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


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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</li>
    -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.
  • 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!


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)
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

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