March 13, 2014

Classic Chinese Steamed Fish 清蒸鱼

classic, cantonese, steamed, fish, chinese, recipe, chinese steamed fish, 清蒸鱼

I've been meaning to write about the amazing Classic Chinese Steamed Fish, or 清蒸魚, for the longest time.  I mean, we have this fish dish all the time at home!  It's simple to make and a simply amazingly delicious way to prepare fresh fish.  

This is the great shining example of the spare beauty and elegance of the traditional Cantonese way of cooking.  Fresh, fresh food combined with specific precise cooking methods that allow the natural flavors of fresh food to blossom.  A dish that you can make at home with a minimum of fuss.  A super yummilicious, tender, sea sweet fish dish gently flavored with aromatics and a drizzle of fine soy sauce that will get you to eat delicious, healthy fish all the time!  This is simply one of the best fish dishes of all time!

classic, cantonese, steamed, fish, chinese, recipe, chinese steamed fish, 清蒸鱼

As with all great things, one must adhere to simple but strict principles.  The most important thing you will need to make this Chinese Steamed Fish is a fresh fish.  The Cantonese take their seafood very seriously and you can purchase live fish at the wet markets and even at the supermarkets here in Hong Kong.  The fishmonger will catch, kill, scale and gut the fish for you.  

But I have found that it is not necessary to buy live fish as long as your fish is very fresh.  But you need to check with your own senses.  If the fish is fresh it will have shiny clear eyes, nice reddish gills (you have to peek inside), and a nice fresh smell.  Any fishy smell means game over.  The fish skin should be smooth, shiny and firm when you poke it.  

Another interesting thing we have found is that frozen fish, if frozen immediately after the catch, is also very fresh once defrosted properly.  Sometimes we have found interesting sea fish (as opposed to farmed fish, better flavor!) that has been deep frozen this way and that can be a very tasty treat!

classic, cantonese, steamed, fish, chinese, recipe, chinese steamed fish, 清蒸鱼

We have used Perch, or 桂花魚, here in this photo, but the most beloved fish for this type of Cantonese preparation is the Garoupa, or 石斑,  a delicate firm white meat fish.  You can always order steamed Garoupa fish at Cantonese restaurants, but for home cooking this fish might be a bit expensive.  Some other types of fish you could go for are Sea Bass, or 鱸魚, Threadfin, or 馬友魚 and Yellow Croaker, or 黃花魚.  

Oily fish won't work at all so don't try; the fish meat should be delicate in taste and slightly firm to firm for the best taste and texture.   We have also found that small to medium fish (approx 8" to 10") have more delicate tender flesh than the bigger fish that is usually served in the Chinese restaurants.

Besides your fresher than fresh fish you'll need to be doing some fine slicing for the ginger and spring onion.  A lot of folks just chop up these two roughly and throw it on, but I think this is a lazy person's mistake.  In a minimalist dish like Chinese Steamed Fish it really makes a difference if you pay attention to details.  

If you slice your ginger and spring onion into delicate thin matchsticks and tendrils, it complements and brings out the delicate taste and tenderness of the steamed fish.  With your chopsticks you can grab a little bit of fish, ginger and onion with each bite without any one flavor being overpowering.  But don't get too discouraged if you can't or don't want to get it really fine.  It takes a lot of practice and a certain character (a sucker for tedious detailing - like me!) to really get into the knife work.

A tip:  If you don't like your ginger slivers too spicy, soak your slivers in cold water for 15 minutes, drain very well, and use.  Don't use wet ginger on the fish because it will splatter when you pour hot oil.)

classic, cantonese, steamed, fish, chinese, recipe, chinese steamed fish, 清蒸鱼

For a simple classic dish like Chinese Steamed Fish look for a premium soy sauce without MSG.  Just check the label.  Nowadays there are more and more choices for really good soy sauce!  If you always think of soy sauce as a chinese version of salt, be prepared for a shift of perspective when you start experimenting with quality soy sauce.   Yes, it's salty but that's the least of it.  Really good premium soy sauce is super yummy with a complex layered unique taste that will make you want to lick your spoon!

The soy sauce used for steamed fish is usually a seasoned soy sauce.  If you don't want to season the soy sauce yourself you could get a prepared seafood soy sauce, which basically is a  sweetened soy sauce but... unfortunately it seems that most of them have MSG.  But no matter...cuz it's super easy to prepare your own seasoned soy sauce (see our recipe below!)  Or if you're in a hurry just use your premium no MSG soy sauce by itself!

So that's it.  Just a few things but you need to get those few things right on.  Then it's easy to have healthy delicious Classic Chinese Steamed Fish all the time!  Happy Fish-y Steaming!

classic, cantonese, steamed, fish, chinese, recipe, chinese steamed fish, 清蒸鱼

A tip:  Give yourself a break and get a japanese spring onion shredder (photo left) to help you make beautiful thin spring onion shreds.  We tried one recently and it really works which is great because slicing the spring onion with a knife is hard work!  Hurray for weird super specific japanese gadgets!

Another tip:  Get a hot dish picker upper thingy (photo right).  These ingenious gadgets really help if you don't want to drop the whole d**m fish into the boiling water by accident!  (Guess how come I know this...)

A last all important tip: to say it...make sure that your fish is going to fit in your steamer.  I have Someone I know has brought fresh fish home only to discover to their dismay that the fish is too big for their bamboo steamer ! (Oops!)
Chinese Steamed Fish Recipe 清蒸鱼
(Prep time: 2 mins  Cook time: 10 mins)


  • 1 fresh fish (gutted and scaled by your fishmonger, make sure it fits your steamer)
  • 2 stalks spring onion, white part, 5" long
  • 3 stalks spring onion, green part, shredded
  • 7 slices ginger, quarter sized
  • 3 tbsp ginger, slivered
  • 2 1/2 tbsp premium soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp chicken stock
  • 2 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 2-3 tbsp peanut oil


Rinse your fish and remove any leftover bits in the gut cavity.  Place the 2 stalks of white part of spring onion on your steaming dish and place fish over.  (This lifts the fish slightly away from the surface of the dish and allows steam through for more even cooking.)  Take your 7 quarter sized slices of ginger and tuck 2 or 3 into the gut cavity and place the rest all over the top of your fish.  (Ginger dissipates any fishiness.)

When water is boiling, carefully put your fish (on plate) in the steamer.  Cover tightly and steam over high heat for 10 mins (for small fish) to 12 mins (for large fish).  To check if the fish is cooked look for eyes popping out and the side fins to be raised.

Remove fish at once from the steam.  Carefully (your fish is gonna slide!) pour out the accumulated fish juices into a separate bowl.  Taste the fish juice.  If it tastes good keep for next step.  If fishy discard.

In small pan, add 1 tbsp reserved fish juice (if any), chicken stock, soy sauce and sugar and stir vigorously over low heat until sugar melted and sauce is slightly reduced.

Remove ginger slices from fish.  Sprinkle slivered ginger first, then the shredded spring onion over the fish evenly.  In small pan, heat up oil til really smoking hot.  Carefully pour hot oil all over fish. The oil should make sizzling sound as it hits the fish.   The oil will slightly cook the spring onions and ginger, releasing their fragrant aromas to complement the steamed fish.

Pour prepared soy sauce around the fish and serve hot.  Hope you enjoy our Classic Chinese Steamed Fish recipe!



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