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Perhaps no dish is more welcome during a holiday feast than a whole steamed fish. The word yu for fish is synonymous with surplus and plenty, making its appearance at the table during Chinese New Year, or at other celebrations, a symbol of prosperity for the family.
Making a delicious steamed fish depends on selecting a fresh fish and creating a good steaming setup, both of which we’ll tackle below. Fortunately, neither is difficult to do.
When choosing a fish at your Chinese grocer, pick the white-fleshed fish that looks freshest — watch for clear eyes, red gills, a clean odor and shiny skin. Beyond that, the actual variety of fish you choose is your call. Tilapia, bass, catfish and sea bream all work well. For four people, a fish that weighs 2 pounds before cleaning should be plenty, when served with rice and vegetables.
If you don’t have access to a Chinese market, use a 1 pound fish fillet to yield a similar amount of meat. The rest of the preparation instructions below remain the same.
For your steaming setup, all you need is a large pot to hold an inch of water, a heatproof plate and a mechanism to hold the plate above the water level. A single bamboo steamer, an overturned tuna can or a coil of aluminum foil can all serve this purpose.
When it comes time to bring the fish to the table, remember that it’s always served whole, head and tail included, to symbolize completeness. Point the fish toward the guest of honor and serve one tender fish cheek apiece to the oldest person and youngest person at the table.
Start by eating the meat from one side of the fish, then carefully remove the bone without flipping the fish over, which is considered bad luck akin to capsizing a fishing boat! Finally, leave a few bites leftover to symbolize the hope for an abundant surplus year after year.
Here’s how to make a whole steamed fish, step-by-step. The detailed tutorial with pictures and directions is at the bottom of the page.
Your turn! What tips can you share from your family’s recipe? Want to ask a question before you start cooking? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
Whole Steamed Fish Recipe
Makes: 4 Servings | Prep Time: 15 Minutes | Cook Time: 15 Minutes
2 pound whole fish, cleaned and scaled
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
3 green onions, finely shredded
3 tablespoons ginger, finely shredded
1 handful cilantro
1/4 cup cooking oil
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1. Combine the chopped ginger, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil in a bowl. Pour the mixture over the fish and set aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
2. Place the fish on a heatproof plate and drizzle with the marinade.
3. Steam the fish in a covered pot or wok for 15 minutes until the fish is cooked. Remove from the heat and place the fish on a heat proof serving platter.
4. Heat the cooking oil in a wok over high heat until it smokes. Sprinkle the steamed fish with the shredded green onion, cilantro and ginger, then slowly drizzle the hot oil over the fish.
5. Dress the fish with the soy sauce, then serve immediately.
Start by gathering your ingredients. For such a delicious meal, the ingredient list is so simple! In addition to a fish, all you need is a bunch of green onions, ginger, cilantro, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. Awesome.
When you get your fish home from the market, there are still a few steps left before it’s ready to cook. Scrape off any remaining scales, cut off any small fins and remove any gills that are left. Finally, give the fish a good rinse, inside and out, with cold water.
Combine the chopped ginger, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil in a bowl. Pour the mixture over the fish and set aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
Assemble your steaming setup and heat the water to an active simmer. Place the fish on the heatproof plate, drizzling the leftover marinade on top, and then put the plate into the steamer.
Cover and steam for 15 minutes, or until the fish flesh flakes easily with a fork.
While the fish is steaming, prepare the garnishes, which will flavor the sauce and create a delicious aroma. Keep the cilantro whole, but shred the green onions and ginger.
Remove the fish from the steamer and place on a heatproof platter.
Heat the cooking oil in a wok over high heat until it smokes. Sprinkle the steamed fish with the green onion, cilantro and shredded ginger, then slowly drizzle the hot oil over the fish to crisp the skin and cook the garnish.
Dress the fish with the soy sauce to create a delicious sauce, then serve immediately with steamed rice and, perhaps, sautéed bok choy or another leafy green.
HT: Recipe adapted from Chinese Feasts & Festivals: A Cookbook.