An approachable take on a classic Cantonese steamed fish preparation that swaps the traditional whole fish for mild white fillets that are cooked gently in the vapors of a bamboo steamer alongside fragrant ginger until moist and just falling apart, coated in a sweet and salty sauce, topped with spring onions and a drizzle of sizzling hot oil. Serve with rice and a salad or a simply cooked green vegetable for a quick and simple weeknight meal.
This method of preparing and serving fish - steamed and topped with ginger and spring onions that are just barely cooked with a drizzle of sizzling hot oil just before eating - originates in the Southern and central coastal regions of China. Traditionally, it’s served as a family-style meal of fresh-caught fish, steamed whole, and brought to the table for each diner to use their chopsticks to remove their share of the moist and flaky fish flesh from the bones.
Rather deep fry than steam? Try these Ensenada-style fish tacos or these beer battered fish sandwiches.
If you’re comfortable working with whole fish, go ahead and steam your fish whole. Though, do note that a whole fish should take a few minutes longer to cook than fillets, depending on the size of the fish. Otherwise, this recipe is for those of us a little more timid around fish heads, tails, scales and bones.
Why Steam Fish
Steaming is not as popular a method of fish cookery as pan frying or roasting, but it’s a method worth considering, especially as a means of preparing white fish.
White fish is especially delicate and challenging to get right. A lot of white fish are thinner and less firm than something like North American favorite salmon which leaves it prone to falling apart with preparation methods that require flipping and moving around, like pan-searing, and, because it doesn’t contain a lot of natural oils or fats, it tends to cook quickly, especially with high-heat cooking methods like broiling or grilling, leaving little room for error - just 30 seconds to a minute or two could be the difference between perfectly cooked fish and dry rubbery fish that easily burns and sticks to hot surfaces.
Steaming solves some of these problems: steam cooks the fish slowly and evenly with vapor, a moist heat that retains moisture and there is no need to handle the fish while cooking so it won’t fall apart or stick during the cooking process, and the slow gentle heat from the steam is less likely to overcook. And, while steaming doesn’t have the advantage of high heat for imparting flavor and char, you can add flavor by steaming fish alongside aromatics like ginger, garlic and onions.
Choosing the Right Fish to Steam
For this recipe you want to choose a lean, mild flavored, delicate white fish that falls apart into large flakes when cooked. The specific fish you’ll choose will depend, of course, on what is available where you live. I like to use cod, haddock or perch.
Oily fish, like salmon or mackerel, or really thin white fish, such as tilapia or flounder, can be steamed, but are not ideal. You may want to reserve oily fish for higher heat cooking methods and thinner white fish for deep frying or a really quick pan sear.
Look for fillets that are uniform in color with shiny firm flesh and a delicate ocean-like smell (not a strong fishy scent).
Tips for using a Bamboo Steamer
A bamboo steamer may not be the most common piece of cookware, but it’s relatively inexpensive, can easily be found at a local Asian market or online and worth it if you’d like to make dumplings, bao and dim sum or if you’re looking for a way of cooking simple meals without adding extra oil. I’m looking at you air fryer people - give steaming a try. Once you get the hang of it, it’s really no more time consuming and just as hands-off as cooking in the oven or on the stove.
- Don’t put food directly on the steamer itself. You want to either line the steamer or use a dish or platter inside the steamer.
- For small items like dumplings or other dim sum, line the bottom of each steamer compartment with rounds of perforated parchment paper, cabbage leaves or cheesecloth.
No bamboo steamer or wok? Steam your fish in parchment parcels like this recipe for fish with beans, greens and anchovy butter sauce.
- If using a plate, lift the food up a bit so the steam can get underneath it. For this recipe I suggest laying some of the julienned ginger sticks underneath the fish for this purpose.
- Use the right amount of water and wait for it to come to boil before adding the food. You want the bottom of the bamboo steamer to be submerged in water inside the wok - but you don’t want there to be so much water that it bubbles up into the compartments of the steamer itself and touches the food. Leave at least ½ inch of space between the food and the water.
- You want a bamboo steamer that is about 2 inches smaller than the wok or large pot you intend to set it inside of. For instance, if you are using a 14 inch wok, look for a 12 inch bamboo steamer.
