Chinese steamed whole fish with ginger and scallion has always been a Lunar New Year favorite and a very popular menu item at Chinese restaurants that offer traditional Chinese cuisine. Not only is the dish easy to make, it is fragrant, clean, and flavorful. Perfect for any occasion!
It is almost Lunar New Year (LNY), and we are sooo excited! LNY is one of our favorite holidays, right next to Christmas and Thanksgiving! Why? Because of all the amazing foods that we get to eat that is normally a rarity the rest of the year, lol.
One of our favorite LNY dishes is this steamed whole fish, especially when it's topped with ginger and scallions. It's incredibly simple to execute, yet it produces such a fragrant and flavorful dish. Sometimes the secret to good food is to let good ingredients shine and do minimal seasoning.
If need some Lunar New Year recipe suggestions, you'll want to check out our Chinese Lunar New year dishes:
Or our Korean dishes, for Seollal, aka Korean Lunar New Year:
Best type of fish to use
For this Chinese steamed whole fish with ginger and scallion recipe, it is best to use a fish with white flesh and ones that are not too fatty or oily. For example, salmon would not be the ideal fish, but rather, you should opt for a sea bass or fresh tilapia. This dish accompanies mild fish the best because of the aromatics used. Fattier fish, like salmon, would be too conflicting in flavor.
Another factor to consider when choosing the right fish for this dish, is the thickness of the fish. It is preferred that a thinner fish is chosen for steaming. Thicker fish would take a really long time to steam and could become tough and rubbery because of the extended timed needed to cook the fish. Our favorite fish to use are flounders! Not only is the flesh really delicate and tender, the fish is very mild in flavor, so the sauce and all the amazing aromatics gets to shine through and nicely perfumes the fish. And lastly, the reason why we love flounders so much for this recipe is because the fish is really flat, but still quite meaty. So you get the best of both worlds! Unfortunately, we weren't able to find flounder at our local markets this time around, so we settled for a nice striped bass for this recipe. But we were not disappointed, nonetheless.
Ask for your fish cleaned
When purchasing a whole fish from your local market, make sure to ask them to clean the fish for you. Most butchers offer descaling and gutting services with no additional charger at all. Feel free to leave the head on the fish or have the head removed as well. My mom loooooves fish heads, so we keep ours. Plus, you'd rarely find a headless fish in an Asian household. Our moms would be scolding us for being wasteful, lol.
Descale, gutted, and remove the blood line
Now, if your local market doesn't offer any fish cleaning services, no worries! Start with descaling your whole fish. With the fish in the sink, or any clean area that you don't mind some scales flying around, scrape the scales off the fish with the side of a fork (you can also use a spoon, butterknife, or back of a knife). Make sure to scape at the scales in the opposite direction the scales are facing (so from tail to head). Try to also descale the areas near the head, belly, and fins!
Once your fish has been descaled, rinse it under water to remove any loose scales. Use a sharp knife to carefully make a slit down the entire belly of the fish. Make sure to not cut too deep! Cutting too deep would risk puncturing the stomach or other organs that can make the fish taste bitter! After making the slit, remove all the organs and innards of the fish. You can also use a pair of scissors to help remove any stubborn organs. Give your fish and its belly a good rinse under water to remove any residues or blood.
Lastly, whether your butcher cleaned for fish for you or if you had to clean your own fish, make sure to remove the bloodline. It's a small detail, but removing the bloodline in the fish will get rid of some fishiness, unwanted flavors, and not desirable dark spots, which makes a notable difference. To remove the bloodline, gently run the blade of your knife down the spine of your fish (in the belly) to open up a thin membrane. Next, scrape at the dark, red line that's running down the spine of the fish while rinsing it under water. Once clean, pat the fish dry with clean paper towels. Voila! Your fish is ready for steaming.
How long does it take to steam the fish?
Depending on how big and how thick your fish is, the steaming time will vary. Our striped bass was about 1½ pounds and about 2½ to 3 inches thick (at the thickest part). It took about 20 minutes to steam. Now, with a flatter fish, like a flounder, that weighs the same, you'll probably only need to steam it for about 15 minutes because it's much thinner than our typical round fish, which takes less time to cook. So make sure to adjust your cooking time accordingly.
If you're uncertain about how long your fish is going to take to steam, start out at 6-8 minutes for smaller fish, 13-15 for medium size fish, and 15-20 minutes for larger fish. Add a couple extra minutes of steaming, at a time, until your fish is cooked through. An easy way to check if your fish is done, is by inserting a butterknife into the thickest part of the fillet. If the knife goes through without much resistance at all, the fish is done. Also, when your fish is cooked, the fillets should be flakey. So, use a fork or a pair of chopsticks and cut open a piece of the fillet (at the thickest part). If the fillet looks opaque and flakey, the fish is cooked.
