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How to cook Fish Chinese Style
How Chinese Chef's Cook Fish in China
The vast majority of Chinese fish are full of small bones (Like real 'Kippers') and Chinese people like to eat their fish whilst enjoying the bones nightmare. Westerners do not!

Unlike other countries China does not have many specific fish dishes, unlike in the west - you simply go and choose which fish you want to eat, and tell them how you want it cooked Therefore we will begin by explaining how Chinese chef's cook fish - which is either mainly steamed or sautéed (exceptions).

Basic Chinese Fish Cooking Process

Chef's will spend a lifetime mastering how to steam a fish according to its weight. It is served the second it is just done - and they time it to the second! Here are the two common methods:

Steamed fish

Gut and descale the fish (Usually done by the vendor) and wash it well to also ensure all the body sac is removed. Chefs may keep the fish liver and other offal but we will discard it for ease. Leave on the head, tail, and all the fins.

Lay out on a metal platter and rub with a little salt, sitting it on a bed of diced fresh ginger and thinly chopped garlic. 1 ounce of each should be sufficient for a fish up to a foot long.

Set a bed of standard herbs on a light metal platter. Add:
1 oz finely diced fresh ginger
1 oz thinly chopped garlic
1 oz finely diced spring onion leaves.
2 Tbls quality soy sauce (Kai Ping City made is best)

Set the fish on the platter as meanwhile you bring a large wok (15 inches) to a strong simmer with an inch of water in the bottom. Put the lid on and reduce temperature until you have a consistent medium simmer. Once settled add the platter of fish and cover.

Cook on one side for 5 minutes before turning and cooking the other side for the same time. Reduce time to 4 minutes for smaller fish, and increase for larger fish. Remember, if this is your first time you can always slide a knife inside the thickest point and check for blood, whatever.

When turning the fish place it down on the metal and move remaining ingredients to the side. Some will be covering the fish and you can leave these. If you think the fish will break then cook only on the one side - but know that this means it is probably already quite well cooked.

Serve to table on the cooking platter, removing any excess oils of which there should hardly be any - they should all still be inside the fish. Finish by heaping the ingredients on top of the fish and make an appealing arrangement.

You can add fresh cress as a garnish, or use the Chinese equivalent which looks like shoots of grass and has a slight lemon taste. Serve to table.

Sautéed Fish - This is usually the home-cooked version.

To a wok add a couple of teaspoons of quality oil and some cloves of garlic. These can be whole or thinly chopped, or a mixture. Add 1 ounce of thinly diced fresh ginger - like blades of grass. Turn to a high heat and stir for 1 minute ensuring not to brown the garlic.

Place the fish in the pan and cook for 2 minutes each side to they are slightly brown. Add a couple of slugs of quality soy sauce (2 tablespoons) and stir carefully around so as not to disturb the fish. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and leave for a further 5 minutes - less for smaller fish, more for larger fish.

Transfer the fish once cooked to a serving dish and allow to rest while you finish the dressing. Add to the wok 1 ounce of similarly sized chopped spring onion leaves and turn up the heat once more, stirring quickly for 1 minute.

Using a spatula spread the herbs along the fish and to the side in a nice presentation. Pour over the residue sauce, or enough to cover the base of the serving dish. Leave any burnt or oily residue in the wok, although there should not be any if cooked perfectly.

Chinese serve to table immediately with fish being the most revered dish of the meal.


Chinese Chef's normally lay the fish on the serving platter on its right side, so the left flank is exposed. I do not know why, it is simply what they always do as I have observed. It is then dressed and served to table.

There is one exception, which is reserved for large or unusual fish - and also is a great way for a novice chef to check whether it is in fact cooked properly all the way through.

The fish is served upright, but cut through on the left side and so much so all the major bones to the immediate left of the backbone are severed (Needs a very sharp knife!).

However, most Chinese cooks cheat and actually use the left main bones as a guide to cut too. This would be the more common presentation.

Once divided the fish is then pressed into the wok on a good heat so that it separates into a 'Y' shape (upside down of course) and once sealed in shape (Seconds), you should Steam or Sautée for less time than above, and to avoid burning the flesh steaming is much preferred. Once cooked  it is served to table. This allows for a better presentation and added flexibility with accompanying herbs and sauces.

If you ever eat a fish presented this way, then know that the right-hand side is always the preferred side, at least in China. To be certain you should take meat from the centre and draw it off the bone. If you see the bones are joined to the central vertebrae, then this is the good side. If they are not, then you need the other side of the fish. Simple.

