Lesson From My Mother-In-Law’s Steamed Fish

The kids are back in school after the 4 day weekend break. Everyone went back to their normal routine on the 3rd day of Lunar New Year. I thought it was a pretty short break considering that on some years, school only starts on the 5th day of the new year.

We had our reunion dinner with my husband side of the family where my 78 years old mother-in-law took days to prepare the reunion dinner. Every year, both she and my father-in-law would make multiple trips to the market to stock up on groceries and fresh produce and she would spend her day, cleaning and arranging everything meticulously.

Age is catching up with her and with the renovation of their place this year, she only had less than a week to prepare everything. Still, she managed to cook up an impressive spread.

I remember those years where she would prepare Ngor Hiang and Ah Zha to gift to all her children and close relatives. Her Nyonya dumplings were unmatched and she cooked the best steamed fish.

One would have thought that steaming fish should be a no brainer. Just let the boiling water do the job, no? At least that was what I thought.

And that was exactly what she did too. She had a wok of boiling water and the ingredients she used were nothing unusual. It was almost like, her secret to cooking perfect steamed fish was … No Secret. But somehow her steamed fish always tasted better.

It was a mystery.

It took me a long while but I think I finally figured out the 2 main ingredients for her tasty steamed fish cooked to perfection,  meticulousness and precise timing.

The process starts from choosing the freshest fish and cleaning the fish. From clearing the stomach to rubbing it down with salt, rinsing and dripping it dry. Then depending on the size of the fish, the time it takes for the fish to stay over a wok of boiling water has to be just right. A few minutes too early, the fish would be half cooked and a few minutes too late you might end up with the fish being too tough thus destroying the freshness of the fish.

I realized that like learning any new skill, to gain expertise, one needs to practise, practise, practise. And the quality of practice is just as important as the quantity.

Simple practice isn’t enough to rapidly gain skills. Mere repetition of an activity won’t lead to improved performance. But instead, understanding what needs to be improved and the areas that can address these deficiencies need to be constantly worked at. My mother-in-law took years to figure out the different timing needed to steam different fish depending on the weight and size.

Greatness requires dedication and sacrifice, period. Being good at something requires a fair amount, being great requires a huge amount. If you want to be great at what you do, then much dedication and sacrifice is required.

Geoff Colvin called it deliberate practice and he believes it is this that separates world class performers from everybody else.  I agree with him and I believe that deliberate practice can be used by anyone, not just world class performers but anyone who wish to better themselves and be really good at what they are doing. You can be a football player, a swimmer, a pilot, an admin clerk, a painter, a parent, a homemaker, and in this case, it is what separates my mother-in-law’s steamed fish from everybody else’s.

So deliberate practice we shall have and may we be better every year than the year before.
Here’s to a great monkey year filled with happiness, good health and prosperity!

Huat ah!




  1. Madeline says:

    For some reason the true cooks never measure their ingredients. They just go by feel and can never explain why their food taste better than others haha. Well I dont have this gift so am contented with eating hehe. Happy CNY to you and your family!

    • malmal says:

      Yes, the true cooks will tell you agar agar. When I asked for recipe from one of my true cook friend, she passed me a list of ingredients, no measurement, no method! *faint*

  2. Michelle says:

    Deliberate practice. Yes that’s it. Somehow I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days. Was discussing with relatives, and somehow I find the notion of “hard work pays off” not something I want to drum into the kids because hard work still has a negative connotation, and to a child immersed in something he loves, it is not hard work.
    “Deliberate practise” is going to be my new buzzword! Thanks!

    • malmal says:

      Thanks Michelle. A friend who is very talented recently mentioned that learning everything requires hard work, even for the things you love. I think there is truth in it and it makes me wonder whether we have been told too often that learning should be fun.

  3. Joey says:

    You ask me about sewing I can explain. but kitchen is something I would like to try soon. I knew a friend whose mum cooks 7 course dinner like restaurant kind… really kudos

    • malmal says:

      Thanks Joey for your comment. Yes, the older generation tends to be better cooks. It will be a pity if all these recipes and culinary skills are not passed down to the next generation.

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