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atop the marble counter is a white oval dish plate with Vietnamese steamed fish topped with cilantro

Whole Vietnamese Steamed Fish with Scallions and Mushrooms             

Vietnamese Steamed Fish with Scallions and Mushrooms is a restaurant-quality dish and a great way to cook a whole white fish. Spiked with salty, umami soybeans, fresh ginger and earthy mushrooms, it marries the ease of steaming with the vibrant flavors of Vietnam. 

From choosing the right types of fish to mastering the cooking technique, fileting and serving up, I go into all the details below.

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Why make Vietnamese steamed fish?

Whole steamed fish is a popular dish in Asian restaurants, and this Vietnamese version is my favorite. There is a sizable Vietnamese population in Australia, with plenty of fantastic cuisine available as a result. It’s possibly my favorite type of Asian food, thanks to the punchy but balanced salty/sweet/aromatic flavors and the abundance of fresh herbs used in cooking.

I first tasted whole steamed fish, Vietnamese-style, in a casual little restaurant while on a work trip. Someone else chose both venue and menu; I don’t think I’d ever have chosen a whole steamed fish otherwise! I’m glad, though, because it was outstanding. 

Cooked with mushrooms, ginger, spring onions (scallions or green onions to some of you) and a smear of fermented soybean paste, the Vietnamese steamed fish was subtle and aromatic. The bean paste brought the perfect amount of salt and umami and a pile of fresh coriander (cilantro) for serving tied everything together. 

The ingredients are slightly unusual compared to the Vietnamese dishes I commonly know. The use of soybean paste and mushrooms aren’t something I see in many Vietnamese-Australian restaurants or recipes. 

Maybe because of that, this fish recipe stood out, and has stuck with me ever since. I’ve tried to recreate it from memory here and I’m hopeful Vietnamese cooks would approve. 

Fish selection for Vietnamese steamed fish

We’re making a steamed whole fish in this recipe. It presents beautifully and it’s actually easier to cook perfectly steamed fish when it’s whole. The flesh remains soft and tender, and doesn’t overcook so easily as smaller, thinner fish fillets.

red snapper fish inside a baking pan under marble countertop

If you can’t get a whole fish, you can substitute with fish filets for your Vietnamese steamed fish (see recipe notes). You’ll still turn out a delicious meal of properly steamed fish. But don’t be put off by the idea of a whole fish just because you’ve never cooked one! They are not difficult and, like most meats, taste even better when cooked on the bone.  I’ll teach you exactly how to cook and serve the fish with minimum fuss.

What type of fish to use for Vietnamese steamed fish

When you choose any fresh fish, make sure it’s really genuinely fresh. It should look firm and the eyes should be clear, not milky or sunken. It shouldn’t look or feel slimy, and should smell of the sea, not overly ‘fishy’.

For this Vietnamese steamed fish, look for something with a firm but flaky white flesh and a sweet taste. Think sea bass, grouper, bream, snapper, catfish or barramundi. I used snapper in the pictured version (goldband snapper, if we’re being particular, although I tested this dish with a red snapper and a spotted bream, and it was equally great). 

How big does my whole fish need to be?

The thickness is more important than the weight or size. For this recipe, the thickest part of the fish, behind the head, should be about an inch thick. 

Ingredients for Vietnamese steamed fish

We’ve covered fish selection above, but what else do you need to make this delicious meal?

A tiny amount of sugar highlights the sweetness of the fish. Fresh ginger and green onions are the basis for the aromatics, rounded out by mushrooms and then a big handful of cilantro to serve. All pretty achievable, right? The only more unusual thing here is the fermented soybean paste. More on that below. 

Ingredients for Vietnamese steamed fish in individual bowls on top of a marble counter.

When it comes to the mushrooms for Vietnamese steamed fish, I use a mix of whatever varieties I can find that look good. I do try to include shiitake mushrooms for their earthy note and particular affinity with Asian flavors, but they aren’t essential. A few dried mushrooms (again, shiitake if you can get them), rehydrated in boiling water and sliced, would be a great addition if you can only get mild little button mushrooms in the fresh section at your grocer. 

Let’s talk about the soybean paste/fermented soybeans. Although Vietnam does have its own version of fermented soybean paste, called tương, I am unable to find it locally. Instead I opted for a Korean soybean paste, which I buy at my local Asian grocery store. It’s not identical in taste but it gets me pretty close. Miso paste would also be an ok substitute, but if you go for that then skip the sugar in the recipe. 

Are you enjoying this delicious fish dinner recipe? Try my other steam oven fish dishes below:

Fast and Easy Sheet Pan Shrimp

Steam Oven Salmon with Lemon, Asparagus and Potatoes

Easy Fish Dinner with Miso Dressing

Cooking and serving a whole steamed fish

There are a couple of ways to cook this flavorful dish, depending on your available equipment:

  • Steam Oven: A steam oven provides precise control over the cooking environment, and allows you to cook at a slightly lower temperature for more consistent results. The fish can be cooked in a large, shallow tray or pan, making it easy to maneuver around. 
  • Stovetop Steaming: This classic method involves using a large pot or wok with a bamboo steamer or big steamer basket. It’s accessible and doesn’t require special equipment, but you need to have a large enough steamer to fit the whole fish in. You need to be careful not to overcook the fish because the temperature isn’t able to be controlled as well as a steam oven’s. 

