Chinese Steamed Fish Recipe

Chinese Steamed Fish Recipe

Above: Chinese Steamed Rockfish

What you’ll learn:

  • Essential fish picking calisthenics to maximize your potential
  • Highly effective fish-picking strategies
  • The ideal way of steaming fish

When I go home to visit my Mom, I always ask for this dish, Chinese Steamed Fish. Mom lives in Los Angeles, where there is an Asian market on every street corner. Most have live fish tanks where you can choose which lucky fella gets to come home with you for a dinner date. Steaming is the purest and the most delicious way to cook fresh fish. We top it with soy sauce, cilantro, ginger, green onion slivers, and pour sizzling hot peanut oil all over the fish. You’ll taste the delicate, sweet flavor of the fish.

“Pick out your own fish to slaughter!?” you ask, squeamishly? Absolutely. My Asian friends know the routine. You arrive at the market early in the morning, when you are most alert and the fish are happy, having just eaten their breakfast. Stand in front of the fish tank.

But hold it.

Before you even start looking at the fish, you must do some simple, but essential calisthenic exercises to maximize your fish-picking-potential.

Chinese Steamed Fish Picking Calisthenics

1) First, stand tall, feet shoulder-width apart. Arms up over head and and stretch leeffffttttt. Now riiiiigggghhhhtttt. Good. This helps you warm up and be limber. You may run in place for 30 seconds.

2) Eyes straight ahead, hands to hips. Without moving head, eyes look left. right. straight. circles now. counterclockwise. Perfect. This helps your eyes follow your desired fish in the tank. Because you know. Fish move around.

3) Dominant arm up, pointer finger out and in a relaxed yet confident manner, point left. right. up. down. wiggle. Come on, feel it. Make it burn! Do a little John Travolta move. This exercise help flex your pointer finger to point out desired fish to your fishmonger as the fish swims around trying to avoid you. Yes, you’ll look stupid, but you’re a foodie and you’ll do anything for the freshest fish. Alright. Now you are ready, my friend.

Chinese Steamed Fish-Picking Strategies

The best way to describe how to pick a good fish is to compare it to picking up a guy at a bar.

Rule #1. Don’t pick the ones that are passed out at the bar. The upside down ones are deadbeats. duh!

Rule #2 Don’t pick the super fast with jerky movements either, he’s way too nervous, excited and will (ahem) too early. The courtship will be over before you even know it and you’ll be left totally unsatisfied.

Rule #3 Don’t pick out the biggest, most muscular fish. He’s too busy checking himself out in the reflection of the tank to even notice you anyways. His muscles are too tough and you’ll be chewing ’til next November.

Rule #4 Go for a fish that is relaxed, laid back, confident and having a good time. Nice skin, not too flashy, no body piercings and kind eyes. Because a happy fish is a good eating fish. All them endorphins in its little body makes his meat sweet.

So, lets say you live in Florida, the sunshine state that is surrounded…not 1…not 2…but 3 sides with water that is abundant with seafood…..but your markets don’t have live fish tanks and all they sell is defrosted fillets. No worries. just use those fillets, but talk to your fishmonger to make sure those fillets haven’t been sitting in the case for days. You want as fresh as possible…unless you’re in Florida you’ll just ask for “just defrosted” fillets. Better yet, see if they have any fillets still frozen. Look in the freezer case. Ok, I know, I’m bitching…but come on Florida – don’t be squeamish about live fish!!


Chinese Steamed Fish Recipe

Servings: Prep Time: Cook Time:

I like steaming any type of bass, red snapper, yellowtail snapper, rock fish, tilapia, trout, halibut (basically any white fish). I've also steamed salmon this way too with great success.

