Cantonese Steamed Fish with Ginger and Scallions

Would you eat a fish that’s blue?

The other day when I was at the Asian market, I randomly decided to be a good Chinese girl and attempt to steam a fish at home, Cantonese-style. If you’ve ever eaten with my family (or any Cantonese family), you already know that steamed fishes are one of these standard dishes that everyone born in Hong Kong is pretty much required to love. (If you don’t like steamed fish, you bring shame to the family!!)

You start eating steamed fishes with the adults pretty much the same time you start to eat rice (instead of mushy rice porridge). By the time you’re entering elementary school, you’re already picking through tiny fish bones like an expert and you’ve already figured out which parts of the fish you like the best. For the record, my favorite parts are the collar area, the skin, and the air sac (yes, you can eat it). To this day, every time my parents visit, they insist on taking my sister and I to a nearby Cantonese restaurant to eat steamed fishes because they know we don’t make it at home. Well…I’m about to prove them wrong!

The art of selecting the right fish to steam has always been a mystery to me. So, standing in the midst of all the options at the seafood section of Sunset Super, I decided to call my dad. He recommended anything in the ‘cod’ family that ‘looked fresh’. Avoid ‘carp’, although it wasn’t clear to me why except my dad made a gross noise when I told him they had carp there too. How can a fish ‘look fresh’? From what I could gather, it means the skin is still shiny, the eyes are still clear not cloudy, and it general ‘looks good.’

Once I got off the phone, the fishmonger started trying to sell various fishes to me, including this blue fish. By ‘blue fish,’ I do not mean a fish with a blue price tag or even blue skin – the flesh of this fish was actually tinted electric blue! When I asked the guy why it was blue, all he would say was ‘It’s good for you! It’s like vegetables! The more colors, the better!’

Hmm. Interesting.

Rounding up all the science I’ve learned in grad school, I quickly decided that 1) fishes are, in fact, not like vegetables and 2) blue fishes are too sketchy even for me. And I eat the air sacs!

In the end, I took home a cute little 1½ lb black cod with clear eyes. Sorry to steam you, little cod! But you certainly were quite delicious! (For those with issues with eating things that’re looking back at them, you can also steam fish steaks or fillets).

1 whole fish, cleaned and scaled (1½ lb is pretty good for 2 people along with a side of veggies)
2-3 heads of scallions, julienned or chopped
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled (scrape with a spoon – trust me) and julienned
soy sauce, preferably the kind for steamed fishes available at Asian markets
sea salt
1 Tbsp vegetable oil

Setup your steamer and start heating the water. Since I don’t own one, I use a wide-mouth wok as the base and balance a bamboo steamer with cover on top of it. You can also use a large skillet or wok and put a little metal stand (available at most Asian markets) inside it , on which the dish can sit. As long as you have about 1-2 inches of boiling water underneath your dish without the water actually touching the dish, you’re good to go.

Meanwhile, rinse the fish and its insides briefly under cold running water. Pat dry gently with paper towels. Season both sides of the fish as well as the insides with small pinches of sea salt.

Place on a shallow dish with curved sides (to catch all the liquid). Drizzle with vegetable oil.

Once the steamer is boiling, carefully place the plate with the fish inside the steamer and cover. Cook for about 20 minutes for a small (1-1½ lb) fish and longer for larger fishes. Once you can insert the tip of a knife easily into the thickest part of the fish and the flesh looks opaque, the fish is done. Carefully remove the dish from the steamer – this part is trickier than it sounds and may result in some scalding fingers if you’re not careful.

Scatter the scallions and ginger all over the fish and drizzle with as much soy sauce as you like. Oh, and the soy sauce will mix with the fish juices and make for a great ‘dip’ for the fish flesh, as well as a great ‘sauce’ for your rice

Yield: um, one fish
Time: ~30 min


  1. Brian said:
    16 October 2007 at 8:11 pm

    My dad steams the fish with ginger and scallions, then discards them when the fish is done, and replaces with fresh ginger/scallions. Then he drizzles hot oil over the fish (rather than before steaming).

    Now, we aren’t cantonese, so I have no idea if this is “authentic”, but it results in very nice-tasting fish.

  2. angi said:
    3 November 2007 at 9:39 pm

    oo that’s a good idea. i like the two-prong ginger/scallion attack. will have to try it.

  3. KC said:
    13 November 2007 at 2:31 pm

    This sounds delicious, I’ve poached fish, but never steamed them. Fish is one of those things I’m always trying to eat more of, and never quite succeeding.

    You left me a comment last night so I decided to check out your site, it’s beautiful, you take some wonderful photos.

  4. angi said:
    13 November 2007 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks! Fish is definitely one of the meats I eat most often. I try to eat “regular meat” only when I have cravings for it, so end up cooking veggie most of the time. But I’ll never say no to some good seafood! :)

  5. Adrian said:
    1 December 2007 at 6:50 am

    Hey Angi (and everyone else reading),

    By watching my mother over the years I’ve noticed we cook the fish a slightly different way. I don’t believe that this way is better either in case you anyone was wondering… just different in a few ways.

    Anyhow, we add a smidge of oil on the bottom of the plate first so that the fish doesn’t stick (sometimes this happens)

    Another thing I noticed was how this recipe calls for putting salt directly on the fish, however, in the recipe I know salt is put on the plate just around the bottom edge of the rim.

    Finally, we start steaming our fish once a full rolling boil is achieved and do not open the cover until 10 mins later, when it should be done. I suppose it varies on how thick your fish is, but for a medium sized Barramundi this is quite satisfactory IMHO.

    Hope this blabber is of some use! :)

  6. Julie said:
    10 January 2009 at 3:25 pm

    About carp. I brought home a large carp once to my father and he had to prep the fish using a whole other cooking method. Carp is a rather muddy tasting fish that isn’t fit for steaming Cantonese style. Instead, he chose to fry the fish and then braised it with Chinese mushrooms, some sweet-sour tomatoey like sauce, some grain alcohol (rice wine, whiskey?), onions, ginger and then served it with cilantro. The fish needs to have a pungent sauce to mask the overwhelming muddiness. As good as this was, I don’t think I’ll ever eat carp again if I can help it.

    • angi said:
      11 January 2009 at 12:44 am

      Hi Julie, Yeah I think the muddy taste is why my dad doesn’t like carp too! Thanks for the comment!

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