Let’s move on to the actual cooking!

Prepare the fish

Start with a fish that’s been cleaned and gutted by a fishmonger (or see recipe notes to do it yourself). Remove the pectoral and dorsal fins from the fish with a pair of scissors, and trim the tail if necessary to fit in your pan or steamer. Rinse the fish under cold water and pat the outside and the cavity of the fish dry with paper towels.

Removing fins of a red snapper

Place the fish into a lightweight stainless steel pan (for steam oven), or onto a heatproof plate that fits inside a steamer basket (for stovetop steaming). Sprinkle sugar onto both sides of the fish, then rub all over with the soybean paste. Scatter the mushrooms onto and around the fish, followed by the ginger and scallions.

Vietnamese steamed fish ingredients inside a stainless steel pan

Time to steam

For steam oven cooking, preheat oven to Steam setting, 195°F/90°C, 100% humidity. Place the fish into the oven and cook until the flesh is cooked through. Depending on thickness, this should take around 15-20 minutes.

For stovetop steamer cooking, Prepare a stovetop steamer with a basket large enough to hold the fish. Fill the base of the steamer with an inch of water and place over medium heat until it comes to the boil. Place the fish into the steamer basket and steam until the flesh is cooked through. Depending on thickness, the cooking time should be around 10-12 minutes.

Not sure how to know when the fish is cooked? When tested with a knife it should be just beginning to flake in the thickest part near the bones, and the fish eye will turn milky white. It will continue cooking a little after you’ve removed it from the heat, becoming perfectly flaky.

Filleting and serving your whole steamed fish

This is the bit that scares most people, but if you follow the steps it’s quite easy! Filleting a fish for serving means all your hard work cooking isn’t wasted when people just hack at it with forks and have to pick their way through lots of bones. 

When the fish is cooked, carefully lift it onto a warmed serving plate. Leave the aromatics and vegetables behind for now. 

Vietnamese steamed fish on a dish plate. A hand holding a knife and spoon, removing the dorsal spine.

Take a butter knife and a dessert spoon and work the tip of a knife gently along the top of the fish, pulling free the dorsal spine bones with the spoon as you go. They should come mostly free in one piece, don’t worry if a few remain as you’ll get them afterwards. Discard the bones or save for fish stock. 

steamed fish with its skeleton expose using a knife and a spoon

Make a cut through the fish next to the head, stopping when you hit the bones. Now another right next to the tail. Cut right along the middle of the fish, along the backbone, making two fillets. You should be able to easily feel your way with the butter knife. Gently lift the top piece of fish away using the spoon and knife, placing it on the plate next to the fish. Turn the plate around and repeat with the belly piece, so you’ve got the two upper fillets on the plate.

Deboning a whole steamed fish by lifting the skeleton from the tail end, with the help of a flat bladed knife.

Use the knife to work your way underneath the backbone/skeleton, starting at the tail end. Lift from the tail as you go; once the bones are free of the flesh it should lift in one piece, taking the head with it. Set this aside and cut through the bottom flesh of the fish so you now have four separate fillets. Pull out any remaining bones. The easiest way to do this is to gently run your fingers across the flesh so you can feel where they are. They should come out easily.

You’re done! Not so hard, huh? To serve, just lift the top fillets back onto the lower ones to ‘reassemble’ the fish, then arrange the mushroom and ginger mixture around the fish, pop onto the dinner table and scatter with cilantro leaves.

boneless fish steamed recipe with mushroom and herbs on sides

I always want you to cook my recipes, but I especially hope you’ll give this Vietnamese steamed fish a try. It’s something a little different but really very straightforward, and the flavor of the fish makes every bit of effort worthwhile. 

Happy steaming, see you here again soon.

Have you made and enjoyed this recipe? I’d love if you’d be kind enough to rate and review it via the stars in the recipe card, or leave a comment below! Ratings and reviews help other readers to find and know whether one of my recipes will suit them.

atop the marble counter is a white oval dish plate with Vietnamese steamed fish topped with cilantro
Print Recipe
5

Whole Vietnamese Steamed Fish with Scallions and Mushrooms

My Vietnamese steamed fish is flavored with soybeans, mushrooms, scallions and ginger for an aromatic and fresh take on whole steamed fish that's far simpler than you'd think.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time15 minutes
Total Time30 minutes
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Keyword: steamed fish, vietnamese steamed fish, whole steamed fish
Servings: 4
Calories: 155kcal

