginger, peeled and julienned

  • 10 g (1 tsp) preserved soya bean, mashed

  • 1 tsp soya sauce

  • 2 tsp toasted sesame seed oil

  • White pepper

  • 1/2 to 1 red chilli, seeded and julienned

  • 2 stalks spring onions, sliced finely


  1. Prepare your steamer.

  2. Have your fishmonger gut and clean the fish and filet them if you prefer.

  3. Make two slits on each side of the fish. Place in shallow bowl which you will steam fish in.

  4. Peel (easiest to use a teaspoon) and cut ginger into thin juliennes.

  5. Mash the soya beans into a paste. If you buy a paste version, this step is not necessary.

  6. Spread the paste over the fish.

  7. Put a few slices of ginger into the cavity of the fish and scatter the remaining over the top.

  8. Drizzle over the soya sauce and 1 tsp of sesame seed oil, and a pinch of white pepper.

  9. Steam fish 15 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the fish.

  10. Remove, drizzle the other teaspoon of sesame seed oil over then garnish with red chilli and spring onions or fresh coriander. Serve hot with plain steamed rice.


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