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
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
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)
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

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Comments 107

  1. Steve

    This is by far my favorite preparation of fish, but I’ve never actually tried making it myself. Do you think it would work with fillets that are purchased frozen (like at Trader Joe’s) and then just defrosted at home?

  2. SteamyKitchen

    Steve- Absolutely. The fish fillets at TJs are flash frozen on the boat if I’m not mistaken…which is next best to live fish.

    If they are thin fillets, steam for 5-7 minutes on med low – ck to see if done.

  3. Rasa Malaysia

    I want I want your big fish (bling bling). A secret tip to share, use rock sugar instead of sugar and it will taste like it’s straight out of the BEST Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong! (And yes, I just had one in Hong Kong a few days ago.)

    Thanks for the package you sent. 🙂

  4. Tanna

    Do you suggest doing these calisthenics for several days or just how long before you approach the fish tank Jaden?
    Beautiful steamed fish, thank you. Well done.

  5. Lydia

    Beautiful fish — and your post has me laughing out loud! At my Asian supermarket, there are live fish tanks, and I watch people catch their own fish, but I’ve never had the courage to try it — and until I read your post, I wouldn’t have known what to look for (it’s been a while since I picked up a guy in a bar…. I might be a bit rusty on that!).

  6. SteamyKitchen

    RM- I totally agree! I love rock sugar…I even use it in my coffee.

    Lucy- I should come out with a DVD

    Tanna- I would say give yourself a good 2 minutes right in front of the fish tank. Just make sure you are wearing loose fitting clothing. You wouldn’t want to make yourself look any more stupidererer bending down and hearing a rriiiiiiipppp.

    BBO- OF COURSE!! Go for the big boobies.

    Lydia- go forth young grasshoppa….

  7. Nathan

    Chinese-style steamed fish is sooo good. I can’t wait to try this out.

    I have this slight fish picking phobia though. A few years back I was at 99 Ranch and it was my turn to tell the fish monger which one I wanted. I didn’t speak up immediately, so he quickly went to the next customer. The customer said, “Oh, he was in front of me.” The fish monger replied, “No talk. No fish. Next.”

    Ah yes, lesson learned.

  8. courtney

    Looks fabulous! I always love that the in-laws-to-be have a steamed fish like this EVERY single night of the week. I’ve tried it myself but don’t have a large enough pan. Now I think I’ll have to go get one soon.

  9. Lynn

    Let me know when the Steamy Kitchen workout video comes out. I could use the exercise. Thanks for the laughs and the gorgeous recipes.

  10. Kirk

    Hi Jaden – Here’s one from the Missus…”don’t pick the first fish who looks at you…you don’t want to appear too anxious!” LOL!

  11. tigerfish

    I love to steam my cod fish(TJ’s fillets) and hallibut fillets too!
    You sure know how to pick your fish – I will pretend to pass out in the tank so that I get to live in my comfort zone forEVER! ;p

  12. Amy

    I agree steaming is the best way to prepare fresh fish. Up until now I didn’t know how to choose fish so thanks so much for the tips! The mental picture of people doing those exercises was hilarious. 😀 I like the heat up the green onions in the hot oil, I think it brings out more of their flavor to “bao” in the oil.

  13. steeped

    When I was little a couple family friends owned a Chinese/Korean restaurant (I’m not sure if there’s a specific regional term for this sort of cuisine, do you know?) and they’d always serve us a whole steamed fish like this, whether we ordered it or not. Extracting the tender white flesh with my chopsticks and tasting that lovely bloom of ginger and garlic and clean fish is one of my favorite food memories. I’ll definitely be trying this one soon.

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  15. SteamyKitchen

    Nathan- haha- NO TALKIE NO FISHY!

    Courtney- ah! you must learn the secrets of steamed fish as new daughter in law!

    EWKitchen- hey girl – stop eyeing my fish! he’s MINE!

    Lynn- free set of ginsu knives too!

    Kirk- LOL – thats so true

    Smerkygirl- oh i slay myself at times too

    Tiger- u too smart!