- If you’re steaming a lot of food/batches, as you might for dumplings or dim sum, consider keeping a second pot of boiling water going for topping up the water at the bottom of your wok so the wok doesn’t run dry before you finish steaming all your food.
- Avoid lifting the lid of the steamer as your food steams.
- Removing items from the steamer once done cooking can be tricky - the steam is hot and the compartments can be difficult to remove. Try removing the food from each compartment with a fish spatula or tongs first, then carefully use the tongs and/or some dry towels to lift each compartment out of the steam.
How to Steam Fish Without a Bamboo Steamer
It may take a bit of practice to get the hang of using a bamboo steamer, but once you do it’s really no more difficult than any other stovetop cooking method.
In this recipe I suggest steaming fish in a bamboo steamer set inside a wok. That’s how I do it. These are both great pieces of kitchen equipment I love and recommend. But if you don’t have a steamer or a wok, you can still steam. There are any number of ways to improvise a steamer, all you really need is a means of suspending food over boiling water and a lid or other vessel to create an enclosed space that traps the steam around the food.
If you have a wok, but no steamer, you can use a traditional method of improvisation: suspend a few chopsticks across the bottom of the wok, crossing them over each other to create a sort of net, then set a plate or pie pan that’s at least 1-2 inches smaller than the width of the wok on top of the chopsticks to hold the food. Then fill the bottom of the wok with water leaving at least a ½ inch between the top of the water and the bottom of the plate and bring to a boil.
Cantonese steamed fish is perfect to serve with rice and a simple green side, try these easy sautéed collard greens or these honey sriracha Brussels sprouts.
Another option is to place a metal steaming rack inside a large pot with a lid. Or, if you don’t have a steaming rack, simply place something inside a large pot that can safely sit inside the water as it boils but will emerge up out of the water to hold a plate or pie pan with your food on it - such as a small tin can or a piece of tin foil wound into a coil. Fill the bottom of the pot with a few inches of water - making sure the rack, can or foil sticks up out of the water and there is at least ½ - 1 inch of space between the top of the water and and place the fish inside the pot on a plate, then close the pot with the lid.
You can also steam in your oven, without boiling water, using either parchment paper or some sort of large leaves wrapped around your food as the enclosed space for steaming - as is done in this recipe for fish parcels. Note, though, that when using this method of steaming it’s difficult to determine when the fish is properly cooked without opening up the parchment parcel.
Cantonese Steamed Fish with Ginger and Spring Onion Recipe
- 5-6 scallions
- 1-1.5 pounds (4-6 oz/portion) mild flavored firm white fish (perch, cod, haddock, sea bass etc)
- Salt & pepper (½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper per pound of fish, or to taste)
- 2 inch piece ginger, peeled & julienned
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- ¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons peanut or other neutral oil with a high smoke-point
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1-2 chili peppers, thinly sliced (bird’s eye or jalapeños) (optional)
- Handful of cilantro sprigs (optional)
- Cut scallions crosswise into 2” segments. Thinly slice the segments into lengthwise strips. Set aside in a bowl of cold water. They will curl as they soak.
- Pat the fish dry and season on both sides using a total of ½ teaspoon of table salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper per pound of fish. Divide half the ginger sticks between two high-sided plates or pie pans that are an inch or two smaller than the compartments of your bamboo steamer. Set the fillets on top of the ginger and set aside.
- Set a wok or large pot on the stove over medium heat. Fill the bottom with a few inches of water and place a bamboo steamer inside. When the water comes to a boil, set the plates of fish into the compartments of the steamer and close the lid tightly on top. Steam for 7-10 minutes or until the fish registers 135F with a meat thermometer.
- As the fish steams, whisk together the Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and sugar and set aside.
- A few minutes before the fish is done, set a small pot over low heat and add the peanut and sesame oils.
- When the fish is done steaming, lift it out of the steamer and transfer to a serving dish. Drain away the liquid left behind in the plates. Pour the soy sauce mixture over the fish and top it with the green onions and pepper slices, if using.
- Just before serving, turn the heat up to medium under the saucepan with the oil, heat until the oil just begins to steam, then quickly spoon over the top of the green onions on each fish fillet. Top with the cilantro and chili peppers, if using. Serve immediately.