Chinese New Year in Southeast Asia: Steamed Whole Fish

Oven-steamed whole fish
© Connie Veneracion
  • Total: 30 mins
  • Prep: 10 mins
  • Cook: 20 mins
  • Yield: Serves 4

The Chinese word for fish sounds like the Chinese word for "surplus" so fish is a favorite Chinese New Year dish. The symbolism is important and the practice of serving fish is observed by Chinese communities all over Southeast Asia.

The fish must be cooked and served whole. When laid on the dining table, the fish head must point toward the elders.

The choice of fish is also important. Carp and catfish are preferred. Caro represents good luck; catfish is for surplus.

Bamboo steamers are traditional for steaming whole fish. If you have none, the same effect can be achieved with foil and the oven.


  • 1 whole fleshy fish (about 3.3 pounds/1.5 kilograms in weight), scaled and gutted
  • 2 tablespoons rock salt
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger
  • 2 finger chilies
  • 6 stalks scallions
  • A drizzle​ of sesame seed oil

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. Score the fish by slashing the flesh twice on both sides, the slashes about half an inch deep and two inches apart.

  3. Rub the salt on both sides of the fish.

  4. Peel the ginger and cut into matchsticks.

  5. Finely slice the chilis.

  6. Cut the scallions into one-inch lengths.

  7. Take two pieces of aluminum foil. One should be four inches longer than the fish and the other eight to ten inches longer than the first.

  8. Lay the shorter piece of foil on a baking sheet. Lay the fish on the foil. Scatter the ginger, chilies, and scallions on the fish. Drizzle with sesame seed oil.

  9. Take the other piece of foil and lay on top of the fish. Starting with one of the long sides, fold the top and bottom edges of the foil to seal. Do the same with the other sides. Because the top piece of foil is longer, the fish will be tented. That means there is space between the top foil and the fish where steam can build.

  10. Cook the fish in a preheated 400F oven for 20 minutes.

  11. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and, without breaking the wrapping, carefully transfer the fish to a platter. The easiest way to do this is to slide the entire package onto the platter. You can also hold the package by the edges and quickly move it to the platter. But be very careful because if the foil breaks and the liquid seeps out, you might burn your fingers.

  12. Pierce the top foil to allow some of the heat to escape so you don't burn your fingers when you peel it off. Starting with one edge, unfold the foil and remove the top piece. Fold the bottom foil to fit the size and shape of the platter.

  13. Serve the fish immediately with hot rice.