Friday Recipe: Cantonese Steam Fish

I’m a big fish eater. In general, given a choice about what to eat, I’m
usually happiest when I get to eat a nice fish. Even now that I’ve started eating
beef again, most of the time, I’d rather eat a nice piece of wild salmon
than pretty much anything made of beef.

When it comes to cooking fish, I think that there’s no cuisine that does
a better job with fish than Chinese. The chinese style of cooking fish is, in
my opinion, perfect. It relies on getting really good quality, fresh
fish – and then doing as little to it as you reasonably can, so that the wonderful
flavor of a really fresh fish comes through.

The best example of that is a Cantonese steamed fish. You do so little to
it – and yet the result is one of the best dishes in the entire world. To make this
work, you need a really fresh, smallish fish. I typically do this with either rainbow trout or striped bass, and I try to get it from someplace where I can be sure that the fish was
swimming no more than 24 hours before. The easiest place to find fish like that is usually
a chinese grocery; American grocery stores often have fish that’s been sitting on ice for a long time. Chinese shoppers are, properly, very picky about their fish, so you tend to get it much fresher from a chinese grocery.


  • Two small freshwater fish, gutted and scaled, but not deboned, and head-on.
  • Several cloves of garlic, sliced as thin as possible.
  • About 1 1-1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced as thin as possible.
  • 3-4 scallions, green parts chopped, while parts kept whole.
  • Soy sauce.
  • Vodka
  • Sugar
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon of sesame oil mixed with one tablespoon of canola oil.


  1. Sprinkle the fish generously with kosher salt, and let them sit for about five
    minutes in the salt. Then brush the salt away with a rag or paper tower. (This helps
    draw a bit of moisture out of the skin to prepare for what comes next.)
  2. With a very sharp knife, cut 3 angled slits into the side of each fish, parallel to the gills. Do this to both sides of the fish. (For those with dull knife issues, go check out a buying guide on knife sharpeners, you need a good sharpener before you can have a good knife.)
  3. Stuff the slits with slices of garlic and ginger.
  4. Whack the whites of the scallions with the back-side of your knife, then stuff then into
    the body cavities of the fish.
  5. Put the fish each onto a heatproof plate, and sprinkle with the scallion greens.
  6. Sprinkle each fish with a couple of tablespoons each of vodka and soy sauce.
  7. Add about 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to the sauce on the bottom of each plate.
  8. Move the plates into a bamboo steamer, and steam the fish until just barely cooked through. For an average rainbow trout, this takes between 8 and 10 minutes; for a bass (which is usually a bit bigger), it’s more like 10 to 12 minutes. Be careful to not overcook the fish!
  9. While the fish is steaming, heat the mixed oils until they’re smoking hot. Don’t let
    them burn – you just want them really hot.
  10. When the fish is done, spoon a tablespoon of the hot oil over each of them.

Serve with rice, and a stir fried vegetable. (Snow-pea greens go extremely well with this.) The soy and vodka will have formed into a nice sauce with the juices from the fish. (This is why you want the head on. The cartilage exposed around the gills really helps to build the sauce. Also, there’s a little piece of meat just above and to the front of the gills which is called the cheek, which is the most tasty piece of the entire fish.)

That’s really it – some garlic and ginger, some soy sauce, and then steam it. It’ll be
one of the best fish you’ve ever eaten.

0 thoughts on “Friday Recipe: Cantonese Steam Fish

  1. Flaky

    Sound yummy! You can’t overemphasize the importance of not overcooking trout or salmon. If you cook it too much, it’s like canned tuna, but done just right… Incidentally, do you have any good tuna recipes? (Preferably ones that work ok with frozen fillets, as fresh tuna is a tad on the expensive side and not always available.)

  2. Bowinja

    My mom makes this, minus the vodka, very tasty still. Im interested in trying the vodka addition thougg.

  3. Tony P

    I’m not that big on fish but I do like:
    The one on that list that doesn’t match is the trout. The others are relatively fatty fish which I like.