A Modern Technique for Restaurant Quality Chinese Steamed Fish

If you've ever steamed fish Chinese style before or have read about how to steam fish, here is a new technique for you that I've learnt from my Mom and included a tip from Amy. You'll stuff the fish with scallions/ginger/cilantro and you'll also lay the fish on a bed of the same. After steaming, traditionally you would just serve the fish with its cooking juices and all of the cooked herbs. However, the cooking juice tastes very fishy (not in a good way) and can be cloudy. The herbs have lost all of its flavor during the cooking processes and just aren't very pretty to serve. The secret for restaurant-quality, clean, fresh tasting steamed fish is to serve the fish with fresh herbs and clean sauce. By far, the easiest way to do this is:

  • After steaming, discard the cooked herbs and cooking juices in the pan.
  • In a microwave-safe bowl, add cilantro, chilli, soy, sugar, wine, sesame oil, salt & pepper. Microwave for 30 seconds to warm it up and release its flavors. Pour this on top of the cooked, steamed fish.
  • In a small pan or wok, heat up some cooking oil until smoking hot. Add scallion and ginger to the hot oil and fry for 10 seconds to "pop" the flavors. Pour this hot oil over the fish just seconds before serving.

Another secret to restaurant-quality steamed fish is to steam on medium heat. You want to delicately steam the fish. A high rolling harsh boil will tear apart the delicate flesh of the fish and finished dish will not look as pretty (plus you run the risk of over cooking the fish)


1 pound whole fish (or fillets 1" or thicker) yields the best results(A)
4 stalks, scallions - cut into 3" lengths
3" piece of ginger - slice into "coins"
small bunch of cilantro
1 1/2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine to pour on fish prior to steaming (or any cooking wine like dry sherry)
salt & pepper(B)
2 tablespoons rough chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt + 1/4 teaspoon white pepper (or black pepper if you don't have white)
fresh chilli - thinly sliced (optional)(C)
2 stalks, scallions - cut into 3" lengths
2" piece of ginger - finely julienned to the skinniest, thinnest strips you can possibly manage without a microscope
2 tablespoons cooking oil


Equipment: shallow pan to hold fish & large pot or wok for steaming. If you don't have a fancy steamer or steamer insert, take a shallow-ish bowl and invert to use as a stand. Or...3 shot glasses inverted.

1. Clean & Stuff: Clean your fish, pat dry. Season generously inside and out with salt and pepper. Take half of (A) and stuff inside the fish. If you are using fillets, skip this.

2. Make your bed: Take the other half of (A) and lay it in a shallow pan. If using fillets, just use all of (A) for the bed. Lay the fish on top of the bed. If fish is too long, cut in half. Pour 1 1/2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine on top of the fish.

3. Steam: Add 2" of water to your large pot, cover and boil. When it is boiling, uncover and wipe the inside of the cover clean of any condensation (all this condensation will drip back down on your fish, diluting the flavor) Put your fish pan inside, propped up with a small inverted bowl. Steam the fish on medium (see below for cooking times).

  • Whole fish 1 lb: check at 12 minutes, add 2 minutes for every 1/2 lb
  • Fillets 1" and thicker: check at 10 minutes, add 2 minutes for every 1/2" more thickness
  • Fillets less than 1": check at 7 minutes
  • Super thin fillets: check at 5 minutes

Check to see if its done at the times indicated.  Poke your chopstick at the flesh near the top fin. If flesh flakes easily near the top fin, then its done. If flesh sticks together still, then add 1-2 more minutes to cooking time. For fillets, just gently poke at the flesh in the middle. Timing really depends on the thickness of your fish.  Also check to make sure you haven't run out of steaming water.

4. Aromatics: Towards the end of the steaming process, you'll want to start preparing the aromatics that garnish the finished dish. Take a microwave-safe bowl, add (B) and microwave for 30 seconds. Set aside. When fish is done steaming, carefully lift the fish out onto a serving platter, discarding all of the cooked cilantro/ginger/scallions and the fish juice in the pan. Pour the hot (B) over fish.

Now we'll work with (C): In a separate pan or wok, heat up cooking oil until you see smoke. Add the ginger and scallions, fry for 10 seconds to "pop" the flavors. Pour this cooking oil + herbs over the fish. You'll hear a very satisfying sizzle!

More Recipes to Explore:

Shanghai Steamed Xiao Long BaoShanghai Steamed Xiao Long Bao

fried rice The Secrets to the Best Chinese Fried Rice

Garlic Brandy Prawns Garlic Brandy Prawns

Comments 103

  1. AnotherSarah

    I can’t quite picture the steaming apparatus. I have no fancy steaming equipment big enough to hold a fish. Could you describe (or post a picture!) a little further. You put the fish in a regular baking pan and put the pan somehow over simmering water in a wok? With an inverted bowl/shot glasses? I got lost. Want to try though!