If both sides are joined to the vertebrae, then in the northern hemisphere always choose meat from the right side

Note - Significantly related:
In which direction does water flush in your part of the world? Northern hemisphere = anticlockwise = the fish has more developed muscles on its right side (Better meat). You may consider this to be irrelevant, but Chinese Chef's consider it to be an important factor.

Chinese Fish

In China they cook any fish they can get hold of, and nearly all will be freshwater river fish or pond-farmed fish. The vast majority are blue carp that can grow to many feet in length, but catfish and many other varieties including eels also regularly grace Chinese tables.

Chinese people only kill the fish (By bopping it on the head) moments before gutting, de-scaling, and cooking. Know that sometimes they do not bother to kill the fish first! Fresh and healthily alive is priceless in Chinese cuisine. Please look to the right hand menu where you will see pictures of many of these fish.

Cooking Chinese Fish in the West

In the west you will have a far smaller variety of freshwater fish, in fact you will have a far smaller variety of fish full stop. So what can you use instead?

We suggest you forget Carp and look for Bream and Trout. These fish lend themselves ideally to Chinese style cooking, as does Pike. We would say the best is Red Mullet, which is also very common on Chinese tables and is usually sautéed.

We now enter the realms of sea fish, so know your fish and interpolate. Mackerel are ideal and very good for you. Other fish may see you referring to a cookery book to get the ideal weight to time ratio. Do not use fillets as Chinese cooking is designed to cook the whole fish, although you could remove the head and tail if you are squeamish.

Other Culinary Techniques of Chinese Kitchens

Fish Casserole

This is normally a fish cut into chunks 2 or 3 inches square and battered with the simplest flour/water mixture of (often) quite thin proportions. Please check our Fish Batter page for full instructions.

The dish is served in a large ceramic bowl about 1 foot across by 5 inches high. This is often heatproof and may be served to a central burner in the middle of the table.

Other ingredients vary depending upon cooking style and ethnicity, but they nearly always have a relatively thick soup gravy of natural design, and either or both garlic and ginger, the latter being more important.

This 'soup' is started in a large wok and builds up from the basic herbs and spices (a little oil, ginger slices, chopped garlic). You would be safe to add a couple of scoops of chicken bouillon, dash of soy sauce, fish sauce, diced celery and spring onions. Use water carefully to thin, but not too much - better to add a little and often.

Seal the fish in a different wok until the outside is slightly brown on all sides and crispy, then add all to the main wok and simmer for 20 minutes - longer for a larger fish.

Put the dish together in the large ceramic bowl and present to table, setting centrally on the burner (Low heat).

Fish Hotpot

This dish will normally be associated with a a large stainless steel cauldron set onto a centre table burner. It would be quite normal for this to be a delicate dish (Cantonese), or more probably a divided dish one side fiery and the other delicate (Mongolian), or a chilli nightmare (Sichuan Style). Let me explain:

There are two elements to this specific dish; the fish, and the hotpot - which in China means a very large bowl into which all the ingredients and spices are prepared before hand, then reheated for a serving.

The second is the fish, which is served whole after being steamed to 'almost cooked' separately, and then added to the serving dish before it is topped up with the fluids, herbs and spices + whatever.

The Mongolian dish is different and you cook small pieces of fish in the side of your choice at the table - a bit like a fondue. Here wafers of fish are joined by squid pieces, whitebait, and other varieties.

Smoked Fish

Smoked fish is normally bought ready smoked and available at every wet market. Large eels are very common, but may be a bones nightmare? Better check a small bit first. They are normally trapezoidal in shape with a meaty central ring of creamy colouration.

Depending upon region and availability, whole fish or fish sections may also be available, and are definitely worth trying.

Smoked fish is regarded as being already cooked, so either serve as it is, or wok fry in a hint of oil and soy sauce for 1 minute before serving. Dress with Chinese cress and thin strips of ginger, and serve with a dribble of the soy sauce used for cooking.

Salt Dried Fish

Many Chinese people do this at home - and my wife has done it several times! Basically all you do is clean and gut the fish, then cut it in two leaving just the upper dorsal area to keep the two halves together.

The next step is to cover them with salt and work it well in to the whole fish. My wife then sticks them up on a clothes line and leaves them to dry naturally for about one month.

Note: Because of the high amount of salt nothing touches the fish.

