Sunday, 22 January 2017

Cantonese Sizzling Steamed Whole Sea Bream

The indulgent days of roast turkey and crispy fat-drenched potatoes don’t seem very far away at all, but it’s another period of extravagant feasting for those around the world who celebrate the Lunar New Year.  This year it falls in the month of January – all too soon to go off the good intentions and resolutions set at the start of the year. Luckily, aside from the rich lard cookies and candied goodies your aunties and uncles cram gleefully into your hands, the traditional New Year dishes for the reunion dinner table can quite happily fit into a healthy eating plan.

One Chinese New Year classic is a whole steamed fish. The Chinese name for fish (yu) sounds like the word ‘prosperity’ – that alone is reason enough for Chinese families to put it on the reunion dinner menu. But dubious auspicious reasons aside, this is a dish that’s light, delicious, and easily a stunner on the table. Fish is almost always steamed whole back home, and for good reasons.It's harder to overcook fish on the bone, and the results are almost always perfectly moist, tender and flakey. Plus it's easier to tell freshness with a whole fish – more on that below. 
Today’s recipe is for the classic Cantonese-style steamed fish. I love serving this when I’m hosting a dinner party because you can really turn up the theatrics and then bask in the oohs and aahs of your guests. Unlike Teochew-style steamed fish (also a favourite), the Cantonese version is finished with a drizzle of hot oil, so it sizzles and crackles and releases the comforting aromas of ginger and spring onion. Aside from the aforementioned ingredients, the only thing you really need is fish and soy sauce.

Because the ingredients list and recipe are both so simple, I really want to emphasise on the quality of the ingredients here. Taking care in choosing the ingredients is Step 1 (or Step 0 I guess) in this recipe. I’m not the biggest fan of fish that’s already cut up, packaged in sterile plastic packets and stacked on the supermarket shelves – I can’t feel the fish, I can’t sniff it (and if I can, something’s really gone wrong). Visit a good fishmonger you can trust – that’s where you sniff out the best catch of the day, and where you can judge for yourself how fresh the fish is. Fresh fish should have bright eyes, healthy red gills, moist glistening skin and feel firm to the touch. As for the soy sauce, a good one will have the depth and complexity of flavours from the traditional long fermentation process (think craft beer) – there are many quality brands out there now, but an easily available favourite is Kikkoman.

serves 2-3 as a side with rice and vegetables

1 whole sea bream
1 tsp unrefined sea salt
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
3 stalks spring onions, 1 of them finely shredded
3 tbsp good soy sauce
2 tsp unrefined light brown sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp groundnut oil
1 inch piece of ginger, finely shredded
handful of chopped coriander leaves

1. Wash fish and pat dry, then rub evenly with salt and rice wine. Make sure to rub inside the belly. Place the fish over two chopsticks, or even 2 stalks of spring onions, set over a plate. This will make for more even cooking.
2. Set up a steamer by putting a rack into a wok/pot over boiling water, and set the plate of fish on the rack (make sure it doesn't touch the water). Steam over high heat until just cooked, about 18 min for mine.
3. Carefully transfer the cooked fish to a new plate. This is where it differs from the one-plate Teochew-style. You don't want the old plate and especially not the fishy cooking liquid on it.
4. Stir together the soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil, and drizzle over the fish. Scatter the spring onions and ginger over.
5. Heat the groundnut oil in a pan until smoking, and then immediately pour over the fish. It will sizzle and crackle delightfully, like this (yes I took a video the first time I did it). Garnish with coriander, and serve straight away with plain steamed rice and your favourite vegetables.


  1. I used to eat steamed sea bream daily for brother loves fishing, but not really fancy for fish, strange, huh? This is exactly the way my mom makes the steamed fish! Awesome!

    1. That sounds like the perfect arrangement- he fishes, and you get to eat the fish ;)

  2. Just a quick question, Shu -- in the Teochew style they do serve in the cooking liquid? Is it just that you have a personal preference for this other style? Do you discard the cooking liquid or use it for something else?

    -- Preeta

    1. Hi Preeta! Yup they just serve in the cooking liquid, but the fish is steamed with more aromatics and sour pickles (preserved plums/ salted mustard greens), which add lots of flavour and mask any 'fishiness' in the cooking liquid. For the cantonese style I discard the cooking liquid. I love both styles to be honest, they're both delicious :)

  3. Gorgeous, it looks so fresh,light and delicious x

  4. It's sad that in my neck of the woods, fresh fish (especially of the saltwater variety) is harder to come by. and cilantro. damn the lack of cilantro. i shall experience the fish vicariously through your delicious pics.

    1. Oh no that's a shame! These are the two things I couldn't live without. Hope you enjoyed reading the post anyway, and thanks for leaving a comment!

  5. I keep on reading about the Chinese steamed whole fish but whenever I buy a whole fish, I forget this method! Your fish looks fantastic and the whole dish seems so easy... I even have Shaoxing wine (I used it maybe twice in a year), so no excuses for next fish I buy!

    1. I hope you try this Sissi, it's so easy and so delicious as well! And don't waste that Shaoxing wine, it's beautiful in many many Chinese dishes. Try braising chicken in soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sesame oil garlic and ginger - it's my mum's classic recipe :)

  6. Sometimes I think that it is too difficult to cook fish. Maybe it is because I am not really into cooking. But now I am thinking about preparing a dinner for my family as soon as I finish working on the handmadewritings custom research Thank you for the inspiration!

  7. Hi there my dear Shu Han;)

    I love your cooking inspirations very much. I have just blogged about your stunning "Chicken & Rice" cookbook at my own blog. I am in love with the pancakes made of coconutmilk and riceflour :-*

    I am following your blog now-such a great work;)
    Hugs from Germany to you:)


    1. Hi Isa thank you so so much for sharing the book! This made my day! I've just hopped over to read your lovely blog - sorry for the delay. Hope you enjoy cooking from the book, I'm looking forward to reading more from you :) Danke from London xx