Steamed fish, Cantonese style

This is the essence of comfort food: good flavors coming together in a quick and simple dish. Perhaps the only challenging part here is making use you have suitable equipment for steaming a whole fish. It’s easy enough to do in a wok with a lid and some kind of steamer tray (bamboo or otherwise), but if you don’t have those, you’ll need a lidded pan long enough to hold the fish and deep enough to suspend it over boiling water.


Steamed whole fish, Cantonese style

The dish, even though quite simple, is finished off with a flourish as hot oil is poured over aromatic herbs resting on top of the fish.

Start with a fresh whole fish, cleaned and scaled. Your fish monger can prepare it for you, or if you want to do it yourself, just run a knife through the belly from behind the head to the base of the tail; then open it and remove everything inside. To scale the fish, simply scrape from the tail towards the head with a fish scaler.

When you're picking your fish make sure you get a fresh one; look for clear eyes and a clean smell.

Make sure you get a fish that’s absolutely as fresh as possible.  Look for clear eyes and a fresh smell.

Rinse the cleaned fish thoroughly and then pat dry. Rub it inside and out with a little salt, then let the salted fish drain while getting the rest of the recipe together.

Leave the salt-rubbed fish to drain while you finish the rest of the prep work

Leave the salt-rubbed fish to drain while you finish the rest of the prep work

To prepare the aromatics, first chop some ginger to place on the fish before steaming; then chop some scallions and cilantro for garnishing after cooking.

The aromatics, before chopping

The aromatics before chopping. It’s okay to chop the onions and the cilantro together, so that they mingle well.

Distribute the chopped ginger across the top of the fish. Then heat the water in your wok. Once it’s boiling, place the steamer tray in the wok and cover.

The fish, on the steamer tray, in the wok, over the boiling water

The fish, on the steamer tray, in the wok, over the boiling water

The wok, covered

The wok, covered, with the fish steaming inside

When the fish is done, remove it to a serving plate. Garnish with the cilantro and scallion mix. Then drizzle first with soy sauce, then with very hot oil for a dramatic and aromatic finish.


  1. 1 whole fish such as freshwater rainbow trout, about 1-1.5 lbs altogether, scaled and cleaned, rinsed and dried, rubbed with a pinch of salt, and then set aside to drain for about a half hour
  2. 1/4″ ginger, chopped finely
  3. 3 scallions and one small handful cilantro, chopped finely together
  4. 2 tsp soy sauce stirred briefly with 2 tsp dark soy sauce
  5. 1 Tbsp peanut oil combined with 1-2 tsp sesame oil


  • Place the fish (#1) on a steamer tray or basket and then top it with the chopped ginger (#2).
  • Heat about an inch of water in your wok until boiling. Then carefully add the steamer tray with the fish. Steam until done, about 15 minutes for a 1 lb fish or maybe 5 minutes longer for a 1.5 lb fish.
  • Remove the cooked fish carefully to a serving dish. Distribute the cilantro and scallions (#3) on top. Drizzle the soy sauces (#4) over the fish, being careful not to wash off the garnish.
  • Heat the oils (#5) in a small sauce pan until just barely smoking. Then, while taking care to protect yourself from any splatter, pour the oils over the top of the fish. The fish will sizzle and the herbs will begin to release their delightful aromas.
  • Serve with rice and contrasting dishes.

VARIATIONS: This recipe can be adapted in many ways. One thing to try is to replace the dark soy sauce with mirin or rice wine. You could also sweeten it sauce by adding 1 tsp of sugar to the soy sauces. Feel free to play with the pre-sizzle garnish as well, by changing the ratio of cilantro to scallions or adding basil or other aromatic herbs.

The essential Chinese pantry is here.

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