July 15, 2018

Grandma's Shanghai Smoked Fish 上海熏魚

chinese, recipe, shanghai, smoked fish, Xun Yu, 上海, 熏魚, 草魚, 鯇魚

This wonderful dish was one of my 奶奶 grandma's homemade specialities, the Shanghai Smoked Fish 上海熏魚, a very famous Chinese traditional dish that is actually not smoked but prepared in such a way that the tender meat inside has a spiced and slightly smoky flavor while the outside is a delicious flavor infused crust.

My grandma used to prepare this dish whenever we got a chance to get the right kind of really big fresh fish.  I remember watching with big, big eyes as she expertly man handled an enormous fish, deftly cutting here and there with a big sharp cleaver.  Grandma fighting a fish!  And the results of her victory over the fish...my oh my, just yummilicious!  Her smoked fish was quite famous in our family.

Of course I didn't realize just quite how yummilicious gram's smoked fish was until I grew up and discovered to my dismay that the Shanghai Smoked Fish served in Hong Kong restaurants were not even close to the deliciousness of Grandma's.  Not even an itty bitty close as a matter of fact.  

Out of this frustration we decided to try to make it ourselves and have recreated our own version of Grandma's Shanghai Smoked Fish, or 上海熏魚, a version that I am proud to say is pretty darn close to Grandma's!

chinese, recipe, shanghai, smoked fish, Xun Yu, 上海, 熏魚, 草魚, 鯇魚,

The traditional fish used for this dish is freshwater carp which provides the thick meaty slices of white fish meat without a lot of bones.  We used the Grass Carp 鯇魚 which is commonly available in Hong Kong.  The Bigheaded Carp 大頭鯉魚 is also good for this dish.  If you like, ask the fish guy to cut the fish into steaks about an inch thick.  

The photo above is of the grass carp at a local fish tank, the darn fish was looking straight at me as if he wanted me to take a portrait shot, he, he!

chinese, recipe, shanghai, smoked fish, Xun Yu, 上海, 熏魚, 草魚, 鯇魚,

Making Shanghai Smoked Fish is actually simpler than it seems.  The fish is marinated with five spice based dry rub (very important for the flavor!), deep fried and then marinated in a sauce which will not only flavor the crust created by the deep fry but also infuse the still tender meat inside.  

The marination sauce uses special spices such as cinnamon sticks and star anise cooked with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and rice wine to create interesting depth of flavor.  Rock sugar is used to give the sauce a thickness and glossiness as well as providing a carmel tinged sweetness.

chinese, recipe, shanghai, smoked fish, Xun Yu, 上海, 熏魚, 草魚, 鯇魚,

The fish slices should be chopped in half, creating two pieces that are manageable for chopsticks to hold.  I've tried all kinds of methods and quite clearly FAILED to learn to chop through that middle spine bone with any kind of neatness.  (Though I remember quite clearly my little ol' grandma doing just that with relative ease.)  

Okay...I'm gonna have to admit at sucking at brute force cleaver chopping.  So compromise...I chopped just to the side of the middle bone.  Pretty clever, eh?  Where there's a will there's a way.

Or forget all that and just get your fish guy to chop them in half with their wicked sharp cleavers.  A dry spice rub marination to infuse flavor into the fish meat and then the fish is deep fried until golden brown all over.  This creates a crust around the still tender but cooked meat inside.

chinese, recipe, shanghai, smoked fish, Xun Yu, 上海, 熏魚, 草魚, 鯇魚,

The fried fish is plunged into a sauce marination bath, soaking in the goodness through its crust.  This gives the smoked fish its distinctive look.  Marinate at least a few hours and better yet overnight.  The longer you leave it the more the the flavors will have infused through the fish.  

Actually we found the fish at its best after a couple of days of marination!

I'm particularly pleased with this recipe.  They say that when you eat and taste you can remember in a way that nothing else can compare to.  And it's true...when I eat this Shanghai Smoked Fish 上海熏魚 it's like my dear grandma's in the kitchen, poking around, making food and yelling at me again.  Love you 奶奶.

chinese, recipe, shanghai, smoked fish, Xun Yu, 上海, 熏魚, 草魚, 鯇魚,
Grandma's Shanghai Smoked Fish上海熏魚
Prep time: 15 mins Cook time: 20 mins


    Marination Sauce


Wash and then dry fish steaks thoroughly with kitchen paper.  Chop the steaks in half, chopping just to the side of the spine bone.

Mix salt, five spice powder and white pepper, then sprinkle all over the fish steaks.  Let marinate for 10 mins.

Add all ingredients for the sauce into a small pot and stir over low heat until the rock sugar is melted.  Pour into a bowl big enough to fit all the fish and let cool to room temperature.

Heat up 2 cups of oil in a small pot.  Slide the fish into the hot oil, a couple of pieces at a time, and fry until the fish is a golden brown.  Remove to kitchen paper covered plates to let excess oil drain off.  Repeat for all pieces of fish.  

When fish pieces are cooled add to the bowl with sauce, making sure pieces are submerged into the sauce and let sit at room temperature for 2 hours before serving.  Or cover and let it marinate overnight in the fridge.  

Let come up to room temperature before serving the next day or serve it cold, it's delicious both ways.  Place fish onto serving plate and drizzle with the sauce.  Also most excellent served over a bowl of soup noodles.  Enjoy!



  1. This made my cry. This is one of my grandma’s signature dish. I would love to cook this for her once international travel is possible again.

    1. Okay ShanghaiGirl, you made me tear up when I read your comment, what a lovely thoughtful thing to do! Please give your grams an extra hug from us when you see her! ~ellen