Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish

Hunan-Style Steamed Tilapia with Duo Jiao and Tofu is a classic whole fish dish from the Hunan province of China. This impressive dish is made with a fresh whole tilapia on a bed of silken tofu, topped with plenty of fresh ginger, garlic, scallions, and Hunan salted chopped chili peppers.

The combination of the perfectly steamed tilapia, velvety tofu, and aromatic chilis and spices produces an extraordinary dish with a mix of bold and delicate flavors and textures.

In short, it’s really, really darn good!!! And one of our favorite things to eat…  

A Hunan Specialty

Over the years, after living and traveling in China, we’ve enjoyed all types of authentic Hunan cuisine in restaurants. There are the upscale restaurants with large encyclopedia-like menus and the glossy photos, but we’ve also eaten at plenty of family-style restaurants specializing in home-style cooking and the occasional street vendor.

This Hunan style steamed tilapia is a little bit more upscale and special, but we’ve figured out after eating it so many times how to pull it off at home.

Now, back in the US (here in New Jersey) we’ve been frequenting a modest Chinese restaurant serving exclusively authentic Hunan food. When you step into the dining room, it feels like the whole place was lifted right out of China. From the menu, the people, the decor, and even the restaurant-goers!

It’s probably the best kept secret in New Jersey for those who love Hunan food. It’s there where we found this Hunan-style steamed tilapia whole fish dish right under our noses, and we’ve been ordering it for years.

After a few mediocre tries at recreating this Hunan steamed tilapia whole fish at home, we finally have the recipe for you! There’s a bit more work involved in making this Hunan style whole fish rather than using tilapia fillets, but if you have access to fresh whole tilapia fish or better yet, live tilapia at your local Asian fish market, then you MUST try it!

Start here, read carefully, start cooking, and you’ll have an exceptional meal!

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Tips on Buying Whole Fish

Some advice on getting your fish:

  • If possible, go to a local Chinese or Asian market that stocks live fish in tanks. They are the freshest and usually the tastiest.
  • Ask the fish monger to select a small fish that’s less than 1½ pounds, as a smaller fish is easier to handle and cook.
  • The fish monger will ask how you want to prepare it. Simply ask him/her to gut the fish, trim it, and remove the scales.
  • If there are no live fish, ask about the freshness of the fish on ice. The eyes should look clear and round and not sunken in. Use your own judgement along with advice from the fishmonger.
  • You can use tilapia fillets for this dish as well but the steaming times will be reduced by 40% since there are no bones. If you have access to live tilapia, go for the whole fish!

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Let’s get into how to make it.

Hunan Salted Chilies - Duo JiaoHunan Salted Chilies - Duo Jiao

Hunan-Style Whole Fish: Recipe Instructions

The fish market should have gutted the fish, trimmed off the sharp fins, and removed the scales, but there’s additional work needed to prepare your whole fish! First, use a knife to go over the fish and remove any scales that the market may have missed. Usually scales are missed along the fins, under the belly, and around the head.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

You should also check the inside cavity of the fish and use a dull butter knife to remove/scrape any blood lines or membranes that were left behind. Sometimes there are also gills remaining and sharp fins, so use kitchen shears to help with cutting these sections off. Fish markets generally don’t bother with these cleaning and preparation details, but they make all the difference!

Next, start from the tail end of the fish, and cut it like you are filleting it from the tail to the front.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

When you reach the bones in the cavity, you can cut through them with a sturdy chef’s knife but be careful not to cut yourself! Kitchen shears could be helpful for the novice cook.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

After cutting through the bones, continue splitting the fish up to the top fin as if you were filleting it, but *stop* short of cutting off the filet from the rest of the fish. Once you reach the head, split it in half, and now you have a split fish. 

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Give your fish a quick rinse, set it aside on a cutting board skin side up, and press on the fish slightly to flatten it out.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Prepare your silken tofu by cutting the plastic cover off, and pouring out any liquid. Next, turn the tofu container upside down on a cutting board, and carefully lift the container away from the block of tofu. Next, cut the tofu in half lengthwise, and slice it crosswise into ½-inch slices.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Use your knife or cleaver to lift each half of the cut tofu on a large heatproof plate or large bowl. The platter should be slightly deep enough to hold the steaming liquid and sauce. Lay your tofu bed down on the plate so the pieces are fanned across either side.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Sprinkle ⅛ teaspoon of salt evenly over the silken tofu. Next, gently place the fish skin side-up on the tofu, and it’s ready for the steamer!

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Use 4 cups of cold water in the wok, place your fish fish on a steaming rack inside, and cover the wok. See our post on how to set up a steamer if you’re not familiar with steaming foods in Chinese cooking.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Turn the heat to medium-high. The water should boil in about 7 minutes. Steam for another 6 minutes––a total of 13 minutes. Check that the water is simmering after 7 minutes. If not, then the heat must be turned up. If you see the water boiling vigorously, then turn the heat down to a simmer/very low boil. After a total of 13 minutes, check the fish for doneness. It’s key not to overcook the fish for the best results!

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Use a butter knife to press into the part of the fish that has bones underneath it. The knife should easily go through the meat like butter, right to the bone. If the meat feels a little tough or you encounter some resistance as you penetrate the fish (or you don’t hit the bone), then the meat is likely still raw and will need another few minutes.

Once your tilapia passes the doneness test, turn the heat off and carefully pour off the liquid that has pooled at the bottom of the plate, using a dry kitchen towel to grip the plate on one side, and if you need it, a spatula to gently hold the fish in place. You can do this directly in the wok, or if it’s too hot, pour it off into the kitchen sink. Either way, do it slowly and take care not to let the fish and tofu slide off the plate!

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

In a clean pan or wok set over low heat, add 3 tablespoons of canola oil, 1½ tablespoons minced ginger, and 6 tablespoons of duo jiao salted chilli peppers.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Let the ginger and duo jiao peppers infuse the oil for about 1-2 minutes. The oil should start turning red and fragrant like chili oil!

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Next, add 2 teaspoons minced garlic and the white portions of the scallion. Give it a stir for another 10 seconds, and add ⅔ cup hot water, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon granulated white sugar, and ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper powder.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Let the liquid come to a boil, and turn it down to simmer. Season to taste with more salt––or the salty liquid from the duo jiao chili pepper jar. The sauce should be quite salty for this fish dish!

Stir in the green portion of the scallion, and take the pan off the heat. Immediately spoon the sauce onto the fish, making sure to evenly distribute the salted chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and scallions over the fish and tofu.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Sprinkle some additional ground white pepper powder over the top, and your Hunan steamed fish is ready!

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Serve your Hunan Steamed Tilapia with plenty of rice, because a spoonful of fish + a big spoonful of this spectacular sauce over rice makes for the perfect bite! It’s also best served family style, perhaps with a stir-fried vegetable or an additional meat dish to give the meal some variety.

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

This Hunan Steamed Tilapia has been a running family favorite of ours at the restaurant and with this family recipe in our archives, now we can make it at home and you can too!

Steamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.comSteamed Tilapia: Hunan-Style Whole Fish, by thewoksoflife.com

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