Steamed Fish (蒸鱼)

Learn how to make this classic Cantonese seafood dish, a must-have for Chinese holidays and celebrations, yet perfect for easy weeknight meals!

Prep Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
Yields
4 servings

A Recipe by Daddy Lau

My dad's been cooking Chinese food for over 50 years - as a kid fending for himself in Guangzhou, as the head chef of his own restaurant, and as a loving father in our home.

Hopefully, by learning this recipe, you'll get to experience some of the delicious joy we felt growing up eating his food!

- Randy

Today, Daddy Lau will be teaching us his secret recipe and techniques for making the perfect steamed fish (蒸鱼).

What you'll be learning:

  • How to clean & prepare a fish for steaming
  • My dad's secret sauce
  • All about timing and signs of undercooking / overcooking

Steamed fish is not only a staple of my dad's "simple" dinners, but it's a required dish at traditional Chinese banquets, holidays, and celebrations (especially for Lunar New Year!)

Fish's many meanings and symbols

In Chinese tradition, fish is intertwined with many sayings and superstitions of good fortune and abundance.

Even though my parents didn't have much meat growing up, this is one of the dishes my parents always ate on Lunar New Year's eve and other festivities.

Especially with auspicious foods, Chinese superstition involves a lot of creative word-play. The word for "fish", yùh in Cantonese, sounds like the word for "surplus", yùh 余.

Just to name a few phrases that my parents shared with us:

  • nìhn nìhn yáuh yùh 年年有余 - A phrase that means that there will be a surplus every year, an abundance of wealth, food, and etc.
  • mòuh yùh bāt sìhng yin 无鱼不成宴 - A phrase that roughly means, "no fish, no feast"

Ingredients

Weight: US
oz
g
Volume: US
cup
mL
Servings
4
    Main Ingredients
  • 1 lb tilapia (

    more on this later - recipe works with most fish.

    )
  • 0.50 oz ginger
  • 3 pieces green onion
  • dried mandarin orange peel (

    Optional but recommended. Mince just a little bit. Rehydrate in water for 5 minutes before cutting.

    )
  • dried chili pepper (

    optional, minced to taste

    )
  • 3 pieces cilantro (

    for garnish

    )
  • 2 tbsp corn oil
  • Additional Flavor
  • 1 tbsp ground bean sauce
  • 0.50 tbsp light soy sauce
  • white pepper (

    just a dash of pepper

    )
  • 0.50 tsp salt
  • 0.25 tsp chicken bouillon (

    optional

    )
  • 0.50 tsp cornstarch
  • 0.50 tbsp olive oil
  • sesame oil (

    added at the end, to taste

    )
  • 0.50 tsp sugar

On Buying Fish

This recipe works with lots of different types of fish, and my parents elaborate on their favorites during meal time, and also how they buy fish in a separate video.

In general, you should try to buy fish that’s in season, since it will generally be fresher and cheaper. It’s also important to at least be aware of how we can support sustainable methods and sources of fish.

While it might not always be feasible to shop in this way, as consumers, an easy way to do our part is by making sure we vote with our wallets.

Monterey Bay Aquarium in California runs a free website called “Seafood Watch” which has a ton of recommendations on how to choose and purchase seafood in ways that have the least environmental impact.

Whole Fish vs Fish Fillets

This same exact recipe and technique works with fish fillets (subtract 2-4 minutes in the steamer, depending on the cut and the type of fish).

However, if you're making this in line with a traditional Chinese celebration, make sure you get a whole fish.

Especially for Lunar New Year, it's important that the fish is not missing anything. Having a complete fish on the dinner / prayer table is considered "yùhn méih 完美", which means perfect, consummate.

My parents will also pan fry a whole fish and place it on the table where we bai sun (pray). They talk about it more in the video, but it's also important that this fish has scales. This fish is traditionally prepared on Lunar New Year's eve, and meant to be eaten after the New Year.

On Dried Mandarin Orange Peels

This is one of the ingredients my dad always uses for fish to help combat some of the sometimes off-putting "fishy" taste.

