Chinese Steamed Whole Fish With Fermented Black Beans and Garlic

A whole steamed fish symbolizes plentiful prosperity for this year and the next. It's also one of the simplest dishes to make.

Chinese style steamed whole fish is incredibly easy to make. Shao Z.

Why It Works

  • Cooking the fish with scallions and ginger infuses it with a fresh, clean flavor.
  • Cooking fermented beans and garlic while steamed fish rests allows fish to come to proper temperature before serving (it shouldn't be piping hot).

Food served during the Chinese Lunar New Year is full of symbolism. A platter of citrus on the table, for example, isn't just there because it looks pretty—having fresh fruit around the house signifies liveliness, good fortune, and luck. Of all the New Year celebrations, perhaps none other is suffused with more culinary symbolism than the eve of the New Year. Also known as the Reunion Dinner, it's the most important meal of the days-long festival. Family members travel back home for the feast, which marks the start of the celebrations.

Most Reunion dinners will include a whole chicken with both the head and the feet. This symbolizes prosperity, as well as having the family come together. Abalone with dried oysters, shiitakes, and black moss is another significant dish. Abalone, shiitake, and oysters—especially dried oysters—symbolize good luck, while black moss, which is a type of algae that resembles black hair, stands for an abundance of prosperity.

And you'll be sure to find a whole fish. When I was growing up, my mom would always purchase and cook two fish. One was meant to be eaten on the eve and the other was saved for New Year's day. I had always assumed that she prepared them together to avoid having to shop and cook the same dish two days in a row, but it turns out that there was a meaning behind her actions: It's said that it's important to not finish the fish completely, and to have leftovers. The saying goes in Cantonese, "leen leen yow yu," which means "let every year be plentiful." The last character of the phrase for "plentiful" sounds very similar to the character for fish.

Out of all the dishes at a Reunion dinner, the fish is usually one of the simplest to prepare. My parents would always steam it, then top it with julienned scallions and ginger, along with chopped cilantro. Then they'd ladle hot sizzling oil on top with a few splashes of soy sauce. For this recipe, I wanted to keep it simple too, but added a few touches of my own. I worked in some fermented black beans and garlic for a bolder flavor, and a few sprinkles of chile flakes for heat.

I stuff a whole white-fleshed fish, like branzino (though many others will work too), with ginger slices, which helps counter any fishy flavors.

Then I set it on a heatproof plate on top of scallions, to keep the fish lifted from the plate.

I steam the fish until it's just cooked through, then let it rest. I know a lot of people like their food to always be piping hot, but I find that a whole fish like this tastes best after it's been allowed to cool for a few minutes.

While it's resting, I quickly whip up the topping, cooking the garlic and fermented black beans, then tossing in thinly sliced scallions, ginger, cilantro, and chile flakes.

One last tip: When shopping for the fish, make sure to tell your fishmonger to keep the head and tail intact. If for some reason they ask why, let them know that you want the new year to be a plentiful one.

February 2015

Recipe Facts

Active: 10 mins
Total: 30 mins
Serves: 4 servings

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  • 2 tablespoons Chinese fermented black beans, rinsed and patted dry

  • 1 head garlic, peeled

  • 1 (1- to 1 1/2-pound) whole white-fleshed fish, such as branzino, trout, red snapper, or sea bass, scaled and gutted

  • Kosher salt and ground white pepper

  • 13 slices of fresh peeled ginger, 3 left whole and 10 julienned, divided

  • 4 scallions, 2 halved and 2 cut into julienne, divided

  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce

  • 2 tablespoons canola, vegetable, or peanut oil

  • 1 bunch of cilantro, leaves and tender stems only, roughly chopped

  • 1/4 teaspoon chile flakes, plus more to taste (optional)


  1. Combine black beans and garlic cloves on a cutting board and roughly chop them together.

  2. Rinse fish under cold running water and pat dry inside and out with paper towels. Sprinkle salt and white pepper all over fish, including inside cavity. Place 3 whole slices of ginger inside cavity.

  3. Set halved scallions on a heatproof plate large enough to hold the fish, while small enough to fit inside steamer. Set fish directly on top of scallions so that the scallions mostly keep fish from making direct contact with the plate.

  4. Set up a steamer and when it is ready, steam fish until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Carefully remove fish and plate from the steamer and pour off any accumulated juices into a bowl. Stir soy sauce into accumulated juices. Discard ginger slices from cavity of fish and scallions from underneath. Transfer fish to a serving platter.

  5. Heat a wok or saucepan over medium-high heat until a droplet of water evaporates rapidly when dropped onto the surface. Add oil and heat, swirling to coat wok, until shimmering. Add chopped garlic and fermented black bean mixture and cook, stirring until garlic is softened but not browned, about 1 minute. Add chile flakes, if using (add more if you want it spicier), remaining julienned scallions and ginger, cilantro, and the reserved accumulated cooking juices. Mix quickly until well combined, then spoon everything on top of the fish. Serve immediately.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
330 Calories
11g Fat
28g Carbs
31g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 330
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 11g 14%
Saturated Fat 2g 11%
Cholesterol 60mg 20%
Sodium 639mg 28%
Total Carbohydrate 28g 10%
Dietary Fiber 4g 13%
Total Sugars 2g
Protein 31g
Vitamin C 10mg 52%
Calcium 62mg 5%
Iron 2mg 9%
Potassium 1023mg 22%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)