Ingredients

  • 1.1 lb whole white-fleshed fish snapper, bream, bass, grouper; scaled and gutted; see notes
  • 2 tsp granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbsp soybean paste fermented bean paste; see notes
  • 4 oz mushrooms mixed varieties, finely sliced; see notes
  • 1 1/2 inch fresh ginger peeled, finely julienned
  • 4 scallions green onions, julienned
  • 8 stalks cilantro (coriander), roughly chopped

Instructions

Prepare the fish

  • I start with a fish that's been cleaned and gutted by a fishmonger (see notes to do it yourself). Remove fins from the fish with kitchen scissors, and trim the tail if necessary to fit in your pan or steamer. Rinse the fish under cold running water and pat dry.
    1.1 lb whole white-fleshed fish
  • Place the fish into a lightweight stainless steel pan (for steam oven), or onto a heatproof plate that will fit inside a steamer basket (for stovetop steaming). Sprinkle the sugar onto both sides of the fish, then rub all over with the soybean paste. Scatter the mushrooms onto and around the fish, followed by the ginger and scallions.
    2 tsp granulated sugar, 2 Tbsp soybean paste, 4 oz mushrooms, 1 1/2 inch fresh ginger, 4 scallions

Steam (steam oven)

  • Preheat steam oven to Steam setting, 195°F/90°C, 100% humidity.
  • Place the fish into the oven and cook until the flesh is cooked through; when tested with a knife it should be just beginning to flake in the thickest part near the bones. Depending on thickness, this should take around 15-20 minutes.

Steam (stovetop steamer)

  • Prepare a stovetop steamer with a basket large enough to hold the fish. Fill the base of the steamer with about an inch of water and place over medium heat until it comes to the boil.
  • Place the fish into the steamer basket and cook until the flesh is cooked through; when tested with a knife it should be just beginning to flake in the thickest part near the bones. Depending on thickness, this should take around 10-12 minutes.

Remove from heat, carve and debone

  • When the fish is cooked, carefully lift it onto a warmed serving plate. Leave the aromatics and vegetables behind for now.
  • Take a butter knife and a dessertspoon and work the knife gently along the top edge of the fish, pulling free the bones with the spoon as you go. They should come mostly free in one piece, don't worry if a few remain as you'll get them in the next step.
  • Make a cut through the fish next to the head, stopping when you hit the bones, then another right next to the tail. Now cut right along the middle of the fish, along the backbone, making two fillets. You should be able to easily feel your way with the butter knife. Gently peel the top piece away using the spoon and knife, lifting and placing it on the plate. Repeat with the belly piece, so you've got the two upper fillets on the plate, next to the fish.
  • Use the knife to work your way underneath the backbone/skeleton, starting at the tail end. Lift from the tail as you go; once the bones are free of the flesh it should lift in one piece, taking the head with it. Set this aside and cut through the bottom half of the fish so you now have four fillets. Pull out any remaining bones; gently run your fingers across the flesh so you can feel where they are, they should come out easily.
  • Lift the top fillets back onto the lower ones to 'reassemble' the fish, then arrange the mushroom and ginger mixture around the fish. Scatter with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.
    8 stalks cilantro

Notes

  1. Selecting fish: What you want for this recipe is a smallish, whole, white fleshed fish. The thickness is more important than the weight: the thickest part of the fish, behind the head, should be about an inch thick. The pictured fish is a snapper, which has a lovely sweet and firm flesh. Grouper, bass, bream, or barramundi would all be great too. 
  2. Using fillets instead of whole fish: you can use fillets of white fish instead of a whole fish. You’ll need to reduce the cooking time; around 8 minutes for thinner fillets and 10 minutes for thicker ones is a good starting point. 
  3. Cleaning the fish: I buy from a local fishmonger who will clean any whole fish when I purchase. Most fishmongers will do this if you ask! If you have a whole fish that hasn’t been cleaned, you can do it yourself. I do recommend doing the scaling outside, as those scales can fly everywhere and I find them all through the kitchen for days whenever I’ve done it inside! Use the back of a knife to scrape the ‘wrong’ way along the body of the fish, pushing back and removing scales. Then make a long slice along the belly of the fish and remove the innards. Rinse and pat dry, and you’re done.
  4. Soybean paste/fermented soybeans: Although Vietnam does have its own version of fermented soybean paste, called tương, I am unable to find it locally. Instead I opted for a Korean soybean paste, which I buy at my local Asian supermarket and often have in the fridge. It’s not identical in taste but it gets me pretty close. Miso paste would also be an ok substitute, but if you go for this then skip the sugar in the recipe. 
  5. Mushrooms: I use a mix of whatever mushrooms I can find that look good. I do try to include shiitake mushrooms for their particular affinity with Asian flavors, but even just a handful of button mushrooms will do in a pinch. Slice large ones thinly and scatter smaller ones directly into the pan. 

Nutrition

Calories: 155kcal | Carbohydrates: 7g | Protein: 27g | Fat: 2g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 62mg | Sodium: 262mg | Potassium: 521mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 4g | Vitamin A: 255IU | Vitamin C: 4mg | Calcium: 24mg | Iron: 1mg

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