Monday, March 14, 2011

Chinese style steamed fish with soy sauce

All Chinese restaurants offer the classic steamed fish with soy sauce dish. It’s a popular dish because fish has a symbolic meaning in that the Chinese word for fish ‘yu’ sounds like the words for wealth and abundance. 

I also like how the Chinese character for fish looks resembles a fish.

I think that people have a lot of misconceptions on what ‘Chinese’ is, so I will now attempt to clarify some things.

Chinese isn’t a language but defines a ‘language family’. There are about seven Chinese language groups - Putonghua (Mandarin), Gan, Kejia (Hakka), Min (Fujanese), Wu (Shanghainess), Xiang and Yue (Cantonese), and each language group contains a large number of dialects. About one-fifth of the world’s population, over one billion people, speaks some variety of Chinese as their native language. I know how to speak two different Chinese dialects – Cantonese and Diojiu. Chinese dialects are as different as French and Italian so don’t think that just because you know one Chinese dialect that you will be able to speak other Chinese dialects. The major differences in the dialects are how tones are used in the way words sound. If you have watched any Chinese foreign films you would notice that the Mandarin language is much softer, while Cantonese sounds more harsh and is more tonal. Mandarin has four tones, while Cantonese has around six tones. Whilst the spoken word varies, the same writing system is used so people across dialects can always communicate through writing. 

The Chinese language is the oldest writing system in the world.  Learning Chinese is hard because each word is represented by a different character. There is no alphabet. Most Chinese words are made up of two or more different characters, so there are many times more Chinese words than there are characters. There are over 40,000 characters but fewer than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used. An average Chinese person would know around 3-4,000 characters which is sufficient to understand almost anything written in Chinese today. 

I can speak Chinese but I don’t know how to read or write any Chinese. When I started schooling my parents also sent me to Chinese (Mandarin) language classes on Sundays so that I could learn to read and write Chinese but I found it hard to keep up with because at the time I was also trying to learn the English language. I eventually gave up the Chinese language classes so that I could concentrate on English. As an adult now, I think how useful it would have been if I had kept up the Chinese language classes but unless I used it on a day to day basis I would be probably forgotten it all overtime. The reason that I have retained speaking Chinese is because my mum doesn’t speak English so I had to speak Chinese at home. I feel fortunate for this as I know a lot of Chinese born Australians do not speak any Chinese. 

I remember in my Chinese language classes that some of the first Chinese characters taught to us were pictographs. Around 4% of Chinese characters are a simplified and stylised graphical representation of the object it represents. 

NB: The character for water resembles lines of flowing water and the character for horse has the body shape of a horse and four strokes for the legs.

The Chinese character for fish looks like a fish with a head and strokes to represent the scales and the fin.

Now back to my Chinese style fish dish - steaming allows the natural flavour of the fish to shine through, so make sure that when making this dish you buy the freshest and best-quality fish you can get. Steaming is also a very healthy way to cook food.

Here is a simple way to cook some tasty Chinese style steamed fish at home.

Piece of Fish fillet (I use coral trout ~300g)
Ginger – sliced and finely julienned like hair
Spring onions, sliced diagonally
Sliced fresh chillies
Ground white pepper
~ 1 ½ - 2 tablespoons peanut oil 
Soy sauce mixture
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
½ tablespoon shaoxing wine
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
1 ½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons water

Rinse fish briefly under cold running water. Pat dry gently with paper towels. Rub a little salt all over the fish and place on steaming plate on top of pieces of ginger. 

Steam fish on low-med heat until it is cooked through, around 8 minutes (insert a sharp knife into the fish to check - if the flesh is not pink and translucent it is cooked). As soon as the fish is done steaming, take the plate out and discard the fishy water and pieces of ginger (the purpose of these pieces of ginger is to get rid of the fishiness of the fish as it steams). 

I steamed the fish by using a pot and a rack/steaming basket that sits inside the pot. I add in water till it reaches just below the rack/steaming basket. I put the fish on a steam friendly plate and place it on top of the rack/steaming basket with boiling water and cover with the lid.

Sprinkle the top of the fish with a little white pepper, then lay over the top - ginger, chillies and spring onions. Heat peanut oil in a saucepan until smoking and slowly pour the hot oil over the fish scald the fish and aromatics (it’s this part that makes the dish – watch it sizzle!). 

Garnish with some coriander and spoon over the fish the soy sauce mixture (heat the soy sauce mixture first, I find it easy to just zap it for 30 seconds in the microwave).

Serve with steamed rice.

You can use this recipe for a whole fish (increase the steaming time to around 12-15 minutes and check for doneness, and make more of the soy sauce mixture) but I have used a fish fillet so that it can be a meal for one or two.


  1. We had cute little pictures to help us remember Japanese symbols too. It works so well!

    I think I have however accepted the fact that I will never learn any form of Chinese. I don't think my brain is geared to take it in. As long as I can continue to eat Chinese foods however, I'm willing to accept this :)

  2. Some Chinese characters are used to write Japanese words, so knowing some Chinese would definitely help in Japanland.

    I can speak some Chinese so I think the key here is to take me out when you go to Chinese restaurants so that I can do the ordering, esp for dim sum! :)