Also known as "chenpi", this is a fragrant ingredient in Chinese cooking and medicine, believed to regulate our chi.

My dad uses these for a lot of dishes outside of steamed spare ribs - soups, steamed fish, medicines, and etc. He has a huge stockpile that he's been building for over 15 years.

According to my dad, the district of Xinhui in China makes the best damn peels the world has ever seen. This is their biggest export and a large economic driver for the famous district.

If you like eating mandarin oranges, you can just save the peels and leave them outside to dry in the sun for 2-3 days. They should snap in half pretty easily when dry. Store them in a bag in cool, dry place.

On Ground Bean Sauce

For ground bean sauce, it might get confusing since there are a few different types of Asian bean sauces out there.

In Cantonese, we call it “mihn sih jeung 面豉酱” or "mòh yùhn sih 磨原豉", but most brands call it “Ground Bean Sauce” in English.

This sauce is made with ground up fermented yellow soybeans, and is packed with umami flavors.

Finding Asian Ingredients

Some of these ingredients are hard to find in a typical grocery store.

If you don't live near an Asian market, most or all of what my dad uses in this recipe can be found on Amazon:

I've also included some other Chinese kitchen essentials, used in many of my dad's other recipes.

These links are affiliate links, which means that if you use our links to purchase these ingredients, Amazon pays my family a small amount for the sale - at no extra cost to you. If you use these links, we really appreciate the support!

Alternatives to Oyster Sauce

If you're vegetarian or need to stay away from gluten, we have three alternatives for you!

Vegetarian Oyster Sauce

Since oyster sauce is made out of oyster extract, here are some alternatives that have a similar taste without using the actual oyster:

Gluten Free Oyster Sauce

Wok Mei has a gluten-free oyster sauce, but it still contains oyster extract, so it's not vegetarian friendly.

Vegetarian + Gluten Free Oyster Sauce

Unfortunately, we don't know of a vendor that sells an oyster sauce that caters to both dietary restrictions, so you'll need to DIY the sauce.

Mix equal parts gluten free soy sauce and gluten free hoisin sauce. This isn't exactly the same as oyster sauce, but it's pretty close.

Other Supplies + Tools

You'll need a good wok, which provides a ton of versatility for the classic Chinese cooking methods: steaming, stir frying, deep frying, and etc.

You'll need a steamer rack to steam your spare ribs in the wok. These are generally inexpensive, ranging from $2-6.

You might want a food scale. It's not absolutely necessary for this recipe, but helpful if you want to get your proportions right.

Other Notes

In our video, I mentioned that we have an industrial grade infrared thermometer. Ken, my soon-to-be brother-in-law, also an engineer, got one for me for Christmas because he kept watching me ask my dad how hot his wok gets. Thanks Ken!

If you want to nerd out like us, here's a link to get your own: https://amzn.to/3bSkebB

While we mainly focused on fish preparation in our video, it goes without saying that you should wash your green onions, cilantro before using them.

Aside from fish prep, here's what you will likely need to do:

  • Peel ginger
  • Wash cilantro, green onion
  • Rehydrate orange peel in warm water for 5 minutes

Generally speaking, when you buy fish from the market, most of the gutting and de-scaling has already been done for you (or someone can do it for you before you check out.)

My dad still prefers to do some additional prep work:

  • Cut away the belly fat - this helps reduce the fishy taste
  • Scrape away the dried blood from the bones - if you're in the US, your fish has most likely already been frozen when you buy it. This leads to some blood drying in the fish cavity, which my dad and most restaurants like to scrape off so that the fish is less "fishy" and more white when it's done cooking
  • Rinse the cavity of the fish with water, pat it dry
  • Cut into the back - this helps the fish cook more evenly by increasing the surface area that the steam can reach, especially if it's a thick piece of fish.

