Steamed Fish, Swimming in Flavor

Posted January 16, 2018 4:18 p.m. EST

There are many ways to approach a pescatarian dinner. The next time you buy a piece of fish for dinner, instead of pan-frying, poaching or broiling, why not consider steaming? It’s fast, easy and makes a remarkably satisfying light meal.

Chinese cooks have long been experts at steaming fish — especially whole fish, which may seem daunting. But boneless fillets are also excellent when prepared in the same way. The technique is not at all difficult to master, and the aromatics — like ginger, scallion and sesame oil — are readily available.

Most vegetables, whether small potatoes or carrots or asparagus, benefit from steaming, which accentuates their innate sweetness. The same holds true for fish.

Of course, spanking fresh fish is required. Look for white-fleshed fish such as halibut, sea bass or cod, preferably about 2 inches thick. In a pinch, you could use salmon, but avoid stronger-tasting fish (like mackerel) for this method.

It’s worth investing in a good steamer with a sizable diameter. One made of stainless steel, though expensive, will last a lifetime. The inexpensive bamboo steamers available in Asian markets are quite sturdy and come in every size. A large wok with a lid works, too. It just needs a rack of some sort to hold what’s being steamed well above the boiling water below. Chopsticks can do the job, or a cake rack propped up securely. Absent a wok, a wide deep skillet with a domed lid will suffice, or some pasta pots have a steamer basket included.

In truth, the preparation for this fish dish takes longer than it does to cook, but not by much: The cooking itself takes only 10 minutes or so.

First, you cut scallions and ginger into fine julienne, then stir up a little mixture of soy sauce and sesame oil, spiked with Shaoxing wine and a pinch of sugar. This makes a savory steam bath for the fish.

Then, you put your fine fish fillet directly on the plate from which it will be served. It goes into the steamer for a brief spell and emerges succulent and fragrant. All you need is jasmine rice as an accompaniment.

Though my recipe includes some toasted sesame oil, which is traditional, I used pistachio oil to finish and liked its nutty effect. It’s not required, of course. With its topping of sizzled ginger, chopped pistachios and fluffy cilantro, the fish is both festive and fragrant.


Soy-Steamed Fish With Scallions and Pistachio

Yield: 2 servings

Time: 30 minutes


3/4 pound fish fillet such as sea bass, halibut or cod, about 2 inches thick


2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine) or dry sherry

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon Chinese fermented black-bean paste or sauce (optional)

2 scallions, white and pale green parts only, cut into fine julienne

2 tablespoons pistachio oil or vegetable oil

1 1-inch chunk fresh ginger, peeled and cut into fine julienne

2 tablespoons toasted chopped pistachios, for garnish

Cilantro sprigs, for garnish


1. Put fish fillet on a sturdy heatproof plate, salt lightly and set aside.

2. In a small bowl, mix together soy sauce, wine, sugar, sesame oil and bean paste.

3. Set up a steamer, large enough to accommodate the plate, with 2 inches of water in the bottom. Alternatively, use a large wok or deep, wide skillet fitted with a rack to keep the plate above the water.

4. Bring water to a rapid boil over high heat. Lay the plate in the steamer. Spoon soy sauce mixture evenly over fish and cover with lid. Steam fish for 8 to 10 minutes, until cooked through. (It should flake easily when probed with a fork.)

5. Using a large spatula, carefully remove plate from steamer and set on a kitchen towel to blot moisture. Arrange scallions over the fish fillet.

6. In a small pan, heat pistachio oil over medium-high heat until rippling. Add ginger, let sizzle for about 15 seconds, then spoon ginger and hot oil over fish.

7. Garnish with pistachios and cilantro sprigs, and serve immediately.