Super-fresh whole fish, head and tail still intact, makes an impressive display as the last dish served at a Chinese multi-course feast for the Lunar New Year.
Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is the most important celebration of all Chinese holidays. It begins on the eve of the first new moon of the lunar calendar and lasts about 15 days.
In China and in countries with a large Chinese population, people often spend several days visiting family and friends. Feasting, giving gifts, and receiving money in red envelopes are significant to the festivities.
Symbolism representing wealth and prosperity, long life, and family harmony plays a large part of foods eaten for Chinese New Year.
Traditional Chinese dishes are given significance not only because the dish looks impressive or tastes good but also often for the play on words in their names. The Chinese word for fish is a homophone for the word surplus. Thus, you want to leave a little of the fish uneaten so that there will be surplus in the new year.
Aside from the whole fish, other New Year dishes include spring rolls, dumplings, long noodles, tang yuan (boiled small balls made of glutinous rice flour and stuffed with ground black sesame seed or peanuts), and nian gao, a sweet glutinous rice cake.
Long noodles represent long life and cannot be cut or broken or else life will also be cut short. Spring rolls and dumplings both represent wealth with their shapes similar to gold bars and silver ingots.
The meals can be finished off with nian gao (for another year of life and prosperity) and tong yuan (for reunion with family and friends).
Whole Steamed Fish
Cilantro and threads of fresh ginger and scallions are placed beneath, inside and on top of the fish for this traditional Chinese entrée.
Once the fish has steamed, the wilted herbs are cleared away and replaced with fresh herbs then hot oil is poured over it to release the flavors of the fresh herbs. Finally, a slightly sweetened sauce of Shaoxing wine and soy sauce is poured over and around to offset the delicate flavors of the fish.
The loveliest part about this dish is its simplicity. Pretty much everything can be prepped ahead of time and assembled shortly before cooking. It may seem daunting to steam a whole fish in a wok but the only special equipment you might need, is a steam rack which costs just a couple of bucks.
Once you get over the fear of steaming a whole fish, it can become a regular weekend meal, served with plenty of rice to soak up the sauce and a simple sautéed green veg.
The Best Fish for this Dish
The fish usually used for this preparation is a mild tasting white-fleshed fish. Stay away from fish with lots of little bones. You will usually find small bones in a whole fish but you definitely don’t want to select a fish that you know is rife with them.
Black sea bass and red snapper are popular. For the home cook, they work especially well as they’re often sold at 1 1/2 pounds each. You can find them larger, but they may be difficult to fit into a wok.
Branzini also works but I’ve found that they’re usually smaller than 1 1/2 pounds. One pounders can be skimpy when serving more than 2 to 3 people.
How to Choose Fresh Fish
Fresh fish is essential—it’s not worth making this dish with an, “Eh, looks fresh enough” fish. Don’t even think of using thawed frozen fish.
In my family, this was a dish we had after a trip to Chinatown. We’d look for a fishmonger with tanks of live fish. The fish was taken out of a tank and killed and cleaned right in front of us. If you’re lucky, you can experience this at your local Asian market.
A good fishmonger will be able to supply you with fish caught that day, properly chilled on a bed of ice. Your fish monger should be able to scale, clean your fish and trim off the fins. Make sure you keep the tail!
When selecting a fish, look for:
- Clear eyes
- Firm flesh with a shiny taut skin
- Tightly fitted scales
- Reddish gills
- A pleasant sea smell
How to Store the Fresh Fish
Buy your fish fresh and eat it right away, preferably the same day. If that’s not possible, pack the fish in ice and it will hold for up to 3 days.
To do this, store the fish in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped on top of a dish of ice or sandwiched between ice packs. Change the ice as needed so the fish isn’t sitting in a bowl of water.
Scoring the Fish
There are two main reasons to score the fish. First, it helps the fish cook evenly since a fish’s flesh is thicker at the spine and center and thinner at the belly. Second, it allows access for the seasonings to penetrate the flesh.
Make 3 parallel slice marks crosswise on each side of the fish. One score should be right after the head, followed by one in the middle and one toward the end. The knife blade should hit but not cut through the bone. The scores do not need to go all the way down to the belly.
How to Steam Fish
For perfect steamed fish, place an 8-inch steaming rack inside the wok. Put a plate, (or pie plate if that’s what you have on hand) on the steaming rack then place the fish on the plate.
The goal is to keep the dish holding the fish elevated above wok.
Foil Coil: If you don’t have a steam rack you can crunch up a long sheet of foil into a dense cylinder and form it into a coil. Place it inside the wok and set the plate on the foil coil.
Oven Method: If you don’t have a wok or you’re steaming fish that is too large for a wok the next best thing would be a French technique called en papillate, wrapping the fish in parchment paper with liquid and steaming it in the oven. This recipe for salmon explains the parchment paper folding process.
Serving and Eating Whole Steamed Fish
Once the fish is steamed, transfer it to a platter and finish it off with fresh herbs, hot oil, and sauce.
I’m sure there are fancy ways to debone and serve a whole fish but my family is not fancy and not privy to such practices. Most Chinese restaurants provide a spoon to scrape and then scoop the flesh off the bones (and then spoon the sauce onto your fish and rice).