  2. KellyWH

    I have become a steaming o”fish”ionado and my Chinese/American girlfriend will love SteamyKitchen/me forever. I love going to the Ranch and finding the freshest most gorgeous whole fish and taking it home to steam. Thank you for opening up my world to amazing steamed fish, cooked at home!

  3. Chuck

    My wife is not a big fan of fish … but, I think if I served her a dish that looked like your she would eat it. Just beautiful! I gave your blog a thumbs up!

  4. Niall Harbison

    Hi there

    I just came accross your blog thanks to stumbleupon and I am loving the food pics that you have, they are all so bright and full of colour. I started off as a blogger myself a year ago and loved talking to other food bloggers around the world so much that I wanted to find a way of more people sharing photos and meeting other foodies. I used to get annoyed that I would be making so many great recipe videos and food photos and hardly anybody would see them! That is when I came up with which is a new site for foodies all around the world to share food photos, recipes and videos as well as meeting other foodies. We are only starting off and are currently a small community but I would love to see you there sharing some of your amazing photos with other foodies! Keep up the good work on the blog and hope to talk soon.


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  6. Will

    I realize now my posting a month ago was not ever submitted so I’ll try again.

    This is an excellent recipe! I can tell you from living in southern China for a few months, this is exactly how they make it there! I’ve recreated this recipe many times and the fish is always excellent.

    I will note, the sesame oil aromatics are absolutely necessary to bring out the full flavors of the fish. I heartily recommend this recipe to anyone that wants to try their hand at making steamed fish, no matter what experience level you have!

  7. mary

    Cooked this for dinner, it was fantastic. Tasted just like at a really good Chinese seafood restaurant. My Chinese mom would be so proud that I actually steamed a whole fish like her. It was fast and easy.

  8. ruack

    Hi, my mom’s guide to steaming times is as follows:–

    Weigh the fish after it’s descaled, gutted & cleaned.

    1 sec for every gram.

    For example, a fish that weighs 480g => 480sec => 8min
    A fish of 570g => 570sec => 9min 30sec

    After 8min is up, turn off fire & leave covered for additional 2min.

    I found that for pomfret, which is thicker-for-weight than the average fish, I need to use an additional 2min or so.

    My mom never used fillets, so she can’t tell if this guide goes for fillets. But I think what might work would be a ‘guestimate’ based on how much would be the weight of a fish of a similar thickness as the fillet.

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  11. lori

    i am new to your blog, thanks for sharing your yummy receipe, skill and knowledge.

  12. Jono

    DISCARD the ‘fishy’ liquid? Surely you jest! That’s by far my most fave part of the whole deal. I sometimes don’t even bother with the fish – I just spoon all that delicious fish juice (flavored now with soy sauce and hot oil) onto my bowl of rice and chow down. That’s my dream dinner right there, and something that I don’t get to do nearly as often as I’d like.

  13. Marilyn

    Wonderful dish. I was using a fairly new bamboo steamer and discovered my usual dish did not fit. I brought the water to a boil, added the steamer which I had used one of those papers for steamers in the bottom, then the vegetables with fish on top. It still worked fine.
    Thank you so much for sharing these recipes and techniques.

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  15. Dorach

    My steamed fish always turned out average until I picked up your comprehensive tips :-) My husband loves my steamed fish so much now, thanks to you, that he said we don’t have to order this dish at restaurants anymore cos I cook good ones at home. :-)

  16. Debbie

    This is my ahead time i afflict here. I create so many interesting stuff in your blog primarily its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I imagine I am not the only entire having all the enjoyment here! remain up the tolerable work.

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  18. Laura

    This is a very delicious recipe. I’ve made it twice using whole fish. You can also adopt this recipe to fillets. The fish turns out very flavorful and moist.

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  20. anna a

    I made this fish a couple of nights ago and my kids raved about how good it was! I make steamed fish but my doesn’t quite taste as good as it did with your recipe for the sauce!

    Love your new website. Easy to navigate and looks great!

