Sunday, August 29, 2010

Steamed Fish, Asian Style

I grew up eating fish whole, on the bone. Small fish, like tilapia or galunggong (mackarel scad), simply fried and eaten with soy sauce or vinegar. Bigger fish, like lapu lapu (grouper) or apahap (sea bass), baked or steamed for special occasions. Oh sure, we also had fish in fillets and steaks (fillets I like, but I mysteriously cannot abide by steak cut fish), but there was something special about having a whole fish. To this day I prefer whole fish over fillets and other cuts.

I love the simple perfection of a fish rubbed with salt and then fried exactly right, the outside and edges crisp, the inside tender and moist, eaten hot and with my hands. Maybe with a dipping sauce of vinegar with just a touch of soy and some crushed bird’s eye chilies…or maybe not. I work through it precisely but slowly, savoring every bite, missing nothing. When I’m done there is nothing left but a pile of clean bones that not even a skilled cat could get more out of.

This is another wonderful way to have whole fish. Healthier too, but no less delicious :)

Steamed Fish, Asian Style
  • One whole 3/4-kilo (approx) Bisugo (threadfin bream), Maliputo, or Lapu-lapu (garoupa), scaled and gutted
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • Half a lemon, sliced
  • 1 white onion, sliced
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass, white and light green parts only, sliced
  • 2 leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced on the diagonal
  • 1 bunch of cilantro
  • Optional: 1 cilantro root (if the bunch of cilantro you use has them, and it should)
  • 1-2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 3-4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoons sesame oil

- Line a bamboo steamer with parchment so it comes up over the sides. Line the parchment with the onion slices, some ginger slices, and one slice of lemon. Lay your fish on top of these aromatics. Stuff the inside of the fish (inside the belly as well as inside the head) with most of the remaining ginger and lemon, lemongrass, some of the leeks, a few stalks of cilantro, and cilantro root. Top the fish with any ginger and lemon you have left, the rest of the leeks, and the most of the cilantro (saving a few stalks to garnish fresh once the fish is cooked). Top everything with the soy sauce, fish sauce, and sesame oil. I’ve made the amounts above flexible as this really depends on your taste and the size of your fish. Fold sides of parchment over the fish – it doesn’t have to cover it completely – and cover.
- While you are arranging your fish, fill a wok with enough water not to touch the steamer when you lay it inside. Cover and bring to a boil, then lower to a fast simmer.
- When the fish is ready and the water in the wok is at a fast simmer, carefully place steamer on the wok.
- Steam fish for about 20 minutes. You may need more or less time depending on the size of your fish so check for doneness before taking it off the heat. Simply open the steamer (carefully! Steam burns!), and insert a small knife into the fleshiest part of the fish – if it flakes easily it’s done.
- Turn of the heat and remove the bamboo steamer from the wok – do this carefully with your hands protected as very hot steam will escape when you lift the steamer from the wok. Place the steamer on a plate and serve directly! Tear the remaining cilantro over the newly cooked fish.

This is my basic framework for our favorite Asian-style steamed fish. The fish stays moist and the aromatics infuse it with their crisp, fresh flavors. The soy, fish sauce, and sesame oil pool below the fish where the onions have gone all melty to make a delicious sauce. This recipe is adaptable and forgiving. Add, take away, or replace some of the herbs as you like (not everyone is a cilantro junkie like me I suppose) or as available (I’m going to try a version with Kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil next!). Use your favorite fish or try a new one from the market. Fillets would work here as well, although I implore you to try this with fresh whole fish as there is really nothing quite like it!


♥¸¸.•*¨Skip to Malou¨¨*•.¸¸♥¸ said...

I love cilantro and I wouldn't change anything in your recipe. Although I have a similar steamed fish recipe but over here in the US i use golden pampano.. hopefully I will post it soon.
Thanks for sharing.

chef_d said...

Wow this looks so good. I was drooling while reading.

Les rêves d'une boulangère (Brittany) said...

Perfect, healthy and delicious! Love it.

lunchbox said...

I LOVE steamed whole fish. I made a similar dish recently with snapper and it just transported me back home. I agree, there is nothing like it. I saw Kylie Kwong do one also last night and she use Shaoxing (sp?) wine too. Must try soon!

Ling said...


This recipe is pretty much along the lines of how my mum steamed fish for my brother and I when we were tots... we sure could put away a lot of this!

Trissa said...

Hi Jo - such simple presentation but I can tell it's packed with flavour. I think we eat fish the same way - I also like to make "simot" (spell?) the whole fish.

ChichaJo said...

Hi Malou! We always love to have cilantro on hand for dishes like this or even just to toss with some tomatoes for salad :) Is golden pampano similar to maliputo? If so that is my favorite fish to prepare this way!

Hi Chef D! Thanks! It's really simple to throw together :)

Hi Brittany! Glad you enjoyed the post -- isn't wonderful when healthy and delicious collide? :)

Hi Mireille! Isn't really so sarap? :) I have Shaoxing wine and will try it with a splash of that next time!

Hi Ling! Nice to know I am in such good company if your mom also made this! :)

Hi Trissa! Yes, fish is definitely something I like to make "simot" :) :)

Mom-Friday said...

I love this! Putting cilantro made this more yummy, I will try this next time I steam fish. I also posted my simple version here, hope you don't mind me sharing :)
Steamed King Fish in Light Soy

The French said...