If you do need to remove the fish scales on your own, my dad showed us 3 methods:

  • Using a fish scale remover tool
  • Scraping it with a chef knife (my dad's preferred method)
  • Placing the fish in a plastic bag, and scraping it with your fingernails (the least messy method)

Traditionally, aside from the fish, the core ingredients are ginger (0.50 oz) and green onion (3 pieces).

For the ginger, we'll be cutting them into slices, strips, and then mincing them into small bits.

For the green onions, we'll be cutting the shoots into little circles (for the sauce), and we'll be cutting the stems into little strips (see video) for the garnish.

We'll also be mincing small amounts of our rehydrated mandarin orange peel ()and dried chili pepper ().

We'll be using cilantro but we don't need to do anything to it.

To a bowl, we'll add our minced ginger and chopped green onion shoots (not the stems), and:

  • ground bean sauce (1 tbsp)
  • light soy sauce (0.50 tbsp)
  • a dash of white pepper ()
  • salt (0.50 tsp)
  • chicken bouillon (0.25 tsp) (optional)
  • sugar (0.50 tsp)
  • cornstarch (0.50 tsp)
  • olive oil (0.50 tbsp)

We'll mix it for 20-30 seconds.

We'll need a few items to steam:

  • A wok or something to steam in
  • A plate that fits the fish we're making (usually my dad and most Chinese restaurants use large elliptical plates)
  • A steamer rack to elevate the plate. You can also cut part of a can so it becomes a ring, or roll up several sheets of aluminum foil into a thick ring.

Before we start steaming, we'll need to:

  • Take a spoon and lather half of the sauce inside the fish cavity, and the rest of it on top of the fish.
  • Bring enough water to a boil in the wok so that the water will just barely touch the bottom of the plate when it rests on top of the steamer rack.

The water needs to be boiling before we start steaming.

Note: many other recipes involve sticking ginger and other things in the fish cavity before steaming. This is effectively the same thing but with more flavor.

Once the water is boiling, carefully transfer the plate of fish on top of the steamer rack, and cover the wok.

You may need to do some trial and error, but on my dad's setup at home, he's steaming this tilapia (1 lb) for ​about 12 minutes + 1 minute for extra sanitation.

Some notes on timing and cues:

  • You'll know when it's done when the eyes turn white (they're black at first)
  • You can stick a chopstick into the thickest part of fish to know if it's done. It should be fairly tender as you poke through.
  • The meat should separate easily from the bones.

My dad said there's no magic formula for timing based on weight (watch the video - he laughed at me when I asked lol), but 12 minutes is a good starting point. You can adjust up and down by 60 seconds depending on the size and type of fish.

If it's overcooked, the meat will be too tough. The skin may also break.

If it's undercooked, then there will be blood / red juices in the meat (which my dad said some people prefer, actually.) In this case, you can still steam it again for another 1-3 minutes, or cover it and zap it in the microwave.

For heat transfer, the main variable is how much water you're steaming with and how big your steaming vessel is.

  • Usually, at a typical boiling point, water doesn't heat past 100 C / 212 F, regardless of how intense your stove is.
  • This is one of the differences of steaming at a restaurant vs at home - the more water and bigger the vessel, the better.

We'll start heating corn oil (2 tbsp) in a pan until it's shimmering (ripples should start forming across the surface).

Carefully remove the plate from the wok, and add the green onion strips along the top of the fish.

Once the oil is hot enough, pour it onto the fish. You should hear a nice sizzle.

Then add the cilantro (3 pieces), and some sesame oil () to taste.

Removing the bones from a fish is one of my dad's skills that I've always wanted to document. He always does it so gracefully, and especially for big feasts, you can always make out a subtle, proud grin on his face as he removes the bones and serves his guests.

This is more clear and narrated in the video, and it varies slightly from fish to fish. But in essence, you'll:

  • Cut along the middle of the fish to expose the spine
  • Break the spine away from the head and tail, and set it aside. (Chinese OGs like my dad usually eat the meat off of the spine.)
  • Remove bones along the sides of the fish.
  • If you're following tradition, leave the head and tail on the plate. If you have squeamish guests, you can cover the head with garnish.

