Steaming Fish - Possibly the easiest way to cook & best way to savour a fish

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

With Cantonese style soy sauce based sauce
Sis, this is for you

My sister called me up from KL and asked me to post up something on steamed fish.

She was quite excited with my food blog, especially the way Mum's recipes are now easily accessible.

Steaming is probably the easiest way to cook fish and the best way to eat it, especially if it is eaten whole.

This way of doing fish is something normally associated with Chinese cooking. It is a great way of showcasing a good piece of fish in all its glory - head, body, colour and texture. It is a regular dinner feature in many Chinese homes.

In Chinese restaurants, live fish will go from the tank to the steamer and then, the table. Some of them can be very expensive. You may have heard of the rather controversially priced Sultan fish. I have eaten it once before. It is fantastic eaten steamed (and this is the best way to cook this boney and succulent fish) but I wouldn't pay a thousand dollars for it.    

Prop up the fish if you like
The Technique of Steaming

The simplest for Chinese homes is a wok and a plate holder. Fill the wok with water up to a third, place the holder on the wok and the plate of fish on it. Cover and steam away. Alternatively, you can use bamboo steamers.

The science of steaming is simple.

Water (liquid) that boils off into a gaseous state (steam) contains high heat energy. This latent heat of vaporization hits the food and cooks it. Steam, by definition, is actually invisible. The "steam" you see is actually fog: droplets of water that suspended in or mixed with air. Of course, when there is steam, you see the fog. But my point is, what you do not see is actually where the heat is and this is what cooks the food. You want to cook the food in the steam which you do not see  i.e. under the fog rather than in it.

This explains why steam wok covers are inverted conical in shape. The extra space at the top holds the mist and ensures that the food is cooked below the mist and not in it. The shape also allows for condensation of water droplets to slip back into the water below. For this simple reason, the plate you use to steam the fish must be smaller than the circumference of your wok. By experience you will know that if your plate is hugging the sides of the wok, it will collect more condensed water.

The exception is the bamboo steamer. The porous surface allows the mist to escape. In fact, bamboo steamers are superior because less water condenses into the food, unlike metal covers. This is why "Paus" (buns) are best steamed using bamboo ones. Wet buns are disastrous.
Bamboo steamer

As bamboo covers are porous, the heat and vapour escapes and so, you need to add in some extra minutes if you are steaming fish as most recipes call for the use of the wok or metal steamers.

How long should you steam the fish? This depends on the size of the fish and the equipment you use. Generally, 8-12 minutes as a guide. The more you steam, the more experience you will have re your equipment.

The fire setting should be high as you want a more rigorous steaming. You should avoid opening the steamer's cover while the fish is steaming.

The Fish

The freshness of the fish is of course an important factor. The Chinese dictum, "fresh you steam, if not you fry" is a common sense guide. But I pause here to add this - there is nothing wrong with frying a good piece of fresh fish. As long as you are not crisping it entirely (a resturant technique for poorer quality fish) but just doing a light fry, the fish will taste delicious and "not wasted."

Then, there is the quality of the fish. Generally, you pay more for the better ones. For example, a Silver Pomfret caught in the wild commands a higher price. A Red Emperor (Snapper) will cost more than Golden Snapper. Soon Hock (my fave) and Garoupa are also great for steaming. Red Garoupa is of course more expensive. An affordable fish is Pink Tilapia. It is an under-rated fish but it tastes superb and I prefer it to some of that above.

Make sure you clean the inside of the fish properly. They add a terrible fishy taste (from the gullet) if you don't. Cut slits if it is a thicker variety. You can also butterfly it if you like.

I like to put chopsticks on the plate and then the fish on it (see photo above). I do not want the water which oozes from the fish due to its fishy odor. Cooking this way also ensures that I am steaming my fish entirely and not boiling some parts of it in its juice.

That said, there are recipes (Teochew) which calls for the fish to be steamed in its juice, flavoured with ginger and other sour/salty ingredients. It comes out like a soup actually. A fresh pomfret is a good candidate for this kind of cooking.  

Another thing you will know intuitively is that the thickness of the fish is an important factor. Pomfret is about the easiest to steam because it is almost flat throughout its body. Snappers are chubby in parts (like mine), which makes it more challenging to steam evenly. This is one reason why cuts are made to the fish at the thicker part of its body.

If you are buying it from the monger in the morning,  how should you keep it fresh for the dinner steam?

Just keep it in the fridge section on ice. Don't freeze it. 

White Pomfret steamed the Teochew style
Some recipes for Steamed Fish

We are coming now to the 'recipe.' I prefer to prepare the sauce separately and pour over the steamed fish.

1. Making a soy sauce based sauce, Cantonese style
  • After your fish is steamed, lift it up and put in on the serving plate.
  • Lightly fry some ginger and garlic in a few tablespoon of oil in the pan or wok.
  • Pour some oil on the fish. This will add a sheen.
  • Add some good light soy sauce, sesame oil and a dash of wine to the remaining oil in the pan.
  • When heated up, pour on the fish after you have garnish it with spring onions, diced ginger and coriander leaves.
Serve immediately.

2. Making a broth Teochew style

My Mum-in-law will normally steam her fish the Teochew way. She will add some plums, cut tomatoes, Chinese wine, preserved plums ("See Mui"), diced ginger and scallions. You can see all these ingredients in the lead photo of one of her fish. Make sure the fish is really fresh and cleaned properly as you are using the juice from the fish to make the broth.


Tell yourself: steaming fish is easy, quick and convenient. Start with a good fresh fish. You need to make it enough to be familiar with the timing etc. Make the sauce the way you like it. And remember to garnish with scallions and coriander leaves.

And in my opinion, steamed fish is best eaten with chopsticks and accompanied with the right dishes. If you serve curry chicken or another strong-tasting dish with this, it simply negates the experience of your expensive steamed fish.

Have you wondered why steamed fish always taste better when served as part of a ten-course dinner like those at weddings? That is because you are focusing only on it. This us the best way of savoring it.

Even rice is not necessary.

Steamed Snapper in spicy bean sauce ("Tau Cheong") - I added scallion and coriander leaves after the photo :)

You Might Also Like


  1. which "tau cheong"did you use to steam fish? Where to buy in Spore? thks for this post :)

  2. I use Kwong Woh Hing's spicy bean sauce but only doing so because i happen to have it. I think any bean sauce will do as long as you like the taste.

  3. Great blog and recipe. I love whole steamed fish. Poaching is also nice. Lately I've been doing sous vide exclusively, but after seeing your pictures, I'm going to try a whole fish sous vide style!

    1. SiliconValleySousVide, have you SV your whole fish? How did it turned out?

  4. Thank you for this! I've been wondering about the best way to steam seabass with my limited range of equipment, and the wok with plate holder idea is perfect. I will be giving the soy sauce-based sauce a try!

  5. Oh man. Steamed fish was a staple in my house growing up, my dad is Teochew and my mum Cantonese so we had a lot of steamed fish! Mostly it was Teochew style, just like what you did in the photos here, sometimes also with strips of fatty pork belly, preserved vegetables and/or dried chinese mushrooms marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil. YUM.