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  23. Ian

    I just made this for New Year’s Eve (新年快乐!)and it was amazing. I’ve fell in love with these flavors living in Singapore and China, and am so happy I can make it at home. Takes me straight back to some of the best restaurant meals I’ve had in East Asia.

    As some of your posters already wrote, leaving a bit of the fish sauce that gathers while cooking is a great way to extend the sauce of the dish – might make it too fishy for some, though.


  24. Tracy

    This was a HUGE hit with my friends for my Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner last night. The soy sauce / ginger scallion oil flavors were very similar to steamed fish dishes I used to order at great cantonese seafood restaurants in San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles.

    I didn’t have the ability to steam, so I salt-baked the whole fish instead. Laid parchment on a baking sheet, put a layer of coin-shaped ginger and scallions then placed fish (with ginger and scallion stuffed belly) on top, poured a little shaoxing cooking wine over the top of the fish. Then about 6 cups of kosher salt mixed with 1/2 cup of shaoxing cooking wine to help the salt stick together before taking salt mixture and forming a thick mound over the top of the fish, leaving tail and head uncovered. Mold so the salt mound is sealed tight against the fish. 350 degree oven, bake this for about 30 minutes for a 2 lb fish. Take out, crack the hardened salt cover, brush extra salt from fish and move fish to another dish where I proceeded to follow parts (B) and (C) of your recipe. The salt-baking helped the flesh stay super moist and flavorful. And it was great to have the fish in the oven and not taking up any space on the stove so I could concentrate on the other things I was cooking. =)

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  26. Cathy

    This is a great method. I used it for salmon for Chinese New Year–yeah I know salmon isn’t Chinese!–and it received rave reviews. I’m going to make it again for Easter.

  27. Jackie

    Thanks SO much!
    I just started learning how to cook recently… and had never cooked fish before, but this recipe was so easy to follow! And the results were fantastic :)
    My grandparents loved it… and were really surprised. 😉

  28. allison

    great recipe! steaming fish has always been a huge mystery to me. i found another recipe where you steam the fish on a bed of soft tofu, so I combine these two recipes and it is even more fabulous!

  29. Mandy

    This is a fantastic recipe. I’ve made it three times and my husband and I thought it was wonderful. I’ve never used this much fresh ginger in a recipe before. It’s amazing!!
    I used chilean sea bass the first two times. ($21.00 lb-pricey) The third time I used halibut. Not as pretty-but the taste was very good. It’s worth is to use the sea bass for us.
    Great website. Thank you again for the recipe-I’ve passed it on to friends.

  30. Willene Martin

    Thanks so much for this method. I’m from Hawaii and have made chinese styl steamed fish for a long time (I just love it). Now when I steam my fish it will also look real nice. Thanks again.

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  35. jes_in_nicaragua

    I love your website. I love the humor, but mostly the little tips. For example, when you wrote “add wine” I wasn’t sure if it’s for the steaming water or for on top of the fish. You cleared that up immediately. No anxiety in the kitchen and tasted great.

  36. Irene

    Hi Sarah,

    Basically what you’re doing is to elevate the pan where your fish is placed so it’s not submerged in water. Picture the shot glasses as pegs or legs. You want the steam to cook the fish not the boiling water.

  37. Irene

    I tried to replicate the restaurant style for years but not really getting it quite right. Thank you very much for this recipe. Been looking for this recipe for a long time.

  38. Melissa-Sydney

    Hi. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your site when I was looking for a steamed fish recipe tonight. I have made nice steamed fish before BUT your recipe is AMAZING! I had 2 snappers and 1 perch, cut off the heads and tails so the fish fitted in 2 steamer baskets (bamboo style, bought at one of many Asian grocery stores around here)I have a stainless steel pot to fit the bamboo steamer snugly. Filled it 1/3 way up with hot water and followed your fantastic recipe to the tee and “voila” – the best steamed fish ever! Better taste than my good, local Chinese restaurant. It must be the “B” and “C” and all of the other tips etc. Even my husband loved it and he does not usually like all the Asian herbs and spices but these were balanced so well that nothing was overpowering. Thank you for a stand out healthy fish recipe. I am going to follow Steamy Kitchen for more of the same, good stuff.

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