There will still be some stray bones, so just remind yourself and your guests to eat carefully. (My mom accidentally swallowed a fish bone as a kid, and had to slowly drink vinegar for hours to dissolve it.)

Summary

Steamed Fish (蒸鱼)
Learn how to make this classic Cantonese seafood dish, a must-have for Chinese holidays and celebrations, yet perfect for easy weeknight meals!
  • Prep Time: 15 min
  • Total Time: 30 min
  • Yield: 4 servings
    Main Ingredients
  • 1 lb tilapia (

    more on this later - recipe works with most fish.

    )
  • 0.50 oz ginger
  • 3 pieces green onion
  • dried mandarin orange peel (

    Optional but recommended. Mince just a little bit. Rehydrate in water for 5 minutes before cutting.

    )
  • dried chili pepper (

    optional, minced to taste

    )
  • 3 pieces cilantro (

    for garnish

    )
  • 2 tbsp corn oil
  • Additional Flavor
  • 1 tbsp ground bean sauce
  • 0.50 tbsp light soy sauce
  • white pepper (

    just a dash of pepper

    )
  • 0.50 tsp salt
  • 0.25 tsp chicken bouillon (

    optional

    )
  • 0.50 tsp cornstarch
  • 0.50 tbsp olive oil
  • sesame oil (

    added at the end, to taste

    )
  • 0.50 tsp sugar
Step 1 - Clean fish & prepare other ingredients↑ Jump to details
  • While we mainly focused on fish preparation in our video, it goes without saying that you should wash your green onions, cilantro before using them.

Aside from fish prep, here's what you will likely need to do:

  • Peel ginger
  • Wash cilantro, green onion
  • Rehydrate orange peel in warm water for 5 minutes

Generally speaking, when you buy fish from the market, most of the gutting and de-scaling has already been done for you (or someone can do it for you before you check out.)

My dad still prefers to do some additional prep work:

  • Cut away the belly fat - this helps reduce the fishy taste
  • Scrape away the dried blood from the bones - if you're in the US, your fish has most likely already been frozen when you buy it. This leads to some blood drying in the fish cavity, which my dad and most restaurants like to scrape off so that the fish is less "fishy" and more white when it's done cooking
  • Rinse the cavity of the fish with water, pat it dry
  • Cut into the back - this helps the fish cook more evenly by increasing the surface area that the steam can reach, especially if it's a thick piece of fish.

If you do need to remove the fish scales on your own, my dad showed us 3 methods:

  • Using a fish scale remover tool
  • Scraping it with a chef knife (my dad's preferred method)
  • Placing the fish in a plastic bag, and scraping it with your fingernails (the least messy method)
Step 2 - Cut and mince ingredients↑ Jump to details

Traditionally, aside from the fish, the core ingredients are ginger (0.50 oz) and green onion (3 pieces).

For the ginger, we'll be cutting them into slices, strips, and then mincing them into small bits.

For the green onions, we'll be cutting the shoots into little circles (for the sauce), and we'll be cutting the stems into little strips (see video) for the garnish.

We'll also be mincing small amounts of our rehydrated mandarin orange peel ()and dried chili pepper ().

We'll be using cilantro but we don't need to do anything to it.

Step 3 - Prepare sauce↑ Jump to details

To a bowl, we'll add our minced ginger and chopped green onion shoots (not the stems), and:

  • ground bean sauce (1 tbsp)
  • light soy sauce (0.50 tbsp)
  • a dash of white pepper ()
  • salt (0.50 tsp)
  • chicken bouillon (0.25 tsp) (optional)
  • sugar (0.50 tsp)
  • cornstarch (0.50 tsp)
  • olive oil (0.50 tbsp)

We'll mix it for 20-30 seconds.

