Cantonese style steamed fish recipe

Posted on May 28, 2012


This is potentially a wildly inaccurate assumption, but I’m going to make it anyway. I’ll wager that most people wouldn’t consider steamed fish to be a particularly glamourous item on a restaurant’s menu. But it really isn’t as boring as it may sound. Well executed steamed fish can be so elegant. This gentle method of cooking keeps the flesh delightfully tender and delicate, and when finished with a light sauce to bring out the natural sweetness of the fish – that’s about as close as perfection as you can get.

Steamed fish with ginger and spring onions is my must order dish at Chinese (Cantonese) restaurants (with so many regional Chinese cuisines on offer these days, I felt like I needed to make that distinction). Half the time, I’m already picking out my prey in the fish tanks when waiting for a table. Yup, I’ve definitely got that killer instinct, and as much as I try to reduce my meat intake, I will never cut it as a vegetarian. It’s that combination of clean fresh flavours and gentle textures that entices me. It makes for a light yet really fulfilling meal. It’s somehow both homely and sophisticated at the same time.

Thanks to Rasa Malaysia, I can now enjoy this dish in the comfort of my own home. Also a very good dish to produce when wanting to impress dinner guests. It’s best to use a white fleshed fish that’s not too firm (ie. swordfish is too steaky). My preferences are usually for barramundi and coral trout.

Rasa Malaysia’s recipe pretty much replicates how it’s prepared in Chinese restaurants. My tiny departures from her recipe doesn’t exactly alter the taste of the dish, it’s more reflective how I like to work in the kitchen and how I like the finished product to look. For example, I omit the splash of rice wine she uses when steaming the fish ( I don’t find that this affects the overall taste), I prefer more greens and I use a bit of dark soy sauce to add more depth of colour (again this won’t change the flavour too much, I just like the higher contrast against the white plate. The above photograph with the coral trout followed her recipe to the tee, but the last photograph with the barramundi was when I used a bit of dark soy. Same flavour profile, just different colour of sauce).

For those not too familiar with the different soy sauces on the market, ‘regular’ soy sauce is often also referred to as light soy sauce. This is not to be confused with ‘lite’ soy sauce. Light soy sauce is not ‘lite’ in calories or salt. It it regarded as such because it is light in colour. Dark soy sauce is thus named because it is darker in colour. Somewhat contrary to expectations, light soy sauce is actually saltier in taste than dark soy sauce. Dark soy is a slightly thicker sauce and carries a mild sweetness through it from the molasses added in the brewing process. The distinction between light and dark soy sauce is somewhat clearer in Chinese, light soy is called ‘fresh soy sauce’ and dark is called ‘old soy sauce’. Light soy sauce is the more common all round performer in the kitchen, being useful both in cooking and as a condiment. The use of dark soy on the other hand is often confined to the cooking process, it is not used as a condiment. Many recipes will call for a mixture of both types of soy to achieve the right balance in salty and sweet flavours. Hopefully this little spiel will be useful to you at some stage.

But without detracting too much from the main event, here’s the recipe you need to try.

RECIPE – Cantonese style steamed fish

(Original recipe found from Rasa Malaysia)


  • 1 fish (as fresh as possible; gutted, scaled and cleaned)
  • ~5cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced in fine matchsticks
  • 3-4 spring onions, finely sliced into thin ribbons
  • Handful of coriander roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons oil

Soy sauce mixture:

  • 2 tablespoons shao xing rice wine
  • ~2 tablespoons rock sugar crushed to powder form (this is regarded as essential for the correct flavour, however if desperate, you can substitute with regular white sugar. I don’t find the end product to be severely impacted.)
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon of dark soy sauce
  • a couple of big pinches of white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil


  1. Pat dry fish and scatter 1/2 the ginger, spring onion and coriander on top of and inside the fish.
  2. Prepare your steamer with boiling water. Once the water is boiling rapidly, gently place your fish in the steamer. Cover steamer tightly and cook fish for 10-15mins. The cooking time really varies with the size of your fish and how effective your steamer is. You don’t want to overcook it, and you don’t want to keep opening and closing the steamer either so the first couple of times might be part intuition and part luck.
  3. While the fish is cooking, place the ingredients of the soy sauce mixture, except the sesame oil, into small saucepan/pan and gently heat until the sugar completely dissolves. Remove from heat, add sesame oil and reserve.
  4. Once cooked, remove fish from steamer, drain off any of the fishy water and discard wilted ginger and greens. Place fish onto a fresh plate and top with remaining ginger, spring onion and coriander.
  5. In a small pan, heat up 2 tablespoons of oil until smoking. Pour hot oil over the steamed fish to scald it. Pour over soy sauce mixture.
  6. Serve immediately with steamed rice.

You cannot tell me that this doesn’t look impressive on the dinner table, I just refuse to believe it. The great thing is how relatively easy this dish is to produce. The only really time consuming part of this was finely slicing the ginger and spring onions! Ok – admittedly I did cheat a bit and had my local fish monger gut and scale my fish for me. Obviously more time will be required if your fish monger isn’t as helpful as mine. But overall, it is a simple, quick, healthy and oh so tasty way to prepare fish.