In Chinese cuisine, steaming a fish is the best way to showcase the freshness of a fish. A classic and popular dish, this Cantonese style steamed fish is a fast and tasty way to prepare any type of white fleshed whole fish or fillet. It is a must-have dish for many families during the Chinese New Year as fish (余, yu) signifies abundance and affluence in Chinese culture.
The quick steaming method to cook this fish results in moist and tender flesh and the sauce has an umami fragrance which just makes you want to eat more rice. In Chinese cooking, ginger and spring onions are used to eliminate fishiness so they are important ingredients in this dish. Also, don’t skip the garnishes. They really enhance the enjoyment of the dish.
I used seabass for this recipe but you can use any type of white fleshed fish such as red snapper, threadfin, tilapia, halibut, cod, white pomfret, garoupa, soon hock (marbled goby), etc. Of these, my favourite fish is the cod and white pomfret. In Singapore, cod fish is expensive and costs around $65 per kilo so I cook it only on special occasions 🙂
Although this is a very simple dish to cook, it requires some techniques to get the perfect steamed fish.
Tips to Cook Cantonese Style Steamed Fish
#1. Choose the freshest fish
Fresh fish have the following attributes: clear, shiny and bulging eyes, bright red gills, shiny and firm scales, firm and wet flesh (not slippery). The mucus covering the fish should be glossy and transparent. Try to get live fish if possible. If not, steam the fish on the day it is bought or within the next day.
#2. Steaming time
Steam on high heat for about 8 minutes for small fish (below 500 g) and 10 minutes or more for larger fish. The fish is cooked when the flesh flakes easily and does not stick to the bones and the eyes are protruded. Getting the timing right will ensure moist and tender fish. Do not overcook the fish or its flesh will turn hard and dry. Set a kitchen timer to the time required.
#3. Less is more
Keep seasonings to a minimal. The main objective of steaming is to taste the delicate sweetness of a fresh fish. The sauce serves to enhance the enjoyment of the steamed fresh fish and not to overwhelm or mask its taste.
Many Chinese steamed fish recipes call for rock sugar to be added in the sauce. I personally prefer it without sugar so I’ve omitted it in the recipe. But feel free to add a little sugar if you wish.
#4. Discard the Steaming Water
After steaming, the water that flows out of the fish (especially whole fish) is murky and fishy and should be discarded. Pour away the cloudy water after steaming. When I steamed fish in the past, I did not discard the water and the resulting broth was slightly bitter tasting.
Get all your ingredients (sauces and garnishes) ready before steaming the fish. You’ll need to have the garnishes on top of the fish before pouring hot oil over it.
Steamed fish is one of my favourite ways to cook a fish. It is fast, simple, healthy and so tasty. You don’t have to go all the way to a restaurant to enjoy a restaurant-style steamed fish and it is also much more cheaper to eat it at home.
Another popular way to steam a fish is this Teochew style steamed fish which I also enjoy immensely. Both Teochew and Cantonese are dialects of the Chinese. If you’re new to Chinese cuisine, I recommend that you try this method of steaming first as it is easier to prepare, uses less ingredients and tastes lighter.
On a sidenote, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy making this post much. Steamed fish is best eaten as soon as it’s cooked when it’s still hot. So it was quite torturous to photograph this fish as I wanted to eat it already. It looked so tempting to just dig in. Haha!
I like to make this a complete meal with a side dish of vegetables such as Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce and a nourishing soup.
Happy cooking and I hope you’ll enjoy this healthy Cantonese style Chinese steamed fish. 🙂
- 1 whole fresh fish or fish fillet (about 500 g)
- 2 inches ginger - slice into thin pieces
- 2 stalks spring onion - sliced into 3 inches length
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 2 tbsp cooking oil
- 2½ tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 3 tbsp water
- 2 stalks spring onion - sliced into 3 inches length and julienned
- Chinese parsley (cilantro)
- 2 inches ginger - jullienned
- ½ red chili (optional) - julienned
- Clean the fish (Gut and scale. Get a fishmonger to do it to save time). Wash the fish and pat dry with a paper towel. Make a slit under the fish and stuff spring onion and the ginger slices into the cavity of the fish. Skip this if using fillet.
- Place the fish on a plate. Pour shaoxing wine over the fish and set aside while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Prepare the sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
- Fill a wok or large deep skillet to about ⅓ full. Place a heat resistant trivet in the middle. Bring water to a boil. Once boiling, carefully place the plate of fish on top of the trivet. Cover and steam for about 9 - 10 minutes (depending on the size of fish). The fish is properly cooked if it can flake easily without sticking to the bones. Set a timer to prevent overcooking.
- As soon as fish is ready, turn off heat and remove plate from wok. Carefully discard the fish water. Use chopsticks to remove the used ginger and spring onions. Lay the chili and garnishes (except coriander leaves) on top of the fish.
- In a smaller saucepan, heat up cooking oil till very hot. Pour it over the fish. You should be able to hear a sizzling sound. Put back the saucepan on the stove and heat up the sauce ingredients. It should bubble immediately as the saucepan is extremely hot. Pour the sauce over the fish. Put the rest of the coriander leaves garnishing and serve immediately.