    Amy- u are totally right – I should put the ginger and scallions in the hot oil

    Jennifer- you’ll be part of my exercise dvd?

    Steeped – Chinese + Korean = Chorean or Kornese (just kidding)

    Dani- nice to meet you!

  16. Melinda

    Dear Steamy, I was out in the back garden practicing my fish pointing exercises and was surprised to see I landed some stray circling planes from Heathrow Airport. That pointing exercise should come with a risk assessment and warning label!
    Chinese steamed fish sounds so tantalizing my taste buds are tingling!

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  18. Cynthia

    I have read about this technique/method of chinese steamed fish, sounds sooooo flavourful.

    So can I go stay with your mom and let her teach me how to cook these dishes? 🙂

  19. honest ape

    We don’t have an Asian market on every corner. We have one for our whole town. And it is the saddest market I have ever been to. The shelves are half-empty, it smells horrid, and sells things like “Bug Joy” instead of Bok Choy and “Fress Red Union” instead of Fresh Red Onion. When I was there last, there was a whole frog in a vacuum-sealed bag. It looked so sad. Not the frog, the store. The frog just looked stunned.

  20. Tea

    I don’t even like fish and you’ve got me considering this dish, which does sound delicious. Might have to try picking up a fish of my own as well. Hoprfully a cute, well-mannered one with a good sense of humor. That’s not too much to ask, is it?:-)

  21. Pingback: How to Cook Chinese Steamed Fish

  22. Notafishfan

    This recipe sounds amazing. My husband and I are struggling with adding some fish to our diets because neither one of us like fish. The worst is the fishy fish.

    I am looking forward to trying this recipe out to see how things go. We have started the Dr. Oz and fish is a must.


  23. wokandspoon

    That was a great post. Thanks for all the tips on how to pick live fish. I’ve never actually picked a living and breathing fish before – I’ll definitely have to try!

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  25. Lee Ping Chong

    Dear Jaden,
    Your fish do look handsome.
    My husband told me to pick out fish with clear eyes and not blurry eyes. So far, that tip has worked out for us.

  26. SteamyKitchen

    Hey Notafishfan,

    If you are using a whole fish, then just think in terms of pounds.
    1 1/2 pound fish = check at 12 minutes, steam up to 15 minutes.
    every half pound, add 2 minutes.

    If you are using fillets, then check at 10 minutes. Really thin fillets – check at 7 minutes.

    How to check for doneness on whole fish:
    Open the lid, use a tip of a chopstick and poke at meat near the top fin. If the meat flakes easily, then it is done.

    Good luck and let me know how it turns out!

  27. Wandering Chopsticks

    Add VNese coriander and fish sauce and youve got VNese steamed fish. 🙂 And theres plenty of fish in the sea so you can try another method of steaming. Bwhahaha!

  28. Ellie

    Mmm, I absolutely ADORE steamed fish, and snapper happens to be my favourite! Will have to make the journey to the fish markets this weekend to see if I can pick myself a delicious fresh specimen to try this on!

  29. Radka

    Well, the picture was just too nice to leave as just a memory on a web page so today I tried my hand at steamed fish! I made 2 modifications due to not having certain ingredients on hand. I used Pangasius (an Asian catfish) instead of Yellowtail Red Snapper and fresh sage from my garden instead of coriander because none of the fruit and veggie markets nearby had it today. I also fried the ginger and half of the green onions (which were cut into thin strips) in the sesame oil like Amy mentioned. And it was…..SUPER/AWESOME/AMAZING!! Yum. Nicely spicy with the chilly pepper and the sage was wonderful, surprisingly. I’m going to have to make this again (and with coriander)!

  30. Radka

    Well unfortunately I don’t have a website and I wouldn’t have had the patience to take a picture – it just smelled sooo good! Thanks so much for the awesome recipe.

  31. safrina

    dear jaden,

    thank you for the recipes. they’re great, especially the calisthenic tips. i’ve a question abt. wine (and any other alcohol-based substance). i don’t use it in food. what can i use to replace it? thank you for your help.