This looks amazing! Haven't cooked a whole fish ever, but maybe this will encourage me to try:)

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

That first is just a WOW photo! Second one is excellent but the first I love.
I'll have mine with cilantro please.

veron said...

This looks absolutely delicious, not to mention healthy!

Anh said...

This is pretty much how I steam my fish, too! Such a versatile dish, isn’t it?

WizzyTheStick said...

I have a special addiction to sprats fried whole with dipping sauce. Many people eat it for breakfast in the Caribbean. Steamed fish is also another favourite. isn't it a bonus when delicious stuff is also healthy and good for you too

Dexie said...

I want one!!!

anne said...


i like your photos, btw. :)

i'm always been a reader of your blog since i stumbled upon it from a foodie link.
i just saw your photo and little C in the magazine. ^^,

you have that mommy glow and little C is oh-so-cute.

Ash said...

I should start eating more fish! This looks too good!

TS of eatingclub vancouver said...

Oh, it's been so long since I've had fried fish (with piping hot white rice, of course) and garlic and chile-studded toyomansi. And yes, yes, eaten with hands!

(Who cares if my abnormally odor-soaking hands are not to be rid of any smell no matter how many times I wash them.)

Midge said...

Another fish worth steaming is the plapla or giant tilapia. The meat tastes delicate yet savory at the same time. Just use lemongrass, ginger, and rock salt for flavorings and you're good to go. :)

ChichaJo said...

Hi Mom-Friday! Thanks for sharing your recipe…it sounds delicious! And I also sometimes do that step with the hot oil :)

Hi The French! I hope you give it a try…it is not as hard as it looks and you can have your fishmonger gut and scale the fish for you :) And the flavor is really great!

Hi Tanna! Thanks…I had a good model ;) Another cilantro lover…yay!

Hi Veron! Thanks! Yes, healthy too :)

Hi Anh! Yes, so versatile…another thing I love about this dish!

Hi Wizzy! That sounds so good! We also have something similar for breakfast here…fried salted or dried fish…I love it!

Hi Dexie! I’d love to share some :)

Hi Anne! Thanks for leaving a nice comment and I’m happy to hear you are enjoying my blog :) Ah! You saw my feature in Yummy I see :) Thank you for your kind words!

Hi Ash! We love fish over here :) Yummy and good for you!

Hi TS! There is really nothing like going over a warm, crispy-fried fish with your hands…the only way to go!

Hi Midge! Thanks for the suggestion…will keep that in mind!

sohdalex said...

I have never been a fan of whole fish, I will not lie when I say the head freaks me out a bit. I think this is because I grew up eating fish in fillets only. I would with out a doubt try this recipe though! All the seasonings and spices are some of my favorite! maybe one day soon ;)

ChichaJo said...

Hi Sohdalex! I can understand :) I grew up with whole fish all around (we are an archipelago so lots of seafood!) so I'm quite used to seeing the heads (which is in fact where all the best meat hides!) :) But, I certainly wouldn't want you to pass on this so go ahead and use fillets first...and work your way up to whole fish a little at a time (only if you can get them fresh though!) :)

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Oh, Joey, only you could make a buggy-eyed whole fish look pretty. :)

The Weekend Gourmet said...

This is wonderful. I love how steamed fish is so forgiving (in that as long as there's enough aromatics to give it some flavor, and "liquids" (oil, wine etc.) to keep it moist, you're good to go. I came across a recipe which said "add butter and chopped chili peppers" and I did (though as a precaution I used salted butter) and it came out so good!

ChichaJo said...

Hahaha! Susan! That is too funny!

Hello Weekend Gourmet! Butter sounds marvelous…will try that next :)

Shalimar said...

hi joey.
I have been roasting , steaming whole fish the whole summer.

I once bought an 11 kilos fish called dextix and the guests asked me to fillet it.. i wanted to protest I wanted it whole.! ;-)

redmenace said...

I've never steamed a fish before, but you make it look so tasty and easy!

Lee said...

Hello Joey.

Same sentiments about fish here. I want my fish whole and not some anonymously white filet of something. By the way, I was assigned to work in Afghanistan for a year and was deprived of seeing your blog's photos. I can access your blog but without the pictures it is not just the same. Now that I'm back in the Philippines I can indulge in your excellent food photography again.
On a sad note, Marketman just posted his last blog entry and there goes my wish of another Cebu eyeball in the near future.

Andrea said...

I miss eating steamed lapu-lapu. Thanks for sharing this recipe.

I want to share this blog with you and your readers, if you haven't discovered it yet:
; a blog devoted to showing the work of artists who also love to cook.

ChichaJo said...

Hi Sha! 11 kilos?? Oh my! I saw the photo of you filleting the fish…huge! Good job though :)

Hi Robin! It is easy! And the fish turns out so moist and tender…

Hi Lee! Afghanistan! Wow! Glad you are enjoying the photos now :) You flatter me! Sad about MM…yes would have liked another Cebu/Lechon eyeball! I guess it’s time to scour his archives!

Hi Andrea! You’re welcome! Lapu lapu is the best…but a bit pricey ;) But we do indulge ourselves every once in a while! Thanks for the link…the illustrations are adorable!

Bordeaux said...

I love whole fish too. And grown to love it even more here in Asia. Your recipe and pictures were inspiring. Suspect I'll be making a trip to the steamer shop and the market today...

ChichaJo said...

Hi Bordeaux! Hope you like it! :)