  4. Mark W

    As a Cantonese person I have to make some comments. 🙂
    The key is steam fish is timing and that is a trial-and-error process. The criteria we go with is that the meat still has a tinge of red but the meat comes off the bone easily with chopsticks or a fork. If the meat sticks to the bone then it is undercooked.
    Normally we steam the fish without anything. The soya sauce and hot oil goes on the fish at the same time. What I’ve seen is the green onions slides under the plate. I think it is to provide ventilation to the underside of the fish and/or avoiding the skin sticking on the plate. I normally wish dishes so I know how hard to get those skin off the plate!
    I also observed that every family has a designated person responsible for “cleaning up” the fish. There are a lot of nooks and crannies with meat in them. When I was a kid I can just pick up the chunky parts of the fish and walk away. I found myself having this role once I got married…
    Mark W in Vancouver

  5. Benry

    Yes! As a cantonese kid that grew up on steamed fish and rice, I have to say that whenever good math and good food meet, something wonderful has happened.
    Benry Y from Austin, TX

  6. Alex Besogonov

    I like fish, but I’m very bad at cooking it. Is there a simple recipe which does not involve any complex manipulations?

  7. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    This one is pretty much as easy as they get – assuming you have access to really good, fresh whole fish.
    If not, then it’s usually pretty easy to find good quality frozen wild salmon. It’s not as good as fresh, but it’s pretty good. There’s a ton of fairly easy things you can do with it. If you look through the recipe archives on this blog, I’ve got a recipe for salmon braised in a meat sauce. That’s a great dish, pretty simple to prepare, and you can treat it as a sort of master dish. It still comes out well if you leave out the meat, but use the same basic sauce. You can vary it by adding different sauce components – some dried fermented soybeans, or some bean sauce, or oyster sauce, or sambal (chili and vinegar paste). This week, I did that basic dish leaving out the meat, using an extra large dose of the fermented soybeans, and replacing the leafy veggie with shelled edamame.
    The great thing about the braise is that it’s a lot less sensitive to your cooking skill. The fish cooking in liquid doesn’t dry out too badly even if you overcook it, and it’s less sensitive to the freshness of the fish.

  8. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Mark W:
    There are a ton of different variations on how to do a proper steamed fish, and they’re all wonderful. There’s really nothing like it – it’s the perfect way to really appreciate the subtle wonderfulness of a really fresh fish.
    And you’re right about every family having a picker :-). The way that I learned about the cheek is because my wife told me that her father always picked around the fish, and loved that part, so I tried it. Now I do lots of picking around the strange places. The way that flesh works, often the harder-to-get pieces are the best tasting – the more bone or cartilage or connective stuff there is around a piece of meat, the better it’s going to taste. It’s the same reason that the sort of grungy, fatty pieces of beef taste better that the lean, tender ones.

  9. Robert

    It is absolutely amazing how much difference 24 hours can make in the taste of a trout. I live about 10 minutes away from a really nice trout lake in the Rockies and I’m a pretty good fly fisherman, ie., I almost always come home with fish. And yes flies work great in lakes if you know how. I’ll go over in the afternoon, catch dinner and come home (sometimes with a couple of new flies my son has just tied for me to use). So…. we frequently eat fish that has been swimming less than 2 hours ago. But if for whatever reason, we don’t eat it that day and put it in the fridge until the next day, the flavor is changed. It is hard to pin down what has changed other than “I should’ve eaten this yesterday” comes to my mind. It’s not that it becomes bad, but it’s not as good.
    My favorite way to do trout: 1) catch a few, 2) clean and stuff with whatever you have, 3)carefully wrap in foil and bury in coals in a campfire so they steam in their own juices. Gourmet food when backpacking by carrying a few spices, some foil and a rod (I have a 4 piece rod and reel that weigh just 8 oz.)

  10. Alex Besogonov

    Mark C.:
    Thanks for tips! I tried to cook a fresh cat-fish with meat sauce (I found a place there they sell live fish) today and it tastes great!
    If you ever visit Kiev (Ukraine) be sure to drop in for dinner.

  11. Dírio

    You should really come to Portugal and try some of our grilled fish. Or stew.
    I’ve been to the States before and although you make excellent steaks, your fish is not that good.
    I’ve even tried a “portuguese stew” in the US but it really sucked.


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