  32. nick

    Your detailed outline for the chinese fish is excellent. Keep up the good work and cuisine. Thanks for the free tips.

  33. Ken

    1 pound of whole fish doesn’t leave much meat. However, when I tried to steam a 3 pound rock cod, I had to hack it into 3 pieces to fit the steamer. Such a travesty! I saw the industrial size steamers at a local Asian restaurant supply store that I know can handle a whole 3 pound fish, but I’m not sure my stove can handle something that big. I guess they’re not using 12″ burners inside Chinese restaurants.

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  35. adren

    Hi Jaden, couldn’t help but comment on this post. I hail from Swing-a-whore (thats what my red-neck friends call it) or Singapore as known on the map.
    Over here, steamed fish are “sold” in generally two ways. The Cantonese Style or the Teochew Style.
    Canotnese style involves steaming the fish first then drizzling a deep fired shallot+dark soy sauce+oil sauce over the fish.
    Teochew style involves salted vegetables (ham choy), sour plum, and chilli.
    I have favourite recipe i used to cook for my girl/s who come over. Firstly, i only use White Promfret (Black Promfret doesn’t do well with this recipe but does quite well when steamed with a black pepper sauce) of Sea bass. Red Snapper has a tendency to come with a “muddy” taste.
    Secondly, the fish must be fresh. Any form of frozen or day old fish just doesn’t cut it.
    Season the fish with salt on both sides and inside the belly. Lay fish on a small bed of sliced egg toufu.
    Add 3-4 sliced chilli padi (small but fiery chillis), 1 preserved sour plum (mash it up slightly)* and a 1 1/2 teaspoon of premium oyster sauce. Place pan/plate containing fish in steamer insert of rice cooker (cooks rice and fish at the same time!). When done, drizzle some Hua Teow Wine over and serve.
    *If i happen to be too lazy to get preserved sour plums, I’ll just use a small lime but squeeze it over the fish just before serving. The sauce at the bottom of the pan/plate is just divine!!

    Do tell me how you think about this recipe.

  36. Fijian FoodLover

    Bula (Greetings) Jaden,

    I live in Fiji where there is an abundance of fresh meat, vegies and seafood galore and we just love our food here in Fiji and my family and I are always looking for new ideas. This morning I was ummung and ahhring about what to do with a beatiful fresh 2.5lb Coral Trout we got from a friend and my family (who love food esp Chinese) suggested I try Chinese Steamed Fish.

    I am foodie and love to cook but thought i’d look on the net for some ideas and came across your website, now of all the food websites i have been to, this has to be by far my fave now.

    I just used your simple recipe for Steamed Fish above and it ws DELICIOUS! Total hit with the family and not a scrap left of the beautiful fresh Coral trout, they devoured it with ooohs and aahhs and yummmyy….when we do go out for dinner we usually have chinese and my 6yr old said that my steamed fish was “much much betterer” than the one we usually have at the restaurant.

    Thank you for the recipe, will be looking for more ideas soon.

    Vinaka vakalevu (Thank you sincerely)

  37. Jenny

    I grew up in South Florida. Our Asian markets didn’t have live fish for the picking either. But my dad was a chef, and for many years worked in various well renowned seafood restaurants. My mom worked at a fish market for years. None of them had frozen fillets. None of them had “just defrosted” fillets either. In other neighborhoods across the state, that may not be true, but really, where is the time to freeze a fish when it’s brought directly from the boat to the store? Honestly.

    The freshness and quality of the seafood is what I’ve missed most since moving out of state.

    I appreciate your sense of humor, and I enjoy your recipes, but please. Florida is the last place you’ll find people afraid of fresh fish and seafood.

  38. Jeff

    Just made this past weekend. I’m going to have to buy a live one next time instead of on that’s been sitting on ice of a while. you really gotta check them out to pick the freshest one. how about some tips on picking out a good “dead” fish.

    I’m going to incorporate you “chinese restaurant style” tips next time.

    at least my daughter likes, as she would say “mmmm..yummy!”

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