As gauche as it sounds, in my family we often pick the fish off the bones with our chopsticks. Once one side of the fish is picked clean, the whole skeleton is lifted up in one piece and pushed off to the side of the platter, and then the second side is tackled.
Fish cheeks are considered a prized succulent part of the fish. After we’re done with the fish, for fun, we dig the eyeballs out and compare our prowess with chopsticks by trying to lift them off our plates. They’re slippery little buggers!
Whole Fish Variations
Feel free to make the dish easier and more accessible and/or mix up the Asian flavors.
- Instead of using whole fish you could use fish fillets.
- Add a thinly sliced fresh chile to the herb and ginger mixture.
- Add a clove of sliced garlic to the herb and ginger mixture.
- If you can’t find Shaoxing wine try using dry sherry instead.
More Fantastic Fish Recipes
Whole Steamed Fish
You are very likely to find an occasional small bone in the fish. Be on the lookout, especially if young children are participating.
For the fish
2 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, divided
2 scallions, divided
20 small sprigs cilantro, divided
1 (1 1/2 pound) whole black sea bass or red snapper, scaled and gutted
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/16 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
For the sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons canola or avocado oil
- Wok with a domed lid
- 1 (8-inch) diameter steaming rack
- 2 large metal offset or fish spatulas
- 1 glass pie plate
Prepare your herb plates:
This recipe uses cilantro, herbs and ginger in three places: the fish will rest on, be stuffed with, and garnished with the herbs and aromatics. To avoid cross contamination, set out two plates to divide the herbs, ginger and scallions for cooking and for garnishing.
Prep the ginger:
Cut about 1 inch of unpeeled ginger into 1/8-inch thick coins. Smash the unpeeled coins with the side of a knife blade or with the bottom of a small heavy skillet. Set the smashed ginger coins aside on a small plate. You will use these for cooking.
Peel the remaining 1 1/2-inch long piece of ginger. Slice it lengthwise into long thin planks, about 1/16-inch thick or as thin as possible. Stack a couple of the planks and thinly slice lengthwise, enough to yield about 1 tablespoon of thin matchsticks, or juliennes. Place the julienned ginger on another small plate and set aside. This is your garnish plate.
Cut the scallions:
Cut the scallions into 2-inch long pieces. Stack the scallion pieces on top of each other and thinly slice lengthwise, enough to yield about 1/3 cup of thinly sliced scallions. Place two-thirds of the scallions on the plate with the smashed coins and the remaining third on the plate with the julienned ginger.
Set aside cilantro:
Divide the cilantro between the cooking plate the garnish plate.
Set up your steamer:
Inside a large wok, place a metal steam rack. Add about 1-inch of water, to the wok. Cover the wok with a large domed lid and bring the water to a boil over high heat.
Have extra water on hand nearby to replenish if necessary. Eventually, you will place the pie plate (or plate) with the fish on the steam rack.
Prep the fish:
If the fish still has its fins, use kitchen shears to trim off all but the tail fin. Run your fingers along the skin to feel for and pull off any overlooked scales. Rinse the fish, inside and out, with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
Score the fish:
Lay the fish flat on a cutting board. Score the fish by slicing 3 evenly spaced parallel cuts at a slight angle, crosswise, through the flesh until the knife blade hits bone.
Start the first cut right after where the head meets the body, then two more slices in the meatier section of the fish. Flip the fish over and repeat on the other side.
Season the fish:
Sprinkle the fish and its cavity with salt and pepper, making sure to get inside the flesh where it’s scored.
Stuff the fish:
Use the plate of herbs set aside for cooking to stuff the cavity of the fish with a 3 or 4 ginger coins, 3 to 4 scallion batons, and 3 to 4 sprigs of cilantro.
Scatter half of the remaining smashed ginger, scallion batons, and cilantro into the 9-inch glass pie plate.
Place the fish on top of the herbs in the dish, then scatter with the remaining ginger coins, scallion batons, and cilantro sprigs over the fish. Splash the fish with the Shaoxing wine.
Steam the fish:
Check to make sure there’s still plenty of water in the wok. Add more if necessary, and return to a boil. Carefully place the pie plate onto the steamer rack and cover the wok.
Steam until the fish is cooked through and the flesh is white and flakes easily with a butter knife at its meatiest section, about 12 minutes. If the flesh is not flaky yet, cover and cook a couple of minutes longer.
Prep the sauce and hot oil:
While the fish is cooking, in a small bowl combine the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and sugar; set aside.
Add the oil to a small saucepan.
Finish the dish:
When the fish is cooked through, carefully remove the pie plate from the wok. Remove the herbs from on top of the fish and inside of the cavity. Use two metal offset or fish spatulas to carefully transfer the fish to a clean platter.
Using the plate of herbs set aside for garnish. Scatter the julienned ginger, scallions, and remaining cilantro over the fish.
Set the saucepan with oil over medium-high heat, but keep an eye on it. You want the oil to be very hot and shimmering, but not smoking, 1 to 2 minutes.
Carefully pour the hot oil over the fish and fresh herbs. Add the sauce from the small bowl to the same saucepan the oil was in and heat over medium-high heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Pour the sauce around the fish.
This is not a dish that holds well. Serve immediately, preferably with plenty of steamed rice to soak up all that sauce.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 3g||4%|
|Saturated Fat 1g||3%|
|Total Carbohydrate 4g||2%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||5%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|