Chinese Steamed Fish with Black Bean and Ginger Sauce

As much as I'd like to remain objective on Chinese food, it's hard to hide my favoritism towards Cantonese fish. In Beijing, Shanghai, or Sichuan province, fish is most likely pan-fried, heavily sauced, or buried in a broth of chilies. That's all nice, but nothing beats the clear flavor of steamed fish, with nothing to disguise the freshness. Guangdong province is spoiled in its coastal proximity. No wonder steamed fish became so entrenched in the diet.

When I taught Chinese cooking classes, I often had students who were intimidated by steaming fish in a wok. And once they tried, they were surprised by how easy it is. So, here are a few simple steps to steaming a fish, Cantonese style.

1. Pick a live one. Or at least a fresh one. - Cantonese restaurants take pride in their enormous fish tanks. And my family almost never orders fish without picking one out themselves. To get the most out of this recipe, find a fish market or head to Chinatown. If you must use fish on ice, pick one that is properly store (well-covered with ice, not sitting in a puddle of cold water). And make sure the eyes are clear, not cloudy.

2. Invest in a wire steamer rack, also called a steamer insert. - They're cheap, a few bucks at the most. In a pinch, you can also turn a bowl upside-down; just make sure it's wide enough to balance your fish plate.

3. Less is more - No need for soy sauce, cooking wine, or lots of oil. You need only a few seasonings for the fish, and the steaming will create a natural sauce.


Other Chinese seafood recipes:

Dragon Well Tea Shrimp (Longjing Xiaren)

Tilapia with Tangerine Salsa

Wonton Noodle Soup, Hong Kong-Style


Chinese Steamed Fish with Black Bean and Ginger Sauce

Serves 3 to 4

  • 1 pound whole white fish
  • 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 1-inch knob ginger, julienned or shredded with a microplane
  • 2 stalks scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 lemon

Special equipment - wire steamer rack or similar, wok with lid

  1. Clean your fish and pat dry with a kitchen towel. With a sharp knife, make a slit in the belly almost to the tail. Mix together the black beans, garlic, ginger, and half the scallions; stuff the mixture into the slit. Place the fish in a medium-sized plate and pour over with vegetable and sesame oil. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice over the fish.
  2. Fill your wok with 2 to 3 inches of water and bring to boil. Carefully set your plate on the rack, then cover with the lid. Steam for 10 to 12 minutes, depending on how thick your fish is in the middle. Check for doneness by poking the flesh with a spoon or chopstick at the thickest point; if the flesh flakes off easily, your fish is done.
  3. Garnish with the other half of your scallions and serve immediately.



Stir-Fried Vermicelli with Garlic and Scallions

It's hard for me to choose a favorite noodle, but in terms of cooking convenience, vermicelli rice noodles are hard to beat. You can throw them in a noodle soup, stir-fry them, or dip them in a hot pot. (And I will sooner give up lamb than rice noodles when I hot pot, which is saying ALOT.) Rice vermicelli will cook in no time, perfect if you're in a hurry or just plain lazy.

Called mifen (米粉) in Mandarin and fensi (same characters) in Cantonese, these super-thin rice noodles are almost always sold dry. If you're making other meat and vegetable dishes, you can whip up a very basic stir-fried vermicelli with just onions, scallions, garlic, and ginger. Or if it's a one-dish meal you're after, add some shrimp, chicken, beef, or pork.  

To prep rice vermicelli for cooking, just soak them in cold water for 15 to 25 minutes, or in warmer water for under 10 minutes if you're in a hurry. (Careful not to oversoak.) Once you stir-fry your meats and vegetables, add the sauce and noodles and stir well for a few minutes until they dry up. (The crispy parts that stick to your pan are a bonus.)

Below is a very basic but flavorful recipe for stir-fried vermicelli. Feel free to elaborate!

Oh, I also love dipping stir-fried vermicelli in congee. Odd, yes, but don't knock it 'til you've tried it.


Stir-Fried Vermicelli with Garlic and Scallions

Serves 4

  • 8 ounces dried rice vermicelli noodles
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small piece ginger, minced
  • 1 stalk scallions, cut to 1-inch lengths
  1. Soak the vermicelli in cold water for 15 to 25 minutes, until they are softened. (If you're in a hurry, soak it in warm water for 5 to 10 minutes; the warmer the water, the faster it'll take.) Careful not to soak for too long, or they will be too soggy to stir-fry. With a colander, drain out the excess water.
  2. In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce, rice wine, water, sugar, and pepper. Set aside.
  3. Heat the cooking oil in a wok or large pan over medium-high heat. Stir-fry the onions, garlic, and ginger until fragrant and the onions begin to caramelize, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add half the sauce mixture. Add the vermicelli, then pour in the rest of the sauce. With tongs or a spatula, toss the noodles well until the vegetables and seasonings are mixed through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and serve hot.