Steamer substitute and steamer DIY
If I learned anything from my parents who love and swear by DIYs, it's that you can easily make a DIY steamer set up. The first way to make your own steamer set up is with a stainless steel wire rack. You can usually find it at your local asian markets or online. The only con to this setup is that the water cannot be filled above the rack, and the rack is usually no more than 1 inch tall.
The second steamer DIY is using metal cans! Simply remove the top and bottom off the can, and you've got yourself an awesome steamer. Our favorite cans to use are sardine and salmon cans because they are shorter, which makes them more practical for our short but wide pots. The other reason why we love our sardine and salmon cans is because they are usually wider than your average cans, like canned vegetables. Wider cans provide better stability, so less to worry about when you're steaming your fish. To use this steaming set up, fill the pot with about 1½ to 2 inches of water. Place the can (with the top and bottom removed) in the middle of the pot, and set your plate of fish on top of the can. And of course you can't steam without trapping all the moisture and the heat, so put a lid on it! Viola! you've got an easy DIY steamer.
Serving your whole steamed fish
In our family, we serve the fish whole on the dinner table and you just dive for it. "First come, first serve," my mom always said, haha. But when you have guests over, I'm sure they would much prefer if they didn't have to fight over your amazing cooking or be distracted with all the fishbones. So here's a few tips to save your guests from the trouble and to help you be their favorite host/ hostess:
- Using a spoon, separate the fish fillet from the head and tail of the fish. Just make a couple of firm cuts, but you don't have to cut all the way through the bones.
- Next, With the back of the spoon, make a long incision down the spine of the fish. Keep the spoon as close to the fin bones as possible, to avoid waste.
- Once the incision has been made, push the spoon further into the fillet. The fillet should easily separate from the fish bones. Lift and flip the fillet skin side down onto the plate.
- Firmly cut down on nape of the fish spine to break it then lift it up to remove it from the other side of the fillet. If you want to remove the fish head, you don't have to break the spine. Instead you can just lift the entire spine bone along with the fish head from the other fillet. You can also remove the fin bones as well. Discard these bones if you wish, or move it to the edge of your platter.
- Generously, spoon the sauce onto to both fillets. Portion and serve the fish immediately while it's hot.
If you're interested in other Chinese recipes, you may like these:
- Restaurant Style Mongolian Beef
- Baked Orange Cauliflower "Chicken"
- Crispy General Tso's Tofu
- The BEST Chinese Pork Dumplings
Cook with love!
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Chinese Steamed Whole Fish with Ginger and Scallion
For the fish:
- 1½ pound whole white fish , descaled and gutted (striped bass, cod, flounder, etc)
- 2 inch knob of ginger , peeled and julienned (about 2 TBSP/ ½ ounce)
- 2 stalk green onion , thinly sliced
- 1 Tablespoon kosher salt , or as needed
- cilantro , roughly chopped (optional)
For the sauce:
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 2 Tablespoon hot water
- 2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 3 Tablespoon vegetable oil , or any neutral flavored oil
- In your steaming setup, add about 1½ inch of water. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat down to a simmer.*Refer to the post for DIY steaming setup ideas.*
- While the water is heating, rinse the whole fish under water to remove any impurities or scales. If there's any bloodline left on the spine of the fish, scrape and rinse it off under water. Gently pat the fish dry with clean towels. It doesn't have to be completely dry, just as long there's no puddles of water.*Refer the the post for more detail and photo reference. Also, have your fish already descaled and gutted. You can usually have your butcher clean the fish for you.*
- Lightly season both the interior and exterior of the fish with some salt. Place the fish on an oblong, heatproof dish and stuff the interior with ⅓ of the julienned ginger and sprinkle another ⅓ of the ginger on top of the fish.
- Once the water is ready, place the plate of fish in your steamer and place the lid back on. Let the fish steam for about 15-20 minutes, or until you can easily cut through the fish cleanly with a spoon without much resistance and the fish looks flakey. *The cook time will vary with each fish, depending on the thickness and the size of the fish.*
- While the fish is steaming, combine the soy sauce, hot water, and sugar. Stir until the sugar granules are dissolved. Set the sauce aside until the fish is done steaming.*Feel free to reduce the amount of hot water if you wish the sauce to be saltier. Also, if you really enjoy dishes with a lot of sauce, you can double the sauce recipe and the aromatics.*
- Once the fish is done, carefully remove it from the pot. Heat the ¼ cup of oil in a pan until it just starts to smoke. While the oil is heating up, pour the sauce over the fish and top the fish with the remaining julienned ginger, thinly sliced green onions, and roughly chopped cilantro (optional).When the oil is hot and ready, carefully pour the oil over the ginger, green onion, and cilantro.
- Garnish the fish with more fresh cilantro if you'd like and enjoy it while it's hot with some steamed white rice!