Chinese would consider these fish to be already cooked, so sometimes simply offer them as a tasty snack with dips on the side (Chilli, sesame seed, whatever). However, they are normally used in a stir fry where they are cooked in a little oil, soy sauce, garlic and ginger. Cooking takes one minute before you present the fish halves or slices to table, complete with the sauce and trimmings of your choice.

I think you can use any fish, but narrow ones are best. My mother in law does this with 'long thin fish' = they are silver in colour and over 2 feet long by up to four inches high, and half an inch thick. Her husband farms them in the local pond. They have a long and pointed nose with many small and nasty looking teeth.

Imperial Platter

I have used this general term to imply that this style of meal and presentation is very special, and perhaps only to be found at weddings and top restaurants (Top fish restaurants at least). The pork version is quite common and based upon suckling pig, but here we look at the fish version - which is delicious!

For this you will need something like a large wedding cake base about 2 feet diameter. It is better if it has a lip. Cover this with dry crushed ice, and layer on top crispy Chinese vermicelli (Very thin rice noodles that have been previously cooked, just. These are added to the hottest wok with a generous amount of oil and fried for moments on a very high heat, so they are white and crispy.

Add the vermicelli noodles immediately so they stop cooking, but drain well first. Then layer three types of raw fish. The normal ones are two boneless white meat fish, and Chinese salmon.

Cut the salmon into chunks 3 inches wide by 2 inches deep by 1/4 inch thick and layer in the centre. Allow at least one portion for each person, and two is better.

To one side add wafer thin cuts of a raw fish. Chinese would use a very large carp from which all the bones have been removed. Make into squares about 1 inch across or slightly larger. Remember to size all cuts exactly the same.

Very often Chinese will replicate the second thin slices on the other side of the salmon, but I would use a third fish as served in better restaurants. Therefore I would use a sea fish or bream, again uncooked and sliced to the exact same proportions. Something like 'Wong Fa Yue' would make an ideal contrast, as this is an oily sea-fish like sardines, but far larger in size.

To adjust this for fish available in UK, then the salmon should be fine, but pay for best fish as this is raw. To either side I would set one to be haddock flakes, and the other side to be mackerel cut to similar proportions.

Chinese would finish the dish here with colourful prawn crackers scattered around and the bottom with a selection of herbs and diced fruits. Served alongside would be various dips of your choice - chilli sauce, sesame seed sauce, and soy sauce.

You would be better served to devote the bottom sector of this dish to appropriate sauces and dips. I would keep the soy, but add an inch of wasabi to the centre of one condiment dish; or add a little 'mustard and cress' and many thin sliced chilli rings (they loose pungency when soaked for 10 minutes). I would put Tartare sauce in another, and spicy salsa in yet another. Thousand Island dressing is another winner, as is a mildish green chutney. Decorate with parsley sprigs, a little fresh coriander, and offer a finely chopped side salad which includes tomatoes. Crisp bread wafers (slow-toasted, not discoloured) and a curve of cooked Plaice roe (Or is it Sole?) would be ideal embellishments.

Raw Fish

Most of what you need to know about Chinese raw fish is covered in the paragraphs above. I do not call it 'sushi' because it is simply sliced raw fish without all the extra work - well, except they will try and remove all the bones (no promises)..

Serving is almost identical to above also, but simply layers of raw fish on the vermicelli noodles. Accompanying dips would normally be a soy sauce, and either a plum or oyster sauce - tipped straight out of the jar into a condiment dish.

Normally in China, this dish is served in Bamboo fish restaurants, where you all gather at tables around a pool and catch your own fish (Carp). They will net one for you of your preferred size of course, but this is a great way to pass a few hours in company, and 'very manly'.

You can be sure that biological hazards are taken very seriously by participants, as these are basically 'any old fish' and not ones specified for being eaten raw. Therefore all Chinese follow the standard practice: = 1 piece of raw fish followed immediately by one nip of rice wine. I am told the rice wine will kill any microbes and bacteria that may be harmful.

On the other hand, if you are of the persuasion that you would have to be very drunk to eat unknown raw fish - then this is your opportunity!

I have enjoyed this dish many times in China and it is a great social occasion. I have also lived to tell the tale; if not always remembering the day before and the night after!

Related Pages:

Now that you know the basic ways Chinese chef's use to cook fish, we advise you to read our related page Regional Cuisine
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This information is as supplied by ourselves, and ably supported by our friends and various internet portals.
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Image: Fish 3 - Click to Enlarge

Image: Fish 4 being sauteed - Click to Enlarge

Image: Fish 4 ready to serve - Click to Enlarge

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Image: Red Eels ready to serve - Click to Enlarge

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