Steamed red snapper, Cantonese-style.
Steamed red snapper, Cantonese-style.
Image: Yang Zhao

Lunar New Year, or Spring festival is here.  Dinner tables during this festive season consist of a variety of dishes that are homonymous with words that signify well wishes for families for the coming year. Dumplings are a big favourite. It’s name, “jiao” 饺, sounds like another character also pronounced “jiao” 交, but means “connected”, wishing for friends and family members to stay in touch for the years to come. The traditional shapes of dumplings also look like the ancient gold ingots. Eating dumplings can also mean wishing for more accumulation of material wealth.

In the south, spring rolls are eaten instead of dumplings. The custom when eating a spring roll is that one must eat the spring roll from the beginning to the end, signifying that “everything shall have a beginning and an end”.

Fish is often found on any regular dinner table in a Chinese-style banquet, and new year celebrations are no exception. Fish “yu” 鱼 is homonymous with “余”“yu” which also means surplus or “leftover”, an age-old practice in frugality and organised around having savings in case of times of adversity. Perhaps it has to do with the tumultuous times of war and famine, the idea of using everything sparingly has seeped through a people’s genetic memory. I’m hoping this tradition will last as we enter the ages of excess.

This new year, one of the dishes I am making is a simple, healthy, yet ultra-delicious steamed fish dish. The ginger, spring onion, seasoned soy combo will give the simply steamed fish its “xian” (umami) flavour that characterises itself as a quintessential flavour profile of Cantonese cuisine. It also only requires 30 minutes from start to finish.

I urge you to give it a try, especially if you live in the coastal towns of SA: with so many varieties of fresh fish available, you can’t go wrong with most of them. But remember the top rule: if steaming, the fresher the better. If it is not as fresh, refer to the red braised fish recipe in a previous article.

Here’s to a prosperous new year.

Seasoned soy sauce for seafood.
Seasoned soy sauce for seafood.
Image: Yang Zhao


1 x whole medium sized fish, about 300g. If you can only find filleted fish, it will make an even simpler dish. I also enjoy using a cutlet of sea bass when available.

3 x TSP of ginger, julienned

3 x spring onion, julienned

1 x leek

3 x TSP of flavourless oil

2 x TSP seasoned soy sauce for seafood. Lee Kum Kee has a good one, or season your own soy sauce:

  • 1 ½ TSP soy sauce
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp sugar
  • 2 TSP water
  • Very low, gentle heat, combine the ingredients, let cool and set aside


  1. Rinse fish and pat dry with paper towel. Put 1 TSP of ginger and one spring onion julienned inside the fish. Place on a flat plate and place the plate inside a large bamboo steamer basket.
  2. Boil water and place the steamer in the pot only when the water is at boiling point. Make sure your steamer is separated from the water. A large bamboo steamer 30cm in diameter usually fits well atop a large pasta pot.
  3. Steam fish for eight minutes. How to tell if your fish is cooked through: use a butter knife and gently poke through the thickest part of the fish. If the butter knife cuts through it easily then it’s cooked.
  4. Remove the fish from the steamer, drain excess water at the bottom of the plate.
  5. In a small saucepan, heat up the oil.
  6. While the oil is being heated, scatter fresh julienned ginger and spring onion on the fish.
  7. Once the oil is hot, pour evenly over the fish, let it sizzle over the ginger and spring onion, and enjoy the aroma releasing as it happens — the heavenly fragrance of a classic combo in aromatics, which characterises Cantonese cuisine.
  8. Lastly, drizzle seasoned soy over and around the fish and serve hot. Enjoy!
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