The classic Chinese preparation of steamed fish with ginger and scallions makes for a delicious and easy weeknight dinner in under 30 minutes.
One cookbook that I’ve been looking forward to cooking from is My Shanghai by Betty Liu. Having been a follower of her blog for years, I couldn’t be more excited when it was published this year. Betty’s recipes are homey and remind of the comfort food that some of my friends cooked when we used to have dinner get together pre Covid time. One recipe that stood out was the steamed fish with ginger and scallions. Having bought a really fresh California sheepshead from Tuna Harbor Market this past Saturday, I decided to give it a try. The flavors from the ginger and scallions along with the sweetness of the fish transformed a dish with very few ingredients into an utterly delicious dinner.
- Fish: Get the freshest fish you can. If you're local to San Diego, Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is the place for fresh fish and seafood. I used California sheepshead for this recipe but ocean whitefish, sea bass, cod, red snapper, or another firm white fish is a great alternative. Choose a fish with the clearest eyes and minimal cloudiness. If you can't find fresh whole fish, fish filets would work.
- Shaoxing wine: is a Chinese rice wine from Shaoxing, a city in China’s Zhejiang Province. It's a regular Chinese pantry item. You can find this wine at your local Asian grocery stores or online. The Shaoxing wine imparts an aromatic flavor when used in this recipe.
Steps for Cleaning the Fish
- If this is your first time cleaning a fish, watching these videos will help make the process more efficient.
- Scaling: If you got your fish from the fishmonger, have them scale and clean the fish for you. I prefer to prep the fish myself since it's pretty easy to do for a small fish. Start scaling the fish by holding it firmly with one hand and scraping from tail to head with a small knife. Remove the scales from the belly, the edges of the fish including the top, near the dorsal fins, the head, and collar.
- Gutting the fish: start gutting the fish by making an incision in the belly of the fish at the tail end and cut through the skin to the head. Remove the guts, roe, and bloodline by pulling them out. Rinse the inside of the fish with cold running water until the water runs clear.
- Removing the gills: use your kitchen shears to remove the gills. The gills impart a bitter flavor to your fish and will make it spoil faster.
Tips for Steaming the Fish
- Pat the fish dry with a paper towel. Use a sharp knife to create 3-4 diagonal bone-deep slits along both sides of the fish, about 1.5” apart.
- Brush the Shaoxing wine over both sides of the fish. Sprinkle both sides generously with salt, including inside the slits. Set it aside for 30 minutes. Both the wine and salt help remove the fishiness and enhance the aroma of the dish.
- Place some smashed scallion stalks on the steaming dish and place the fish on top to prevent the skin from sticking to the plate and help it steam evenly.
- Add about 1 inch of water into the pot. Avoid adding water midway into steaming which will change the temperature and steam time.
- It will take about 10 minutes to steam a 1-pound fish and 12-15 minutes for a 1.5 pound fish. Turn off heat and let sit, covered for another 3 minutes. Once cooked, the meat should be opaque down to the bone, but the bone will be translucent.
A simple marinade with Shaoxing wine and a light salt rub along with a douse of hot oil over ginger, scallions, and cilantro in this classic Chinese preparation releases the flavor of the aromatics into the flesh of the fish. Once the fish is cooked and plated, the meat pulls right off the bones. With a bowl of rice and steamed greens, it makes a simple and delicious dinner. Betty's steamed fish with ginger and scallions goes into a regular rotation along with our other fish recipes.
For more easy dinner inspiration, you might like these recipes: harissa roasted salmon, Vietnamese shaking beef, garlic noodles with shrimp.
Steamed fish with ginger and scallions
- 1 whole fish, about 1.5 pounds, gutted and descaled with head and tail intact (CA sheepshead, ocean white fish, sea bass, tilapia, red snapper, or grouper.
- 2 tbsps shaoxing cooking wine
- 2 tbsps salt, to sprinkle on both sides of the fish
- 3 slices ginger to place on top of fish to steam
- 2 scallions, smashed
- 2 scallions, white and green parts, julienned
- 2 2 x ½-inch pieces fresh ginger, peeled and finely julienned
- ¼ cup cilantro
- ¼ cup vegetable oil or canola oil
- 1 thin slice ginger
- 2 tbsps light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Place julienned ginger, julienned scallion, and cilantro into ice cold water to keep it fresh.
- Pat the fish dry with a paper towel. Create 3-4 diagonal bone-deep slits along both sides of the fish, about 1.5” apart.
- Brush shaoxing wine over both sides of the fish, making sure to reach inside the diagonal slits and inside the fish. Sprinkle both sides with salt, including inside the slits. Let it sit for 30 minutes.
- Smash 2 stalks of scallions with a cleaver and place across the steaming plate to make a bed for the fish.
- Place fish on top of the bed of scallions. Insert a thin slice of ginger into each slit of the fish.
- Prepare a steamer or use a wok by filling it with a few inches of water and placing a rack or bowl to keep your plate elevated. Make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the steamer. Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
- Place the plate holding the fish in the steamer, cover, and steam for about 12 minutes.
- Turn off heat and let sit, covered for another 3 minutes. Check if meat inside the slits are done – meat should be opaque down to the bone, but the bone will be translucent. If the meat is not cooked, steam it for another 2 minutes.
- Remove the fish from steamer. Drain excess water from steaming. Remove cooked scallion stalks and ginger.
- Transfer the fish to a serving plate. Top with fresh cilantro, julienned ginger and scallions.
- In a small sauce pan, heat up oil with a slice of ginger. When the ginger begins to sizzle, remove from heat. Pour over fish. It will sizzle as it hits fish.
- Whisk soy sauce with sugar. Drizzle the soy mixture over the fish and serve immediately with rice and steamed vegetables.
This is my second comments on your web page. Thank you for creating these blogs/methods of cooking. I was searching information about growing mustard green, and pictures of rows of greens in the garden, to help me decide how to arrange the rows of greens for a nice front yard look. I ran into your Vietnamese pickled mustard green blog.
Back to the steamed fish. I have done this a few times but never got the flavor that I once loved so much at one of the best Chinese restaurant in Alhambra, CA. After reading your post, I believe the the missing flavor is the rice wine to marinate the fish.
I prefer to buy the fish whole -- unprepared -- as I think this helps to keep the cold fish fresh better -- less chances of spoil -- than having the fishmongers wash and gut the fish at room temperature running water. You suggested to use a small knife to scale the fish. I would say using a larger knife is easier for the task - more steady motion especially using the knife tip at the edge of the dorsal fin and the head. I notice that you didn't cut the fins off; is this for a nicer presentation of the fish on the dining table?
The tip of placing some scallions on the plate under the fish to avoid sticking the skin on the plate is an excellent idea as I always had this problem but didn't think much about it.
Q: how do you keep the boiling water getting into the disk that dilutes the flavor?
Hi Toan! Thank your for taking the time to read through the post. For scaling, please use whatever works for you. I have a small scaling knife that works well. I left the fins on for the picture =) I usually have a plate that holds the fish inside of the steamer and the water doesn't get in. Choose a plate with a bit more height to prevent the water from spilling in. Another trick you can do is put a little bowl inside the steamer then place the plate with your fish on top of the bowl. Hope that helps!