Whole Steamed Fish


For the Chinese, as in many other cultures, fish plays a large role in festive celebrations. The Chinese word for fish (yu) is a homophone for the Chinese equivalents to “wish” and “abundance”—so serving fish symbolizes a wish for prosperity and abundance. Carp, in particular, is an important figure in Chinese mythology; legend has it that a carp could leap the falls of the Yellow River at Dragon Gate and be transformed into a mighty dragon. At banquets, fish is served whole—with both the head and the tail attached (and the head pointed toward the guest of honor)—thus connoting a good beginning and ending for the coming year. When a fish is served at a banquet, you know the meal is about to end, as it’s typically the last main dish served before the rice dish and dessert.


1 1½-pound whole fish (such as sea bass or red snapper), cleaned and scaled

Kosher salt

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 scallions (green and white parts), thinly sliced

1 1-inch-knob fresh ginger, julienned

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine

Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

Rinse the fish and pat it dry. Put the fish on a heatproof plate. Set a steamer basket (can be bamboo, aluminum, or even a plate placed in a larger pot) over a pan of boiling water, and set the plate in the steamer. Sprinkle the kosher salt lightly over the fish. Cover the steamer or pot and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until the fish is cooked through and the flesh flakes easily when pierced with the tip of a knife.

A few moments before the fish has finished cooking, heat the vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium heat until it is hot but not smoking. As soon as the fish is done, drain off any cooking liquid from the plate, and sprinkle the scallions and ginger over the fish. Immediately pour the hot oil over the top; it will sizzle and slightly wilt the scallions.

Combine the soy sauce and rice wine in a small bowl, and drizzle the mixture over the fish. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.

Tip: Even though whole fish is must-have banquet fare, it is also everyday fare and simple to steam it at home. The key is to avoid overcooking it. Here the hot oil mixed with soy sauce is poured over the steamed fish to “cook” the garnish.