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Cantonese steamed fish

I adore this dish. The ritual of making it reminds me of being a little girl growing up in Hong Kong. Every night Mum and I would have a Cantonese dinner together. This was always of a bowl of clear soup, a bowl of steamed rice, and various little dishes of steamed or stir fried vegetables and meats. The dishes would vary according to season and whim, but there was always a steamed fish. I forget all of the names, but pomfret, butterfish and garoupa featured, to name a few. As a child I mostly recognised them as them as 'big bone fish' or 'small bone fish', a characteristic that was directly related to my enjoyment due to my underdeveloped skills at separating meat from bone with chopsticks, teeth and tongue.

To this day my ability with chopsticks is still outstripped by my enthusiasm when it comes to fish that has just been taken out of the steamer and dressed with a glistening combination of oil and soy sauce. Left to my own devices I resort to a knife and fork to separate the flakes from the bones, before using a spoon to scoop up mouthfuls of fish together with sauce and softened shards of chilli, spring onion and ginger.

You can use any fish at all for this recipe, I love sea bream, sea bass or red mullet. Ask the fishmonger to trim the tail and fins, and clean the fish but leave it whole.

You will need a plate large enough for the fish to lie on and a steamer big enough to fit the plate. If you have a big wok with a lid all you need is a plate stand, a metal ring with legs, and you should be able to accommodate most sizes.



1 whole fish, cleaned and gutted
2 spring onions, cut into 2 inch sections, sliced lengthwise into thin matchsticks
Ginger, same amount as onion, peeled and also sliced into matchsticks

1 red chilli, again in matchsticks

½ tablespoon groundnut oil
1 slice ginger
1 small shallot, peeled and lightly crushed
2 tsp Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 small pinch white pepper
1 tsp sesame oil


What you need




What to do

Give the fish a good rinse to remove any remaining scales and other less tasty bits like guts still clinging to the insides of the fish. Pat the fish dry with some kitchen paper and weigh it before placing it on a plate. If the fish has been in the fridge then give it some time to come to room temperature so it is not too cold when you steam it.

Combine the spring onion, ginger and chilli shreds and pile them on top of the fish, before gently lowering the plate into a steamer with boiling water. Steam the fish according to the following timings:

Round fish – one minute for every two ounces
Flat fish – one minute for every three ounces

While the fish steams make the sauce. Warm the oil in a small saucepan until the ginger begins to colour, then remove it and the shallot and discard. Take the saucepan off the heat and add the wine, soy sauces, sugar and pepper to the hot oil, stirring to dissolve. Taste the sauce; it should be salty and sweet. Add more soy sauce or sugar if you prefer. Add the sesame oil at the very end.

Be sure to time the steaming carefully and remove the fish at exactly the right time. When the fish is cooked take the plate out and tip it gently over the sink to get rid of the juices in the bottom. Heat the sauce on a high heat until it boils and then pour it all over the fish, which should sizzle deliciously.

Serve at once, either with chopsticks for authenticity or a fish knife and fork for greedy speed.

Serve the soup very cold with torn mint and/or basil leaves scattered over.


You could eat this with crusty bread, or put little dishes with chopped chillies, toasted seeds, fried bacon bits or anything else you fancy on the table for people to help themselves.

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