Step 4 - Prepare fish & wok for steaming↑ Jump to details

We'll need a few items to steam:

  • A wok or something to steam in
  • A plate that fits the fish we're making (usually my dad and most Chinese restaurants use large elliptical plates)
  • A steamer rack to elevate the plate. You can also cut part of a can so it becomes a ring, or roll up several sheets of aluminum foil into a thick ring.

Before we start steaming, we'll need to:

  • Take a spoon and lather half of the sauce inside the fish cavity, and the rest of it on top of the fish.
  • Bring enough water to a boil in the wok so that the water will just barely touch the bottom of the plate when it rests on top of the steamer rack.

The water needs to be boiling before we start steaming.

Note: Many other recipes involve sticking ginger and other things in the fish cavity before steaming. This is effectively the same thing but with more flavor.

Step 5 - Steam fish↑ Jump to details

Once the water is boiling, carefully transfer the plate of fish on top of the steamer rack, and cover the wok.

You may need to do some trial and error, but on my dad's setup at home, he's steaming this tilapia (1 lb) for ​about 12 minutes + 1 minute for extra sanitation.

Some notes on timing and cues:

  • You'll know when it's done when the eyes turn white (they're black at first)
  • You can stick a chopstick into the thickest part of fish to know if it's done. It should be fairly tender as you poke through.
  • The meat should separate easily from the bones.

My dad said there's no magic formula for timing based on weight (watch the video - he laughed at me when I asked lol), but 12 minutes is a good starting point. You can adjust up and down by 60 seconds depending on the size and type of fish.

If it's overcooked, the meat will be too tough. The skin may also break.

If it's undercooked, then there will be blood / red juices in the meat (which my dad said some people prefer, actually.) In this case, you can still steam it again for another 1-3 minutes, or cover it and zap it in the microwave.

For heat transfer, the main variable is how much water you're steaming with and how big your steaming vessel is.

  • Usually, at a typical boiling point, water doesn't heat past 100 C / 212 F, regardless of how intense your stove is.
  • This is one of the differences of steaming at a restaurant vs at home - the more water and bigger the vessel, the better.
Step 6 - Heat oil, add garnish↑ Jump to details

We'll start heating corn oil (2 tbsp) in a pan until it's shimmering (ripples should start forming across the surface).

Carefully remove the plate from the wok, and add the green onion strips along the top of the fish.

Once the oil is hot enough, pour it onto the fish. You should hear a nice sizzle.

Then add the cilantro (3 pieces), and some sesame oil () to taste.

Step 7 - Remove bones & serve↑ Jump to details

Removing the bones from a fish is one of my dad's skills that I've always wanted to document. He always does it so gracefully, and especially for big feasts, you can always make out a subtle, proud grin on his face as he removes the bones and serves his guests.

This is more clear and narrated in the video, and it varies slightly from fish to fish. But in essence, you'll:

  • Cut along the middle of the fish to expose the spine
  • Break the spine away from the head and tail, and set it aside. (Chinese OGs like my dad usually eat the meat off of the spine.)
  • Remove bones along the sides of the fish.
  • If you're following tradition, leave the head and tail on the plate. If you have squeamish guests, you can cover the head with garnish.

There will still be some stray bones, so just remind yourself and your guests to eat carefully. (My mom accidentally swallowed a fish bone as a kid, and had to slowly drink vinegar for hours to dissolve it.)

Step 8 - Take pictures
Whip out your camera (1). Begin taking photos (1,000,000). Pick your favorites!
Step 9 - Share and tag us on Instagram @madewithlau #madewithlau!
Did you have fun making this recipe? We'd love to see & hear about it. (Especially my dad. He would be THRILLED!)

Enjoy!

I have so many memories eating this with my family, especially during all of our epic holiday feasts and Chinese banquets.

Now, hopefully, you can create your own memories with this tradition with your loved ones.

Also, I cordially invite you to eat with us and learn more about the dish, Chinese culture, and hang out with our adorable son. We get into a lot of detail about Chinese symbolism and superstitions, and what life was like for my parents growing up in China.

Cheers, and thanks for cooking with us!

Feel free to comment below if you have any questions about the recipe.